Close Friends & Strong Relationships are NOT the Connections that will get you a Board Appointment

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According to Malcolm Gladwell, counter-intuitively, your Weak Ties, not the people you know well, make you powerful. 

Malcolm points to sociologist Mark Granovetter (Stanford University), whose classic study “Getting a Job” found that 56% got jobs through a personal connection. However, only 17% of those surveyed got a job through a personal connection that they saw  often. Conversely, 55% were appointed via someone they saw occasionally, and 28% via someone they saw rarely – your weak ties. That means 83% of people who gained a job through a personal connection saw that person rarely or infrequently. That was nearly three times more than those who found their job through an advertisement, headhunter or other formal means. In other words, success is mainly about who you know, not what you know.

What does this mean to board appointments?

When extrapolating these findings to board appointments and my research that found that 65% of people were appointed to a board via a personal connection, it is fair to conclude that approximately 53% of all board appointments occur through connections seen rarely or infrequently. This remarkable statistic should revolutionise how you search for a board appointment.

What are Weak Ties, and why do they work?

Weak ties can be described as contacts and connectors. Contacts are people you see rarely or infrequently. Connectors are people you want to know (or know of) because they provide direct access to people or opportunities. Weak ties are compelling because these people come without any preconceived notions of who you are or what you offer. They only know what you tell them; you need to have the correct pitch. You must be able to articulate your value at board level and provide clarity on what it is you board appointments you are looking for. It is all linked to something called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’.

The commonality between weak tie connections is that you don’t have an emotional relationship with them. Instead, you have a link that is perceived to be more about business rather than pleasure. These relationships are usually outside of your immediate sphere. The success comes from these weak ties being connected to people and opportunities outside your primary network. They are more likely to be on the lookout for ‘new blood’ and are less likely to overlook you for roles because they assume you already know about it.  

Why strong ties are not as valuable as you think

Strong ties can be labelled as friendships or relationships. Friendships are people you likely know from and within a social setting. They may have initiated from a work environment but are now that have moved firmly into a social setting. In all cases, strong ties have personal relationships at their core. This means that each party is well known to the other. Relationships are similar to friendships but are not friendships. They are often based on mutual respect, professionally driven, and will have begun in a professional setting. They may be a colleague or a professional stakeholder you work closely with.

At first glance, these relationships might sound like a good recipe for getting ahead. In many cases, barriers exist in these relationships and friendships. There are many reasons that these strong ties don’t result in board opportunities to the same extent as weak ties do:

    • In the mind of a friend, you are likely to be unproven as a board director. They have not seen you perform in that sort of role. You ultimately pose a reputational risk if they recommend you as a NED.
    • They think of you in some other context – the lawyer, accountant, friend, busy CEO, retiree, entrepreneur etc. – and not a NED. They don’t even consider you when they hear of appointment opportunities.
    • They know you too well – all your foibles. They remember when you messed up that account years ago or what you are like after that 2nd drink.
    • They like you but might not rate you. They enjoy spending time with you but just don’t think you are that good at what you do. Recommendations will not be forthcoming.

For these reasons – and probably many more – your close friends, colleagues and loved ones, whilst wanting to help, will often not risk doing so at the expense of their relationship with you. For example, I am sure you have a close friend or family member you love dearly and would not recommend for a job, let alone an appointment, because you know them too well!

In certain situations, strong ties can count, but you need to know how to use them. This is something for another article.

How can we help?

Developing a list of your current and potential weak ties, plus how to reach out to them, is a critical element of our Board Appointment Training series. The series comprises 8+ hours of hands-on training and is included in our Executive Membership Package.

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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