The importance of our networks can never be underestimated when it comes to gaining a board appointment. It is estimated that 65% of all board appointments occur via a personal connection – 50% “weak tie”, and ~ 15% via strong ties. So whilst your weak connections count more, strong ties still have considerable value in the board appointment process.
What are strong ties?
Firstly ‘ties’ represent connections between individuals or groups. A connection of any kind, whether in the form of an acquaintance, friend, family member or colleague, is a tie.
Traditionally, a strong tie is defined as a connection between close-knit individuals. Individuals with strong ties usually engage in frequent communication or interactions; this also ensures the longevity and strength of their tie. Strong ties typically have an emotional connection, familiarity, and mutual respect. They can be broken down into two groups: Friendships and Relationships.
How strong ties have value in the board appointment process
In a previous article, I discussed a board’s delicate ecosystem and the chair’s role in the board appointment process. When recruiting a new board member, chairs will often first ask current board members if they know of suitable candidates. The chair is looking for a “known quantity” that will not interfere with the delicate ecosystem and culture of the board. The chair wants a low-risk appointment that will not upset the balance of the ecosystem.
This is where the value of strong ties comes into play. You will unlikely be considered a “known quantity” and recommended for the role unless you have a strong relationship with the person nominating you.
In other cases, a chair may simply ask for recommendations for candidates to save the organisation the time and expenses of going through formal appointment processes. If you have strong ties, you are more likely to have the right connections to be nominated plus be considered part of the club. You would be regarded as an easy, comfortable appointment.
The 105 club – ‘old school ties’
Many think that these ‘strong ties’ are the most valuable. It may or may not surprise you that 105 people account for a third of all the ASX100 board appointments. So, strong ties are essential if you are pursuing a board appointment with one of the top listed companies.
At this level, it is indeed a club. NEDs that operate at this level are very much known to each other. Being part of, or known and trusted by, this “‘club” is essential as in being so provides comfort that, should others in the club be willing to put their reputation on the line to recommend your appointment, that you will not upset the balance and delicate ecosystem if the board – something that all Chairs are concerned about.
But, things are changing
Post pandemic boards are increasing changing. Anecdotally at least, we are seeing board appointments change. It seems to many that the ‘old guard’ of NEDs are stepping down and being replaced by new NEDs with different skills, experience and demographics to meet the demands of changing business environments.
This is supported The 2021 Board Diversity index found that investors and other stakeholders are increasingly placing pressure on companies to be more reflective of the communities in which they operate – this is particularly true for Government appointments too. Consumers choose to spend their dollars with diverse organisations that demonstrate strong ethics and good culture. Organisations and boards are listening, which will continue to be reflected in future board appointments. This is ultimately impact the influence of “the club” and the influence of “old school ties”.
Still, strong ties count – but you need to know how to use them.
Leveraging Strong Ties: Test Them & Direct Them
To ensure your strong ties have value, you must understand that these connections give you access, not business. It is weak ties that can provide you with both business and access. Both types of connections have value in the board appointment process; what you need to work out is if both types will have value to you. For some, their strong ties simply do not have the proper connection to be of value in the process. If you see yourself in this predicament, your time is best spent focussing on establishing and nurturing weak ties.
To test your strong ties, you need to establish if they are willing and able to help you in your journey towards a board appointment. Be careful, as this needs to be executed in a way that will not jeopardise the tie you have established, whether business or personal relationship.
The key here is to never put these relationships on the spot by asking for a job. After all, refusal to help often offends and can lead to a downward spiral of why questions that will only result in tears. Instead, begin by asking if they are willing to help. If they are, then remind yourself that they will still be unlikely to put you in direct contact with people who have opportunities. Instead, you need to expect to access the people they know who might be able to help.
Simply asking something like ‘Do you know anyone I could speak with that might be able to help?’ is a good start. Saying that they do is a positive step. But remember that they are unlikely to want to offend you, so the true litmus test in this scenario is if they do introduce you.
If they say they can help but don’t, it is likely that there is a reputational element that is preventing the introduction from being made. Likewise, if they say they can’t help or can’t think of any possible introductions, there is an issue. Should you find yourself in any of these scenarios, you must move on. Don’t pause to consider the why; instead, consider the relationship tested and a result found.
If they do make an introduction, it is paramount, for the sake of your board prospects and the preservation of the relationship, that you follow up on the opportunity.
Want to know how to leverage your strong ties and develop your weak ties for a board appointment? Attend a Private Board Search Event.
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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