Many believe that prior governance experience and executive skills are considered the most important in the eyes of boards looking to recruit new non-executive directors. Let me challenge that perception.
It is only a small fraction of organisations where these two criteria mean the most. Let us be honest; they are the organisation at the top of the business tree. They have complex governance structures, therefore, require non-executive directors with strong governance experience. They also have a variety of engaged stakeholders or shareholders who demand experienced NEDs on their boards which can deal with complex legal, financial, audit and legal matters. For these reasons, these boards look for proven and experienced directors who have deep financial, legal or audit and risk experience.
As you move down the echelon of businesses, boards value shift to three more desirable selection criteria.
“Personal Connections” that you may bring
For many organisations, your personal connections are the most valuable thing you can bring to the boardroom. It is also the thing that you offer that is most likely to generate an immediate ROI and an essential reason people get appointed to boards.
The value of your personal connections is one thing that you should not underestimate; they offer more to an organisation than you might imagine. It would be best to address them as a critical part of your unique selling point (USP).
“Demonstrable Passion” you have for the organisation
Demonstrable passion might not seem initially so important to you, but passion for the organisation is critical to the board and your chances of getting a board appointment.
No Chair will appoint a non-executive director to their board who does not have a passion for the business. Why? Because they fear that, without passion, you will realise being a NED is not worth the effort, you will not give them your full commitment, will not attend the extra-professional events and possibly resign. This will impact the business and the reputation of the Chair.
“Cultural Fit” with the current board
If you can not convince the Chair that you can work effectively with them and the other board members, then your appointment will never happen. You may have the best CV in the world, but if you do not culturally fit with the organisation, your appointment will never work. Chairs know this, which is why they often appoint ‘known’ candidates – people recommended to them by people (often other NEDs) they trust and who know the business.
Let me provide some insight via an example – my business Board Direction
Whilst we do not have a board of directors, we do have an advisory board. Should we be looking for a new member, we would not primarily look for someone on a board before. It might be helpful but far from necessary because we have a simple governance structure. We also do not require a lawyer or accountant on our board. Our finances are simple, and complex legal issues are non-existent.
What we do need, and I am willing to pay for, is someone who can bring connections. Someone who can open doors directly or by reputation. Someone who can assist us develop relationships with firms we can partner with, someone who can provide gravitas to our business and help us grow. That is our first priority for many, many companies (even listed companies).
However, as good as someone’s connections might be, that does not matter if they are not a good cultural fit or lack passion about what we do. These are elements are NON-NEGOTIABLE, and any Chair will tell you the same. If you can not persuade me or a chair of these elements, the rest essentially does not matter.
So, whether you are an experienced non-executive director or just starting out, my advice is to not focus solely on your NED experience (or lack thereof). It would be best if you focused on your skills in a way that you can show how you can add value to the board and organisation. Then, demonstrate your true and legitimate passion for the organisation. By taking this approach, the results may surprise you and obtain a board role faster than you thought possible.
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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