Why the Chair is the Key to a Board Appointment

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To understand why the chair is the key to a board appointment, you need to examine and consider the Chair’s motivations. Regardless of what avenue you are pursuing to gain an appointment, the chairperson is key to whether you are appointed or not. For many of you, this will seem obvious, but it is worth pausing to consider what this means for your potential appointment. So, I am going to break it down for you.

Why the chair is key to a board appointment?

 Most obviously, it is because they are the ultimate decision-maker who must sign off on any new appointment. That means they have the final say as to whether you are offered the role or not. This is of course right and proper; after all, it is their board and it is their reputation that is first on the line before anyone else’s should your appointment not work out. 

Of course, they do not make their decision in a vacuum. A Chair also has to appease many different stakeholders – internal and external, perhaps stakeholders or shareholders, clients or even the CEO/executive team – all of whom will likely need to be consulted and might need to provide consent before any new board appointment is made. As such, the Chair needs full confidence that you are not a risk to their board’s dynamics or the organisation’s future before putting your application forward for approval. You must therefore ensure you address this risk in all your interactions with the Chair. 

A Board is not like a rock pool

Consider a rock pool – like the one you might find on a headland or beside the beach. It is a robust ecosystem thriving on change, i.e. the tide coming in and out twice a day, delivering any number of new entities which the existing ecosystem counts on to thrive. 

Many think a board operates the same way – as a new member joins, it adapts accordingly, and it becomes stronger for it. For some boards this might be true. However, the reality is often vastly different. There have been plenty of examples, of even high-profile boards, that after the addition of a new board member the dynamics have changed adversely and the board implodes. This leads to a headache for the Chair, reduces the effectiveness of the board, makes proper governance a challenge and, most importantly, jeopardises the hard fought for reputation of the Chair. 

Here is the point, regardless of whether change makes a board stronger or weaker, any potential change to a board’s composition makes a Chair extremely nervous and is therefore considered a risk. 

Why Chairs are like Northern Quolls, and candidates are like cane toads.

This risk makes Chairs consider themselves akin to a Northern Quoll and potential board members (you!) as cane toads. Forgive me for Australian-ism, and let me explain. 

Consider the native grey-backed cane beetle that was devastating the cane fields of northern Queensland. To control this situation poisonous cane toads were introduced into Australia in 1935. Despite best intentions, the introduction of this single entity led to plague proportions of cane toads who had no natural competitors. This in turn had a devastating effect on Australia’s native and fragile ecosystem and, in particular, the Northern Quoll – an Australian marsupial who ate the poisonous cane toads and died as a result.

What difference does it make if a Chair thinks they are a Northern Quoll?

You see, a Chair considers their board to be a fragile ecosystem and themselves a Northern Quoll and they simply don’t know whether you are a cane toad or not. Simply put, they don’t know if you are worth the risk. So your role is to ‘de-risk’ your potential appointment.

Understanding this will naturally help you understand that a Chair needs a level of comfort before appointing anyone (you) new to their board. Doing so will also give you some insight into how you might be able to facilitate this level of comfort.

In short – it makes every difference. Understanding firstly that the Chair is key to your appointment, means that everything you do and say in the application process must be focused on  ‘de-risking’ your appointment in their eyes and in doing so secure their well-earned reputation.

How to De-risking your appointment

Exactly how you de-risk your appointment, is what I am going to write about in my next couple of articles. Specifically, I am going to write about what some might consider a dry subject – research. 

However, of all the support we offer our members, this is the most valuable thing we teach them. Because, when implemented, it is this research that gets them appointed most often, which absolutely separates them from their competitors and revolutionises their appointability!

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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