The 5 criteria a chair wants to find in a new non-executive director

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Having taken board appointment briefs from hundreds of Chairs (the ultimate board appointment decision-makers) as a past board headhunter, I have found that, regardless of the scope or scale of the organisation and regardless of the industry or sector it operates within, there are just five essential criteria that they all want to find in a new Non-Executive Director (NED). 

Previously, I wrote about how people who want a board appointment spend too much time articulating why they want a board appointment or think they should be appointed to a board and not enough time articulating the elements that will get them appointed to a board. So, today, I want to define those criteria for you. 

It is difficult to know what each board values. Right?

Thousands and thousands of boards are operating across a wide range of industries in Australia. Each operates within its own context, industry, and sector, which have various peculiarities. As such, many believe that it is impossible to decipher exactly what they might value in a new board member. This confusion is compounded by many potential candidates’ belief that organisations seek specific and targeted skills that regularly change to match the organisation’s current circumstances and aspirations. All of this leaves many potential NEDs confused about what their board pitch should be, let alone how to articulate it in a compelling fashion that demonstrates their appointability.

It is easy to get confused. However, after stripping away the contextual issues in my experience, when you boil it all down, there are just five core elements or essential criteria that every board looks for in successful candidates. To be clear, that doesn’t mean every board pitch or board profile will be the same, but it does mean every board pitch/profile should address each of these criteria and, therefore, follow a similar structure. 

The five criteria Chairs look for in successful board candidates are:

1. Prior Governance Experience

On numerous occasions, I have seen clients (organisations) make seemingly strong appointments based on a candidate’s prior governance success, only to see these individuals fail or not live up to expectations. 

‘The best way to demonstrate future success is with past success’. It is an old saying and one that still rings true. But, when you think about it, it is a little misleading. It doesn’t consider a wide range of personal or professional elements that impact anyone’s success or failure. Think about it. What was the economy like, what was your team like, what were you like, and what resources were on hand? The list of factors that could contribute to your past success is innumerable, and you are just one of those. So, to say that future success is based on past success is, I think, misleading.  

Still, despite the failures in this thinking, many Chairs still overemphasise the value of, and take comfort from, past governance experience in new recruits. 

Why is this the case? Well, bluntly, Chairs are risk-averse and believe that having someone who has done the job before mitigates their risk. Further, few Chairs want to go through the process of training a new NED and would instead prefer to appoint one who will hit the ground running. Finally, they believe that appointing individuals who have held NED roles before will be more acceptable to their internal and external peers and stakeholders.  

So what is the point here? The reality is that if you have board-level experience, you should lead with it. But, you should also know that it is not always necessarily, and often isn’t, the most crucial factor in the board appointment decision-making process. For example, just today, I spoke with a woman who wanted to develop a board portfolio. She told me about her executive and consulting roles and her desire for a paid appointment. When she finished, I asked her if she had any board-level experience. She said, ‘Oh, yes’ and proceeded to tell me she had over a decade of board experience, including as a Chair. Needless to say, she should have led with that much more powerful messaging.

2. An Executive Skill Set

At board level, what do you do? What is your value at board level? And why is what you do more valuable than one of your competitors with similar skills? These are questions you must be able to answer clearly and compellingly. Being unclear about this is a killer. 

I recently interviewed a potential board member who, whilst well qualified with relevant experience, could not articulate what his role on the board would be. I knew he could definitely have done the job (I had spoken to him before), but he was not appointed because he could not articulate his value at board level. He hadn’t thought about it and certainly hadn’t thought about why he was more valuable than one of his many competitors.

What is your value at board level? People often think finance, audit & risk and legal skills are the most valuable and most often requested at board level. However, whilst still high (good news for the lawyers and accountants reading this article), the desirability of these skills is actually decreasing, and far broader skills are in demand. 

However, hear this: whether you are a lawyer, accountant, change manager, HR professional, or IT guru, it doesn’t matter because, ultimately, in a competitive process of appointing a new NED, you will always be competing against candidates with the same or similar experience as you. What really counts is your ability to articulate why your experience is more valuable than theirs.

