There are literally thousands of boards operating in a countless number of industries across Australia and each one operates within its own context and has various peculiarities unique to them. As such, it often seems difficult to decipher exactly what they might value in a new board member. This confusion is often compounded by a board’s desire to have specific and targeted skills which regularly change to match the organisations current circumstances and aspirations. All of which means it is difficult to accurately pitch yourself for a board position.
What does it take to be the perfect board candidate?
After stripping away the contextual issues, in my experience, there are essentially five criteria that need to be addressed when researching, applying or interviewing for a board opportunity. They are:
- An Executive Skill Set
You must understand quite specifically what you have to offer and how your primary skills or experience will contribute at board level. Being unclear about this is a killer. I recently interviewed a potential board member who, whilst well qualified and had relevant experience, could not articulate what their role on the board would be. Needless to say he was not appointed. So, be clear about what you have to offer and ensure that you can articulate it, and your successes.
- Personal Connections
Demonstrating how your ‘Personal Connections’ (otherwise known as ‘networks’ which Malcom Gladwell in his book Tipping Point helpfully reframes) can benefit the board/organisation is key. This will mean spending time thinking about who you know (individuals or organisations), how they could help and how valuable they might be in a board context. No matter what you call them, the point is that boards want the benefit of your personal connections because the introductions you provide can, amongst other things, expedite business growth and lead to new opportunities. The value of your personal connections should not be underestimated and they offer more to an organisation than you might imagine. In the end this is a key part of your unique selling point (USP) and an important reason people get appointed to boards.
- Prior Governance Experience
‘The best way to demonstrate future success is past success’ – an old adage many adhere to because it rings true. Of course, when you think about it, it is thoroughly misleading – especially when thinking about what it would take to be the perfect board candidate. I have seen clients on numerous occasions make seemingly strong appointments of a ‘successful’ candidate only to see these individual fail or not live up to expectation. What is the reason for this? Because they thought past success was equal to future success but they did not take into consideration the many factors which influenced that success. For example they may not have considered the differences in: the culture of the organisations, the teams supporting them, their family life at the time, the economic environment, etc.
However and despite many boards overemphasizing the value of past successes it is still something that most appointment processes take comfort from. For this reason being able to demonstrate some form of governance experience – board or committee experience – is really valuable when applying for role. In some cases, this might mean taking a ‘lowly’ board role on the understanding that in that next interview or personal pitch you can state clearly that you are an ‘experienced board member’ – the payoff will then become obvious.
- Demonstrable Passion
Finally, one always has to remember that passion is the key to being able to effectively serve on a board. Current board members are often wildly passionate about what their organisation does. Connecting on that level is essential and not being able to do so can often be the difference between an appointment or not. So, while in some cases it is not essential for you to be passionate about what the organisation does specifically (though ideally you would be) you should at very least be passionate about what you can contribute. You must also be able to articulate that passion effectively.
- Cultural Fit
Cultural fit is a difficult one to define. In many ways it is a catch all of the four points above. however, it is also more than that. Cultural fit is one of the reasons that people are appointed via personal connections so often. In essence it being a cultural fit means that you are going to work appropriately with the board and as such do not offer a risk to those appointing you. It is a powerful attribute and one many candidate overlook in their preparation for interviews or informal conversations with Chairs.
To put all of this into more familiar context the five criteria that boards look for in potential board appointees are not dissimilar from what you might expect in an executive appointment.
- Skills: Someone who is qualified and capable of doing the role that is asked of them.
- Experience: Someone who has done the job successfully before.
- Connections: Someone who knows the sector and is connected well enough to bring additional value to the business.
- Passion: Someone who really wants to see the business grow because they are passionate about what they do.
- Culture: Someone who is going to fit into the culture of the team and/or organisation.
There is of course no such thing as a perfect board candidate and there are countless reasons why you might not be appointed to a board. However, understanding what the ‘appointment levers’ are means that you can begin to address them and thereby increase your chance of successfully being appointed to a board.
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. He has been described as Australia’s leading board recruitment expert, is a published author, a regular speaker on the board appointment process and runs Board Search Masterclasses across Australia. He is one of Australia’s Top 10 LinkedIn users with over 20,000 connections. Email: Contact@boarddirection.com.au