Regardless of how you are going to be appointed, you will at some stage need to submit a board cover letter to support your application. I can not stress enough that, if you get this document right, it will dramatically increase your chances of being appointed. Today, I will share with your the 5 key paragraphs or template for a Board Cover Letter.
Why are Board Cover Letters so important?
You know already that Chairs (the ultimate decision-maker) are nervous and risk-averse about any new board appointment. Which is why they carefully read cover letters. This is where Chairs can begin to determine whether an applicant is a risk worth considering. Strong applicants know this. They know that a board cover letter offers an opportunity to, not just introduce themselves, but to demonstrate that they are proactive, intelligent, connected, informed and not a risk.
A well-written board cover letter also offers the chance to separate yourself from other candidates and to ‘dare them not to appoint you’.
But for a cover letter to be of any value, it needs initially to be both accessible and readable.
In the past, board cover letters were often deemed to be good enough if they simply introduced you and your interest in the role, and then referred to the detail in your attached board CV. They were usually too brief and added no additional value to the board application. For these reasons, they were rarely read. For yours to add real value, you don’t want it missed – it must be accessible.
To ensure that your board cover letter is easily accessible, it should be included as part of your application (along with your Board CV). That means that you should NOT save it as a separate attachment but rather as part of one application document – that includes your CV and if requested, a supporting statement. Submit just the one board application document, preferably as a PDF file.
I also recommend including some of it in the body of the email. It is a great way to introduce yourself, make you memorable and distinguish you from other applicants.
Making it accessible is not enough. It must be readable. First and foremost, it should not be more than a single page in length. Board Chairrs, HR managers and recruiters are busy people who don’t have time to read through pages and pages of unnecessary copy. That does not mean decreasing fonts or reducing margins – standard margins and 11pt font only, please. Oh, and only use Helvetica font – studies have shown it is the easiest to ready.
There are a few exceptions to this 1-page rule. One might be that the application process clearly stipulates you must provide a document that combines a cover letter and a supporting statement addressing each of the key criteria, which is no more than 2 pages long.
How to write a Board Cover Letter
Before you put pen to paper, know that a compelling board cover letter can only be written after conducting significant research.
Your cover letter should include five distinct paragraphs.
The first paragraph must grab the attention of the reader by demonstrating your passion for the BOARD ROLE.
Boards want to appoint people equally passionate. 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 non-executive director for that organisation.
Based on the research you have conducted -the conversations you have had, the insights you have gleaned, and the engagement you have had with the organisation, sector or industry – you should be armed with information, contacts and knowledge that no one else has. All you need to do now is pull it together in a statement that articulates your passion and how you can help.
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 board role, your ability to do it, your intelligence and your connectedness. More importantly, what it really does is provide evidence to the Chair that you are not a risk.
The second paragraph includes your board profile – the paragraph that sits on top of your board CV.
This summary statement addresses the five key elements a Chair is looking for in a successful candidate. This paragraph neatly summarises your experience, your success, your achievements, your training, and that you can do the role they want you to. Insert it pretty much verbatim from your board CV. Many will say that duplication on your board application should be avoided, but you do not want this paragraph overlooked. It is your answer to “why they should appoint you?”. It is critical.
The third paragraph should address gaps – real or perceived issues in your board CV or application.
It is probably going to be a short paragraph, but most people have something to include here. Perhaps you appear too old, too young, over-experienced, under-experienced, it is your first board role, you are unemployed, you are changing careers, beginning a portfolio career, you seem too busy, or you have a gap in your board CV. Whatever the case – real or perceived – you should attempt to allay any apprehensions the decision-makers may have.
For example, if you are applying for a board 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). If this is your first board role explain what else you have done that qualifies you to be appointed.
If you do not fit all of the criteria outlined in the advertisement, this paragraph also offers an opportunity for you to state why your particular skill set and experience are more valuable than they might think. State your case here. State it clearly and respectfully.
From experience, I know how easy it is for gatekeepers or decision-makers 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 or issues in your board CV.
The fourth paragraph should contain something interesting or memorable about you.
The reality is that Chairs want to be able to brag about their new non-executive directors, so give them something to brag about or remember you by. Your penultimate paragraph should contain something interesting or memorable about you. Remember the board application process is about adding layers of value, You will usually not know which element got you appointed and which did not. With that approach in mind, I think this paragraph is important.
As an example, a client of mine received an application from an individual who, amongst other significant professional successes, represented the UK in table tennis. Not the coolest sport in the world. But, when considering who to interview the client had one timeslot they had left and who come top of mind but that table tennis guy. He got past the application stage and into an interview, not because of his table tennis skills but because he was the one that was most memorable. What is your ‘extra-professional’ skill that is going to make you memorable?
The fifth paragraph is one of the most important sections but is different from your opening paragraph.
Again, based on your research, this summary demonstrates your understanding of what the organisation does, your connectedness, intelligence and strategic approach. Most importantly, it demonstrates your passion for the objectives or goals of the organisation and the board. It is a strong way to finish any board cover letter. It clearly answers the question, ‘why are you applying to be on the board of the organisation ?’
In a competitive environment, when there are far more candidates than opportunities, a board cover letter forms a crucial part of the non-executive application process. This is regardless of whether you are responding to an advertisement, using a recruiter or approaching a company directly. It is one page where you focus on what you know about the organisation, their challenges and how you can help. Be specific and ‘dare them not to appoint you’.
As I mentioned earlier, if you get this document right, it will dramatically increase your chances of being appointed. If you would like me to personally appraise every board cover letter before you submit your application, you should consider becoming an Executive Member. This membership includes Unlimited Application Critiquing: No matter how many board roles you apply for, I will critique each and every one of them before submission.
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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