Please write down your answers to these two statements: At board level, what I do is…  and;  The way I do that is by… By doing so, you will be able to convince others that you know your value at board level and that you have given thought to the subject – something many have not.

You can think about your value in two ways: Firstly, by considering the ROI for an organisation if they were to appoint you to their board – what would you deliver them? Secondly, consider what they would lose by not appointing someone with your skillset to the board – what risks are they potentially exposed to, and what is the cost of those risks that you and your skillset can mitigate?

3. Industry Experience and Connections

For some organisations, many in fact, this is often the most important thing you can offer. Therefore, it is important for you to be able to evidence how your industry experience and connections will benefit the organisation for which you wish to sit on the board. 

So, think about not only whom you know but which industries you know and who knows you. Now, think about the value of your reputation. What doors can you open? In particular, what doors can you open more effectively? What doors open because you approach them? What is the value of those open doors? Can you teach others to open doors like the ones you can?

The introductions you provide, the brand that you bring, or the knowledge you offer that can be leveraged to expedite business growth and lead to new opportunities. These relationships can also deal with difficult situations or provide access to knowledge not otherwise available to the organisation’s executive team.

4. Demonstrable Passion

You must always remember that passion is the key to being able to serve on a board effectively, but so is your appointability. Board members are passionate. They are often passionate about three things: What the organisation does, What the organisation is, and How they can contribute.

You must be able to emulate and articulate these passions, too. But, I am not talking about school boy/girl ‘I love what you do’ enthusiasm. Instead, I am describing demonstrable passion.

Simply engaging in a tangible way with the organisation and sector will allow you to demonstrate your passion for an organisation. Doing things like speaking with past NEDs, mystery shopping, volunteering, and attending events and AGMs. Actions like these demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for the organisation. This level of interest speaks volumes about you and goes a long way to provide the Chair great comfort that you are sincere about the organisation and your potential contribution to the board. In turn, you are considered less of a risk and more appointable.

The good news here is that, in many cases, this demonstrable passion can be manufactured. However, it isn’t easy to do so convincingly if you don’t start the journey early. Demonstrating your passion for the organisation is essential, and being unable to do so can often be the difference between being appointed or not.

5. Cultural Fit

For me, this is the big one, but cultural fit is difficult to define. 

What cultural fit means for a Chair is that you are not going to risk their reputation, the board’s and that of the organisation if they were to appoint you. So, demonstrating cultural fit is ultimately about de-risking your appointment because if Chairs…

  • don’t like you,
  • don’t feel their board or stakeholders or shareholders will like you,
  • feel like you won’t work effectively with the executive team,
  • feel you won’t attend extra-professional activities with other board members,
  • feel you are going to be too quiet or loud or in any way going to cause them a headache.

… they simply won’t appoint you. 

Conversely, so often, cultural fit is one of the reasons that people are appointed via personal connections. In essence, being a good cultural fit means that you can demonstrate that you will work effectively with the board and, as such, do not present a risk to those appointing you. It is a powerful attribute and one many candidates overlook in their preparation for interviews or informal conversations with Chairs. 

The good news here is that you can manufacture, to a large degree, your cultural fit. It can’t be done in a day or two but can be done relatively quickly. To respond to this element, you need to be able to, amongst other things, demonstrate your knowledge of and engagement with the industry, your knowledge of the organisation, and perhaps even reference people you know in common. This might sound like a tall order, but it is surprisingly easy to manufacture a strong cultural fit. This is something we do with our NED Program members.

In many ways, ‘cultural fit’ is a catch-all term for the elements above. But it is also more than that. I believe it is the first element that Chairs look for in a successful candidate.

In Summary

Each of these five criteria must be addressed verbally and in writing in formal and informal contexts. Together, these criteria should be included in your Board Profile or a board pitch. In doing so, you will answer the first question that Chairmen, Recruiters, or Nominations Committees will ask you: ‘Why should we appoint you to this board?’ Understanding these five criteria and how you should address them will provide them with the answer to this key question. 

Related Articles

Articulation – The most valuable thing you can do to gain a Board Appointment!

Personal Connections count but not the ones you think

How to write a powerful Board Profile that will help get you appointed

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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