How to address career blips when applying for a Board Appointment

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Recently, I was asked by an aspiring Non-Executive Director (NED) whether previously being a director of a business that failed a decade ago was going to hamper his chances of becoming a NED? I can recount numerous similar conversations with those concerned about their appointability because of bankruptcy, time out of the workforce, career gaps, political stoushes, sackings, bankruptcies or even a scattered work history. 

If any of these reasons prevent you from developing a board career, the good news is that aside from illegality or being barred from acting as a Director, these ‘blips’ or ‘career gaps’ rarely impact your chances if appropriately handled.

Here’s what I suggest when addressing blips or gaps in your career

Focus on what they need – not what they expect

Whether you have a ‘clean’ work history or have ‘blips’ or ‘career gaps’, you must recognise that any organisation appointing a new director to their board will be fearful of making a mistake and will be risk-averse. 

Gaps/Blips, in particular, produce this fear and perceived risk. This is important because it is not the blip that is the problem but rather the anxiety it produces. As such, it is essential that you de-risk your appointment and ‘dare them not to appoint you.’ To do that, you should focus on dissipating the appointing organisation’s fears – not trying to fill the gap – an important difference.

Taking this approach is the first step to overcoming any objections appointing bodies might have about you.

Do not ignore it

To do this effectively, my first piece of advice is not to ignore it. If you have a blip, address it head-on. It will come out sooner rather than later – in fact, your assumption should be that they know already. If you don’t address it rightly or wrongly, it will be assumed that you are hiding something or being evasive. Moreover, what you are hiding will almost certainly be envisaged to be worse than the reality. For example, the gap in your work history is because you went to jail for fraud when, in reality, you took off a couple of years to care for a sick relative. 

Prepare for the question

When answering the gap/blip question, avoid unclear or vague answers that may create an impression that you have something to hide. Own the decision, it was yours to make, and you made it. And, if it wasn’t yours to make, say so. Then, quickly pivot to what you do offer or demonstrate why the gap doesn’t negatively affect your ability to do the role they require.

Don’t spin it

Don’t try to make it into something it isn’t. If it was a failed business don’t try to spin the awful experience into an experience that is valuable to the board. Perhaps some of what you experienced was valuable, but it will rarely be seen that way. Or if it is they probably feel like they already know it, or someone without a blip could offer the same knowledge. Instead, my advice would be to underplay it. Just say that there were good learnings for you. Then, quickly pivot to what you do offer or demonstrate why the gap doesn’t negatively affect your ability to do the role they require.

Do a reality check

Know that gaps or blips are rarely as big a deal as you think they are. I think people expect that other people expect them to be perfect. They are not. Never are and never will be. But I also believe that candidates expect themselves to be perfect, and if they don’t fit the ‘perfect’ mould they will never be appointed. This simply isn’t true. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. Yes, appointing bodies prefer someone who can ‘walk on water’, but when they can’t find that person, they happily settle for a human – blips and all.

Focus on what you can offer

Appointing organisations quickly reset their expectations and focus on what they need in a successful candidate – as opposed to what the candidate doesn’t have. This is what you should focus on. Your value. This is what you must be able to articulate. You must demonstrate that your experience, skills and passion far outweigh any concerns they may have. 

Do this to ‘dare them not to appoint you’ – blips and all

Develop relationships that will back you. In my experience, the recommendation of just one board member often counts more than meeting all the appointment criteria that a board is looking for. So this is where you should focus your attention. 

Become a known candidate by getting to know the organisation personally, the board members, past board members, their clients and partners – anyone and everyone connected with the organisation you would like to be appointed to. Not only will this level of research and connectedness alleviate any fear that might be connected to your ‘blips’ it also unlocks the 80% of board opportunities that are never advertised or go through a formal recruitment process. It is also exactly what we teach our Executive and NED Program Members to do.

Remember, you don’t need to be perfect

Boards don’t need perfect. What they need is comfort and security- their fears relieved. By focusing on what you have done, can do and developing authentic relationships, your gaps will cease to be an issue. 

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About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world

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