Using Search Firms to Get a Board Appointment

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I have written many times about the value of personal connections, especially your weak ties, in gaining a board appointment. But personal connections are not the only way to get onto a board. Inevitably, in the course of finding a vacancy and being appointed to a board, you will probably have to work with some executive search firms. For this reason, it’s important that you know:

  • Why search firms are powerful and
  • Why (their) reputation counts.

Know how search firms work

To effectively use a recruiter to get a board appointment, you must first understand how their business works.

Having been one myself let me state categorically that:

Recruiters are in the business of finding board members for their clients, not finding board positions for their candidates.

This is an important distinction and an important perspective to have in mind when considering the motivations of, and working with, your friend the headhunter.

I began my executive recruitment career in one of the top UK executive search firms. A large part of my role was counselling candidates around how to find board roles and running job hunting workshops.

Whilst my role relied upon finding quality candidates for my clients, my advice to individuals looking for roles was often to ‘avoid people like me when looking for a board role’.

Why? Simply because if (and that is a big if) I was speaking to you then, as a recruiter, I was speaking to literally hundreds like you – and you don’t want to be one of hundreds applying for a role you – you want to be the only one.  Therefore, I recommended developing personal connections and directly approaching companies as a primary way to find a board role.

Nonetheless, no matter how you feel about recruiters, they manage somewhere in the region of 10% of the board appointments made – often to the largest or most interesting opportunities. This means that sooner or later you will likely have to interact with one. So it is important that you need to know how to use them effectively.

Making effective use of search firms

Good board opportunities are recruited by poor recruitment firms and good opportunities hide behind bad recruiters.

For this reason, no matter how you feel about the recruitment industry, it is important not to be put off by rude recruiters or lousy service. Whether you like it or not, recruiters carry more authority than you might think they do. It’s likely they have worked long and hard to gain the trust of their client and their recommendations and opinions are listened to by the organisations they are recruiting for. You should assume that the search firm has the ear of their client. This can work both for and against you.

Taking a step back, you won’t be surprised to hear that recruiters work on reputation. ‘You are only as good as your last appointment’ is a phrase that many recruiters use. It suggests that there is no room for a failed appointment, so every appointment to them is a critical one.

What does this mean for you? Essentially, if you fully understand that their reputation is key, it will mean that you must do all you can to give them the confidence that you are the person for the role. If they are confident that you are the best person for the role then they will, in turn, have no trouble looking their client in the eye and saying so.

This is important because, if they have a candidate list of 50 or more (which is not uncommon – a recent client of mine received 75 outstanding applications from very senior candidates) you need them to speak personally about you, your qualities and why you should be appointed. They won’t do this unless their reputation is secure and they are certain you are appointable. You need to help them on this journey.

What should you do?

Many search firms have databases of well over 100,000 candidates, so you should never assume that because your CV is stored on their database, they know you. It is highly likely they don’t. For this reason, you should try to meet with them personally.

I recommend not doing this only when you see an assignment that they are handling. Instead, be proactive and arrange meetings with all the top search firms to introduce yourself personally.

Recruiters are often people that many want to speak with, so manage your expectations accordingly. You should also not expect to come out of the meeting with an offer. However, meeting face to face might just be enough to strengthen the relationship and show a different side to you that they can utilise.

Once you have done this, then you should aim to keep in regular, but not annoying, contact with the recruiter. To do this effectively, you must again know what they are attracted by. In most cases, it is the opportunity to find new work or a great candidate they can place somewhere.

I recommend making introductions and providing them pieces of market information that they can trade with. Alternatively, some simple but effective ways to stay in touch include emailing them articles that you think they might be interested in or very brief summaries when things in your professional life change. It doesn’t take much to stay in touch and, whilst they might not have an opportunity available all the time, by staying in touch, you will hear of the opportunities that they do have, when they have them.

Beyond staying in touch, you should genuinely try to be their friend or at the very least have them like you. If they like you, they will be more likely to recommend you to their clients but also think of you first when opportunities do arise.

Another good reason for staying in regular contact, is because serendipity happens. Let me explain; on countless occasions, I have unexpectedly been reacquainted with a forgotten candidate who would be perfect for a role I took brief for just a day earlier – it is important to keep in touch!

Regardless of whether you meet face to face, receive a headhunter’s phone call or respond to an advertisement about an assignment they are running, you MUST treat every conversation you have with them as you would an interview. Treat every conversation with the intention of impressing them because unless they are impressed, they will consider you a risk and not be able to confidently recommend you to their client.

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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 29,000 connections. Email: ua.mo1713463722c.noi1713463722tceri1713463722ddrao1713463722b@tca1713463722tnoC1713463722