Can old-school ties get you a board appointment?

The importance of our networks can never be underestimated when it comes to a board appointment. Whilst perhaps 50% of all board appointments occur via a ‘weak tie’, approximately 20% occur via those who you have a strong connection with – your strong ties.

When people think about this group, their mind often goes to ‘old school ties’. When asked how much these networks count for a board appointment, the answer is: “It depends on whether a board considers itself a rockpool and whether you treat the Chair like a Northern Quoll.”

Boards can be compared to a fragile ecosystem

Many believe boards are like rockpools. A rockpool – like the one you might find on a headland or a beach – is a robust ecosystem thriving on the tide coming in and out twice a day, delivering any number of new entities into its presence. A board, many people think, operates the same way – as a new member joins, it (the board) adapts accordingly and becomes stronger for it.

However, the reality is often very different. In my experience, Chairs are very wary of any kind of change and are more akin to a Northern Quoll. Consider the introduction of the cane toad to Australia in 1935 in an attempt to control the native grey-backed cane beetle. Despite the best intentions, the introduction of this single entity is having a devastating effect on our native ecosystem and the Northern Quoll (they eat cane toads and die as a result) in particular. Like the Northern Quoll, I think most Chairs, whilst capable, are fearful of the introduction of a foreign element because they might also devastate their fragile ecosystem.

The chair will want to protect the ecosystem

It matters because it affects the approach Chairs take to the appointment process. More importantly still, it should affect the way you apply, or position yourself, for a board position.

A board often considers itself as having a delicate ecosystem and individual members, the Chair, in particular, is keenly aware of this. They are, therefore, in the best position to know what kind of candidate would be suited to the board so as not to disrupt this ecosystem.

For this reason, most Chairs, when faced with a vacancy, first ask board members if they know of any suitable candidates. Many take this approach because by doing so they are assured of a ‘known quantity’ applying, which provides some level of comfort that the eventual appointee will be culturally appropriate. Further, getting recommendations from current board members means that those board members are putting their reputation on the line – something they would be willing to do only for the right candidate.

Of course, if no suitable candidates are known by board members, then often a third party or advertisement will be used. In this case, it is important for you to consider how your application might be viewed by the board and the cultural impacts of joining it. In either case, when applying, you need to consider how to allay any fears the Chair might have of introducing you into their fragile ecosystem.

A good way to do this is to get to know the external and internal stakeholders and reference these in your application (past NEDs of the organisation are a good place to begin). This may not place you in the ‘club’, but it should at least provide the decision-makers reviewing your application a level of comfort.

Do old school networks count?

Yes, absolutely – for some organisations. If you are interested in an appointment to one of the top 100 listed companies, you might be interested to know 105 people account for a third of all these appointments. At this level, it is a club where the NEDs that operate here are very much known to each other. Being part of the ‘club’ provides a tangible level of comfort to the board and chairman that you will not upset the balance of their finely crafted and delicate ecosystem – something that together they have worked long and hard to develop. However, if you are not part of this ‘club’ already, you need to consider how you can provide the same level of comfort that other known candidates offer.

What to do if you don’t have old school networks

Have a look at our article about updating your network. You should find some valuable people from within your current network whom you may not have thought of before, who may be able to help you get further with your board search.

Developing and leveraging personal connections – weak or strong ties – is surprisingly easy to do if done so authentically and legitimately. We cover this extensively in the Board Appointment Training Series which is included in our Executive Membership package.