Many believe you must have board experience or be an existing Non-Executive Director (NEDs) to gain a board appointment. As such, one of the most common questions I am asked is, ‘Can I become a Non-Executive Director with no board experience or am I just wasting my time?’. The reality is that you can. People without board experience get appointed to boards all the time.
Whilst any prior board experience is desirable, it often makes little difference in the appointment process. This is even true at the top corporate level, with nearly half (49 per cent) of all NEDs appointed in the past 12 months to ASX 300 listed companies being considered new directors.
Here are my tips for what you should do to gain a board role with no board experience
When you boil it down, there are only three reasons you won’t get appointed to a board.
- The first is that you are targeting the wrong organisations. Organisations that you might want and could contribute to but who are unlikely to appoint you.
- Secondly, your pitch to those organisations is not strong enough – either verbally in an interview or conversation or your Board CV or application.
- Thirdly, you are not getting proactive but waiting for the perfect opportunity to land in your lap.
The good news is that each of these roadblocks can be fixed. In doing so, you will be able to find opportunities others won’t; you will find more suitable roles for you, get appointed more often, and get a far greater return on the investment of your valuable time. Oh, and you will also write fewer applications and not have to work with recruiters and, as such, not be competing against hundreds of competitors all vying for the same role as you.
TIP 1 – A key to any successful board appointment is balancing your aspirations
This means ensuring the sort of boards you want to be appointed to will actually consider appointing you. If you can do this, you stand a far greater chance of becoming a successful Non-Executive Director (NED). This is an essential point for you to grasp and often is the thing that makes the difference between a smooth transition and one that is frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful.
TIP 2 – Your value at board level is more than board experience
The first thing to do is clearly define your primary skill set. Many are tempted to state that they offer any number of highly transferable skills. They may do, but you water down your pitch by saying this. So, it is paramount for you to be clear on the primary skill you offer a board – whether it be finance, legal, HR, Change, IT, industry experience or something else. You need to know.
For most organisations, your skills and expert experience are more valuable than your board experience. Think about it. Plenty of organisations don’t require ‘governance’ experience on their boards. Either because they are too small or it is just not a driver of theirs. They are interested in leveraging their board’s skills and experience to grow the organisation or mitigate risks.
TIP 3 – Articulate your value at board level
You must translate your executive experience into a statement articulating why you are valuable to the board to which you want to be appointed. Not generically but specifically. This pitch should be very different from your executive pitch and must address how you can solve the board-level concerns or challenges that an organisation faces. It can be surprisingly easy, but it takes some thinking.
By way of some guidance, consider answering the following statement:
‘At board level, what I do is…. ‘
As an example, let’s say you are a HR executive without any board experience. You are good at what you do but unsure what value you would add to a board. I would guess that at the board level, you help organisations manage risk – the greatest of which is people. Further, by ensuring an organisation has people strategies in place and they are appropriately implemented, the organisation will be more effective, which means they will be more profitable or efficient. As such, appointing you as a NED would result in a clear return on investment (ROI).
This same process should be taken regardless of your executive skill set. Consider what would happen if someone like you with your skills is not on the board. What are the risks that an organisation exposes itself to with this omission? Conversely, what benefits could be realised by appointing someone like you?
TIP 4 – Think about what organisation is going to value your skill set
Not every organisation will value or get value from every skill set. So you need to think carefully about which organisations will value your skills. The most obvious place to begin is by focusing on your current and past executive experience and what causes you are passionate about.
If you want a board appointment and have little or no existing board experience, the question should NOT be
‘Can I add value at board level?’
‘What is my value?’ and ‘Who will value it?’
TIP 5 – Get board experience
‘The world is run by people who show up” is a common phrase. Just ‘turning up’ is surprisingly powerful. Turn up every time your target organisations run an event or hold a gathering. Ingratiate yourself with them – contribute to their charity, do some fundraising or volunteer your time or expertise. Become a ‘known quantity and ask ‘How can I help?’ Doing so may open doors to a committee, advisory board or even NED opportunities.
Alternatively, take an unpaid role as a NED at a charity or not-for-profit organisation. People with good commercial experience are in high demand. For some, a charitable role can make the transition to a more significant independent director role easier. This isn’t the case for others, but regardless, you get yourself the title of Non-Executive Director, which you can leverage in applications and interviews.
TIP 6 – Access NED experience
Consider a mentor who holds a board role or has a board career you want to emulate. Ask them for their insights into the workings of a board so you can get familiar with the language, style and approach you could replicate in your search. They may also be willing to vouch for you and provide access to their networks. However, don’t consider this a silver bullet – mentors are just that. Their role is not to get you a board role but rather to help you on the journey, so manage your expectations accordingly.
TIP 7 – You probably have more board-level experience than you think
The key phrase here is ‘board-level experience’. Consider your executive experience. Have you worked with boards before? Have you reported to a board before? Have you sat on committees, internal or external? Have you presented to boards before or written a board report? If you have, you can use this experience to provide comfort to a prospective board that you can operate effectively in that environment.
If you can’t evidence experience of this sort, can you develop it? Can you join or set up a committee within your workplace? Can you volunteer your time on a local committee? Can you develop relationships with the board members – or past board members? Again, this sort of activity goes some way to help you develop a story about your board-level experience – and provide comfort that you are not a risk.
Remember, having board-level experience is about providing comfort to the appointing entity, making you accountable by de-risking your potential appointment. One of the ways to do that is to demonstrate your board-level experience.
Getting a board appointment can be achieved without having any prior board experience. Indeed, having board experience doesn’t necessarily translate into another board appointment. Instead, you need to be clear about which organisation you both want to be appointed to, your value to those boards, and the process you need to follow to succeed. It may take some time, but as with most things, the more effort you put in, the greater your chance of success.
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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