You applied for a Non-Executive Director (NED) role you believe you are well qualified for. You feel confident because you put so much effort into the application, meet their selection criteria, are passionate about the organisation and serving on its board and know you can help if appointed. So you are utterly surprised when, weeks (or even months) later, you receive a rejection email or, worse, no response at all.
Sound familiar? There are some simple things that you can do to move from one of many board applicants to one of the select few who are invited to an interview. It starts with knowing how board applications are evaluated and graded to determine who makes shortlisted candidates.
From board application to interview – the evaluation process
Typically, after you submit your board application, it will be placed in a pile, list or digital folder to be reviewed after the role’s closing date. Sometimes, applications are reviewed before the closing date, but typically, they are assessed in bulk once all applications have been collated. If a recruitment firm is involved, your application may be digitally scanned and initially screened by some form of AI – though this is less common for non-executive director appointments. Regardless, to increase your chances, you must address all key criteria in your cover letter and supporting documents. Also, tailor your CV for the role by including relevant keywords like skills and qualifications.
The formal grading process begins
After collecting all the applications (physical or digital), each one is graded individually. This process is also known as sifting the applications. This process can take anywhere from one day to several weeks. The responsibility of grading the board applications can differ significantly. It may be assigned solely to a board or executive recruitment consultant, the recruiting board’s Chair, or each Nominations Committee member.
The goal of grading board applications is the same regardless of who completes it -to narrow down the applications and identify the top candidates to take forward to board interviews. Typically, a shortlist consists of five to ten board candidates; sometimes, it may be less than 5. The number of board candidates shortlisted usually corresponds with the number of applications received, following the shape of the bell curve. At one end, 10% of applicants typically do not meet the key selection criteria to any significant extent. In the middle, 80% of applicants might be capable of performing the board role and meet many of the selection criteria. Then, finally, there are the top 10% who are the leading candidates – those most likely to be considered for an interview first.
How are board candidates graded?
Applications are initially evaluated and assigned grades based on their board cover letter and the application’s supporting statement. Generally, board applications are graded as A, B, or C per their alignment with the key selection criteria (essential and desirable selection criteria) determined by the board or nominations committee.
C – Grade Board Candidates
Typically, a portion of the candidates, around 10% of the total applications received, do not adequately address the selection criteria. While they may demonstrate an understanding of the criteria, they fail to provide specific information on how they meet them. These applications often lack examples and evidence of past successes. It is also not uncommon for individuals to submit speculative applications, wasting time for themselves and the organisation.
B – Grade Board Candidates
The majority of candidates, approximately 80%, fall into this category. They range from those aspiring to the board role to those with substantial board experience. Whilst some applicants do not make the effort to address the criteria, instead making reference to their board CV, typically, these candidates address each selection criteria but fail to provide specific details about their relevant achievements. Their applications often include excessive contextual information. Due to the presence of more experienced or better-articulated board candidates, they are unlikely to be selected for a board interview. Many qualified candidates receive this rating not because they cannot perform the role but because their application does not effectively differentiate them from their competitors.
A – Grade Board Candidates
The top 10% of board applications received are typically ‘A’ candidates. Their board applications stand out because they meet or come very close to meeting all of the essential board selection criteria and many of the desired selection criteria. They concisely and confidently state how their experience meets the requirements and provide evidence of successfully achieving them. Even though these applications are impressive, still not all of these candidates will make the final shortlist and be invited to a board interview.
Which board candidates will be selected for interviews?
The final number of board candidates that make the cut depends on the description of the chair or interview panel. This, again, may be limited by time, resources and availability of those conducting the board interviews. If there are more A candidates than interview slots, a second round of screening is required for this cohort. Applicants will be further graded as an A-, A, or A+.
If the A candidate cohort is smaller than the required number of applicants for interview, some B candidates may also be included in the shortlist and invited to the interview stage.
What strategies increase the chances that your application is graded as an A-candidate?
Board Application Strategy #1
Conduct comprehensive research, then apply aspects of this information in your board application, board cover letter and, more importantly, when addressing the selection criteria in your application’s supporting statement. This level of research will provide you with the necessary insights to differentiate yourself from the competition and establish yourself as a top candidate. Utilising in-person board research can demonstrate your connectivity with the organisation, the industry and the business environment, instilling confidence in you as a potential board candidate.
Board Application Strategy #2
Before submitting every board application, revising your board CV and customising it where necessary to align with the role and selection criteria is essential. Also, consider the possibility that AI software may scan and assess your Board CV. Ensure you include keywords, skills and experience relevant to board selection criteria. This equally includes your LinkedIn profile. Your application will likely be reviewed with your LinkedIn profile open simultaneously. So, there must be synergies between all of your documents.
Board Application Strategy #3
You must include a Board Cover letter in a formal Board Application process. This letter should clearly address the selection criteria, both essential and recommended. Including a board cover letter is important even if it is not explicitly requested. Most importantly, it must articulate all of the research you have conducted. This will truly separate you from your competitors and make you a more compelling applicant. You can include it in the same document as your Board CV if necessary. Also, make sure to include a supporting statement if it is requested.
Board Application Strategy #4
In my experience, the most powerful applications include a Supporting Statement, simply a list of successes. This approach assumes I can read the Board CV or cover letter for more detail. Moreover, it focuses on and highlights what a Chair/decision-maker wants to see and takes comfort in – success. Success is significant because it assumes that if you did the role/function well in the past, you are likely to be able to do it well in future. Be sure to demonstrate your success confidently and be ready to support it with an example.
One thing to remind yourself of when applying for a non-executive director position is that recruiting that new director is not always a top priority for the board. There are often various reasons why organisations and boards may delay or hesitate in this process of appointing a new board director; those reasons include:
- Coordination of board members to review the applications outside of regular board meetings
- Limited resources available for recruitment management
- Being overwhelmed by the high volume of applications
- Prioritising executive duties over recruitment duties
- Lack of recruitment experience among HR executives and the board
- Potential fundamental organisational or business requirements change during the board recruitment process
- Let’s consider the impact of these issues
Firstly, if you have not heard back in a timely manner, do not assume that your board application was unsuccessful. Reach out to see where the process is at and whether they require any further information to support your application.
Secondly, assume that those assessing your board application may be under-skilled or under-resourced. It is even more crucial that your application is both easy to read and immediately compelling.
Thirdly, if you receive a rejection email or phone call, acknowledge that there are other contributing factors outside of your control. Stay motivated with a positive mindset and see what you can leverage from the experience.
Knowing how board applications are graded can help you improve your board application documents and better chances of getting to a board interview and a non-executive director appointment. Usually, there are B candidates who should be graded as A candidates based on their skills and experience. However, their board application disappoints in competitive and under-resourced selection processes by not articulating their value to the board and the board role. To ensure your application is graded appropriately, always conduct thorough research. Then, focus on writing a board cover and supporting statement that addresses all the selection criteria. Also, customise your board CV appropriately.
If you are new to the board appointment process, you should consider attending one of my virtual Board Search Breakfast events, where I will take you through “how to develop a board career”.
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.