In the past cover letters were often seen to be of little value as such, there is a temptation by many to not bother writing one if one was not requested. Further, when they were written many deemed it good enough to simply introduce them self, their interest in the role and then referred the reader to their attached CV. As such, these letters were often too brief, functional at best, added no additional value and for this reason they were rarely read. However, today, and particularly in competitive board appointment processes, a cover letter matters more than ever.
How do you make your cover letter count?
Cover letters are a valuable resource carefully read by Chairs and Appointment Committees and strong applicants know this. A good cover letter demonstrates you are much more than just your CV and must be well written, succinct, evidence based and it should demonstrate that you are qualified and passionate. When achieved, it offers the first chance to separate yourself from other candidates and will ‘dare them not to appoint you’. But for a cover letter to be of any value it needs to be both accessible and readable.
To ensure that your cover letter is easily accessible it should, where ever possible, be placed both in the body of your email application and included as part of your resume. You should not save it as a separate attachment but rather as part of the same document as your board resume. By including it in your email and also in your resume you ensure that it is much more likely to be read and therefore begins the process of distinguishing you from other applicants.
Having made it accessible you must then make it readable. First and foremost it should never be more than a single page long and ideally shorter. To help you do this, break the cover letter down into 5 paragraphs, each dealing with a different aspect of your application.
Content of the Board Application Cover Letter
The first paragraph must grab the attention of the reader so it should demonstrate your passion for the ROLE: Boards want members who are intelligent, qualified AND passionate about what they do. So this paragraph is not a statement about your understanding of the company, where you saw the job advertised or what the role is that you are applying for. Instead it must demonstrate your passion for the role of a board director. It might focus on your previous board experience and how it demonstrates your passion for governance and leadership. The role you are applying for will likely have an experiential focus e.g. it might be finance, marketing or HR focused. If so speak about your passion for your particular expertise and how it might help the board.
This kind of opening is incredibly powerful. Firstly it immediately captures the reader’s attention. It then demonstrates from the outset a number of positive qualities – your enthusiasm for the role, your ability to do it, your intelligence and connectedness. If you have researched what the board and company do, their challenges and needs, you can speak to that, showing them that you are proactive. Not a bad beginning.
The second paragraph is your profile: In essence your profile should neatly summarise your experience, your success, your achievements, your training and that you are ‘board ready’. Once written, insert it here. Insert it verbatim from your resume so that it becomes your second paragraph. I know many will say that duplication on your application should be avoided but you do not want this paragraph overlooked. It is your answer to ‘Why appoint you?’ so it is critical.
The third paragraph should address gaps or perceived issues in your resume: This should be a very short paragraph but everyone has something to address here. Perhaps you are too old, too young, over experienced, under experienced, it is your first board role, you are unemployed, you are changing career or beginning a portfolio career. Whatever the case for you may be, you should briefly allay any of your potential employers’ fears so that they do not discount your application because of their preconceived ideas about what you are or have done.
For example, if you are applying for a role that is a long way away from your home but you are willing to travel then this is the place to say so. Equally, if you are unemployed tell them why (did you retire or leave for health reasons, etc) or if this is your first board role explain what else you have done that qualifies you to be appointed.
Again, from experience I know how easy it is for employers to disregard an applicant because of ill informed or preconceived ideas. For this reason alone you need to ensure you are absolutely clear on any gaps in your CV.
Your penultimate paragraph should contain something interesting or memorable about you: Who would you employ if you had to make a decision between two or more equally qualified candidates? The one who seemed to have a personality and had demonstrated their achievements outside of work (clubs, sporting achievements, languages, etc) or those who could not demonstrate any interests or success outside of a work setting and seemed the same as everyone else?
I once had a client who, when they had the choice to add another candidate to the interview list, added an applicant who had represented their country in table tennis. They added him not because of his table tennis skills but because he was the only one they remembered from the list. The reality is that potential employers want to brag about their new hires so you need to give them something to brag about or remember you by.
Finally, your last paragraph should focus on passion for the COMPANY and what they do: Again, this is one of the most important sections and will be boosted by good, non desk based research. You could end with something like, ‘having spoken with your competitors and Mr X, your Chief Executive and having been to your office and used your products, I know that Company ABC is a leader in its field and you require most qualified board members. My experience to date, my passion for what you do and my eagerness to contribute to a high caliber board are the reason I have chosen to apply for this role.’ This final summary demonstrates your connectedness, intelligence and strategic approach. It is a strong way to finish any cover letter.
Having a cover letter that compliments your board resume is a very important part of any non-executive application process.
Help with your Board Applications
When was the last time you wrote a board application? Writing a board cover letter can be an arduous task. We can help you get it right immediately by doing all of the ‘heavy lifting’ thereby freeing you up to just tweak your application to make it your own. Take a look at our Board Application Support service and dare them not to appoint you.
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 20,000 connections. Email: Contact@boarddirection.com.au