Many believe that only existing NEDs get board appointments. As such, one of the most common questions I am asked is ‘Can I be a Non-Executive Director (NED) without existing board experience?’ It is not just those with existing board experience or past CEOs who get appointed to boards, the majority of new board appointments have neither past NED experience nor were/are CEOs. Whilst highly desirable, in many cases, your prior NED experience, or lack thereof, makes little difference in the appointment process. As evidence, speak to current NEDs and you will quickly find that their existing board experience has not guaranteed them future board appointments or made the process much easier or quicker.
The question is not really ‘How much board experience do you have?’
Whether you are writing a board application or are interviewed for a NED role you will be asked to articulate your board experience. If you are just starting your journey you may not feel you have any to reference and feel you have failed to jump the first hurdle. That is not necessarily the case.
The question they are really asking is ‘Can you operate effectively on our board?’ or ‘Can you successfully transition from a sole decision-maker (an executive) to a role as part of our group decision-making body (non-executive)?’. These are the questions you must be able to answer effectively.
Of course, the best way to do this is by referencing your past board experience. Нowever if you don’t have any, all is not lost. Really.
You probably have more board-level experience than you think; or can create some
The key phrase here is ‘board-level experience’. Have you worked with boards before? Have you reported to a board before? Have you sat on committees: internal or external? Have you presented to boards before or written a board report? If you have, you can use this experience to provide comfort to a prospective board that you can operate effectively in that environment.
If you can’t evidence this sort of experience, can you manufacture it? Can you join or set up a committee within your workplace? Can you volunteer your time on a local committee? Can you develop relationships with the board members – or past board members? Again, this sort of activity all goes some way to help you develop a story about your board-level experience – and provide comfort that you are not a risk.
Remember, having board-level experience is about providing comfort to the appointing entity, making you accountable by de-risking your potential appointment. One of the ways to do that is to demonstrate your board-level experience. But, there are others.
Know your value at board-level
One of the cornerstones of a non-executive appointment is understanding what your primary skillset is and why it is valuable at board level.
For the vast majority of organisations, your skills and experience are more valuable than your board experience. Think about it. There are millions of businesses in existence that don’t require ‘governance’ experience on their boards. Either because they are too small or it is just not a driver of theirs. What they are interested in is leveraging the skills and experience of their board to help the business grow or mitigate risks.
That is why you must be able to translate your executive experience into a statement that articulates why what you know is valuable to the board you want to be appointed to. Not generically but specifically.
Know who will appoint you – specifically
Not every organisation is going to value every skill-set: some will require more board experience than others. Or, perhaps they already have your experience represented on their board or they just don’t need it. Take, for example, my business. We don’t need a lawyer or accountant on our board but marketing would be useful. There are thousands and thousands of businesses just like mine that are looking for new NEDs.
Balancing the expectations of your first board appointment against the reality of your appointment to that board is essential. Try to find your ‘perfect match’ or, in other words, ‘what know specifically what board is right for you?’
Your role is to define what type, and who these entities are. Be critical and choose wisely and if necessary adjust your expectations. If you do this you stand a far greater chance of becoming a Non-Executive Director (NED) and get a far greater ROI on your effort.
Your network counts
Beyond having a valuable skillset you should also define who would value your connections.
This can often be the MOST important thing an organisation is looking for in a new NED. They want people who, by reputation or connections, can help them open doors, refine the way they develop new business or attract new business that helps them grow.
Reviewing who you know in terms of the individuals, businesses, industry or sector contacts you have is the first step. Then ask yourself ‘Who would be interested in these connections or would value the gravitas you bring as a result of these connections?’
The answer to this question is the beginning of your target list and will mean you can better articulate your value to these organisations – regardless of whether you have board experience or not.
‘The world is run by people who show up” is a common phrase. Just ‘turning up’ is surprisingly powerful. One highly successful NED was telling about the way she started her board career – on the board of a great institution with a national profile. – by just turning up and engaging with the organisation.
So, turn up every time your target organisations run an event or hold a gathering. Ingratiate yourself with them – contribute to their charity, do some fundraising or volunteer your time or expertise. Become a ‘known quantity and ask ‘how can I help?’ By doing so you will open doors to a committee, advisory board or even NED opportunities.
Alternatively, take an unpaid role as a NED at a charity or not-for-profit organisation. People with good commercial experience are in high demand. For some, a charitable role can make the transition to a more significant independent director role easier. For others, this isn’t the case but regardless you get yourself the title of Non-Executive Director – something you can leverage in applications and interviews.
Access NED experience
Consider a mentor who already holds a board role or who has a board career you would like to emulate. Ask them for their insights into the working of a board so you can get comfortable with the language, style and approach you could replicate in your search. They may also be willing to vouch for you and provide access to their networks. However, don’t consider this a silver bullet – mentors are just that, mentors, their role is not to get you a board role but rather to help you on the journey – manage your expectations accordingly.
It is not a journey, it is a process
People describe the route to a board appointment as being a journey; far from it. Whether you are an experienced director or just starting there is a defined process you need to follow. By doing so you can find opportunities others can’t, separate yourself from competitors; and get appointed more often.
Regardless of whether you have board experience or not it can take some time to get appointed. However, regardless of your level of experience or skills, a board appointment within 12 months should be your aspiration but, by doing the right things and preparing accordingly, a board appointment within 6 months should be your expectation.
About the Author
David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Appointments – The UK’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.