Taking the Direct Approach to a Board Appointment

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In my previous article, I shared with you the importance of developing the right connections for gaining a board appointment. In this article, I want to consider using those connections when taking the direct approach to a board appointment. Statistically, 15% of people are appointed to a board by this direct approach. You need to know how to do this authentically and legitimately and in a way that generates board opportunities.

Why is the direct approach to a Board Appointment so successful?

First, you need to know that 50% of Australian organisations with boards recruited a board member in the last 12 months; however, less than 20% of these were filled by a ‘formal’ appointment process. That means that there are thousands and thousands of unadvertised opportunities filled through personal connections and by directly approaching organisations with an offer to help. Indeed ~15% of all board appointments are made by the ‘direct approach’ because organisations will have vacancies for board members that they will rarely if ever, advertise, but they remain on the lookout for the right proactive individual to appoint to their board.

By directly approaching an organisation, you are positioning yourself to fill these vacancies. More importantly, you won’t be one of the hundreds applying for that role. You will, instead, likely be the only one being considered. This means that your chances of success improve dramatically, not least of which because your skills and experience (and proactiveness) won’t be compared to other candidates – making these qualities stand out further.

There is another important reason why this approach works. That is that you are making it easy for the organisation to make the appointment. Those who have led any sort of recruitment process will know that it is time-consuming, laborious and resource-intensive. In other words, it is a pain in the a** and something that many organisations want to avoid if they can. By proactively approaching an organisation and making it easy for them to appoint you, you will be helping them avoid a recruitment process they really don’t want to go through or spend money on.

When you get the direct approach right, you will find it surprisingly effective. So how do you do it?

The direct approach principles you should apply are very much the same as the ones you should take when developing personal connections. It must begin by defining the organisations that you both want and can be appointed to – your target list. 

Once you have your targets in place, the next step is to prepare for your approach. However, before you do anything like calling or introducing yourself to the organisation, you should:

1. Know your targets

This is probably seemingly obvious advice, but it is advice rarely followed. Here is the question you need to answer. ‘Which organisation(s) do you want to be appointed to the board of?’ To make a direct approach with an offer to help, you need to know your targets – that is, the names of organisations that you both want and think you can be appointed to. Easy question but often a hard one to answer. 

2. Be well researched

Fronting up to an organisation that doesn’t know you and you don’t know enough about is a short route to disappointment. Imagine someone coming to you who you had never met or know anything about and asking for a job – it will never end well. So you must prepare – that means undertaking both desk-based and personal research. In essence, you need to engage with the business you want to be appointed to the board of because when you do approach them with an offer to help, you will only have one chance to impress, and you will do it best by doing proper research. This sort of research will provide you with information that others don’t have, but more importantly, it will show you to be: proactive, informed, engaged, and intelligent, and make you a warm candidate – as such, much more appointable.

2. Have a well-defined pitch

You must then be able to define your value to that organisation. You need to be clear about what it is you can offer and be clear of your USP – your unique selling point – and why you have approached them in the first place. To start with, answer these questions: ‘At board level, what I do is….’ then, tell me why that is important for your target organisation. Remember, answering these questions does not reflect your motivations for an appointment. It is about demonstrating your value.

3. Articulate how you can help

Too many people at this point use their newly acquired knowledge to point out to the chair/principal/CEO the challenges their business faces. This never works and is counterproductive. They already know what they are. They know what challenges they face. They don’t need to be reminded. Instead, you must offer solutions. Solutions that only you and your skills and experience offer.

4. Approach the right person

In most cases, it should be the Chair because, as the ultimate decision-maker, sooner or later, you are going to have to speak with them. In other cases, particularly if the organisation does not have an active or known board, the CEO will be most appropriate. But before you do that, read again Step 2 above.

5. What to say & how

Most initial introductions will occur via LinkedIn or email. In these cases, summarise your research, what you have discovered and the people you have spoken to when starting your introduction. Then provide a summary of your background and your board pitch. Then, finally, define how specifically you might be able to help and offer the opportunity to speak further.  Having said that, I have a very successful client who writes paper letters to the Chairs of companies he wants to be appointed to. In the digital age, it has proven to be a ‘cut through’ approach.

How can we help?

Establishing an extensive list of target organisations and mastering the direct approach to a board appointment is something I cover extensively in my Board Appointment Training Series. The 18-module online training series has helped many gain a board appointment and is exclusive to our Executive Members.

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 in 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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