What Board can I Realistically be Appointed to?

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In a previous article, I wrote about how long you should expect to wait for a board appointment.  Hard work alone isn’t enough. You must be clear about what sort of organisation you want to be appointed to the board of and can be appointed to. This is a fundamental question you must ask yourself and be able to answer. Not being able to answer it will have a devastating effect on your board search. I can not emphasise this enough.

Let me give you an example. I recently counselled a client who had run a sizeable family-owned FMCG business. On the basis of his experience,- he was convinced that he could play an effective role on a board of one of the major supermarket chains. Indeed, he may have been able to contribute but he was never going to have the opportunity to do so because he was never going to be appointed to those boards because his experience was not significant enough. That is not to say he was not appointable – he was but for an organisation that would value his level experience and where he was not competing against more experienced NEDs for an appointment of this scope and scale. 

In short, his aspirations did not stack up to the reality of such an appointment. It is absolutely critical therefore that your ASPIRATIONS are appropriate in the first instance. This is the first ‘pillar’ of a board appointment. 

What sort of board appointment?

Ask any successful NED for advice on how to develop a board career or gain a board appointment and they are going to ask you ‘What organisation would you like to be appointed to?’ – indeed this is the question I most regularly ask as well. Providing a detailed response based on reality is critical.

I recently co-led a podcast with the CPA with a highly experienced NED who reflected this sentiment as well. She told me that this is the first question she asks people when they ask her advice on how to gain a board position. She said that the responses constantly underwhelmed her.  So, you need to be ready for this question and be ready to answer it clearly and specifically – doing so is fundamentally important.

What board do you want to be appointed to?

Most people respond to this question in a fairly generic fashion. They speak about wanting to join the board of a quality organisation, one with a good board, an ethical board, the board of an organisation that operates in an industry that they are interested in or perhaps a board that will value their skills and is growing. Whilst these are not ‘wrong’ answers, they cover any number of businesses and I am left questioning what you really want.

You need to be clear about your board career goals

Why? Without this clarity, it is impossible for you to put into play the appropriate strategies and tactics you need to channel your efforts in a sustainable and successful way. Moreover, if you get it wrong, if you are unable to list the organisations by name you would like to be appointed to and could be appointed to, then you will be damaging your reputation, you will come across as poorly prepared, unclear on your value, unclear on who would value you and as such be a reputational risk to others who may consider introducing you to people who can help. As a result, you won’t get introductions and you won’t be offered opportunities. 

Well, let’s think back to my recent counselling client who was determined to get appointed to a major supermarket board. A number of adverse effects occurred due to the misalignment between his aspirations and the realities of where he would be appointed. The major issue here was not so much his unrealistic aspirations; rather it was his personal desires to be a board member (status, entitlement and self-interest) rather than being passionate about wanting to serve or using his experience on behalf of an organisation he could contribute to. This approach, unfortunately, had three significantly negative impacts:

  1. He quickly became disgruntled. He saw others as the stumbling blocks in his road to a board appointment. He never regarded anything else as the problem for his lack of board opportunities. As a result, his board aspirations fell away and he stopped pursuing even more appropriate opportunities. Disappointing, because he had lots to offer the right organisation.
  2. His reputation suffered. Telling others of his (your) unrealistic aspirations has the habit of negatively impacting his (your) reputation. This not only affected his board career but also his personal and professional reputation. We work so hard to build solid reputations and it doesn’t take too much to scuttle them.
  3. People were unwilling to help. The people he met and knew weren’t keen on helping him get a board appointment because he was a reputational risk to them.

So how do you define a list of potential board organisations?

Doing this is often far more challenging than it might initially seem. But spending time thinking through what your response will be time well spent. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is an essential first step for anyone wanting a board appointment. 

In subsequent articles in this series, I am going to unpack how you go about defining a list of target organisations and how to answer the question ‘What board would you like to be appointed to. 

If you can’t wait consider registering to attend our next Board Search Breakfast where I will walk you through how to define your board Aspirations – the first of the pillars of a board appointment.

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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