Based on my experience as a headhunter or recruiter in the UK, as a prospective non-executive director, you will speak with a board recruiter in three scenarios. A recruiter will call you (often out of the blue) about a board opportunity, you will call a board recruiter after seeing a board vacancy ad, or you will reach out to discuss future roles. Each scenario requires similar but more decisive approaches to managing the call with a board recruiter.
What to do when you receive a call from a board recruiter
If a board recruiter calls you, they have noticed you because you meet the key selection criteria for the board roles they are recruiting for. However, don’t get too excited, as it does not guarantee that you will get the role or even make the shortlisted board candidates.
Step 1 – Listen
If a recruiter calls to discuss a potential board opportunity, hold back and listen to everything they have to say. Avoid asking too many questions, as you may not have the right information to ask the right ones. Asking the wrong questions now, during your first conversation with them, can leave a bad impression and affect your chance for this and other board opportunities. Instead, actively listen.
Step 2 – Respond
Respond by asking them to send you all the board vacancy details and let them know you will call them back once you have reviewed the documents.
You could say something like, “Thank you for reaching out. I am interested in the opportunity but would like to conduct some research before making any decisions. Could you please provide me with the application deadline and application materials?”
Step 3 – Prepare
After receiving the board vacancy information, you must conduct initial board research to determine if you wish to apply. It is important to prepare meticulously for every stage of the board recruitment process to make a good impression on the recruiter and the recruiting board. Research is the key to effective preparation.
Step 4 – Return the call
Once you have studied all the information, now is time to return the call to the recruiter. Their role in the process does not stop once you submit your application. They significantly influence who makes it to the interview stage and who gets appointed. I recommend that you always return their call, even if it is only a courtesy call to thank them for forwarding the information and to expect your application.
If you are not interested in the position, still call them back to let them know. During the conversation, let them know what you are looking for and also provide recommendations of others they should. Fostering a good relationship with the recruiter means they will reach out to you regarding other board positions.
An alternate scenario
Be aware that it could also be that a board recruiter has called to ask for recommendations for potential candidates. Although the conversation can be frustrating and even deflating, it is important to be helpful and gracious. Consider it an opportunity to make a good impression. If the recruiter likes and remembers you, it increases the chances of them calling you when a suitable board role comes along.
When to call a Board Recruiter
If you have come across an advertised board opportunity and think you should call the recruiter immediately to express your interest, it may be wise to reconsider.
Making a good impression is crucial, and you may only get one chance to do so. Calling and asking for more information without proper preparation can have the opposite effect. It’s best to pause and conduct research before making that call.
Why delay in making the call?
You are entering a highly competitive process. It is important to separate yourself from your competitors, as it is likely that there will be hundreds of them. This advice may feel unconducive, particularly if you are hearing about the board opportunity for the first time, but it is important to prepare in order to impress.
Some individuals may feel anxious about taking this approach due to concerns of being beaten to the post by an eager competitor. However, it is my experience no one has missed out on a board role simply because they didn’t immediately express their interest in the role. Furthermore, those who demonstrate premature excessive enthusiasm may look desperate or say something that will diminish their credibility—potentially flagged as a risk to the recruiter’s reputation.
Differentiating yourself from other applicants and de-risking your candidature is essential for success. The most effective approach to ensure this is through thorough research.
Research before making any call
Before calling a board recruiter about a role, it is crucial that you conduct thorough research. The level of research you conduct will depend on how much detail you already have about the role and how committed you are to being appointed. The type of research I am referring to goes beyond basic internet searches or reading company reports.
Your online and personal research should include the following:
- the organisation
- the current board and board chair
- the past board
- the role and why it is vacant
- the industry
- the competitors
I also recommend conducting background research into the recruitment firm and the recruiter you are about to call. This can be done online by studying the firm’s website, social media pages, and the recruiter’s LinkedIn profile. By doing this, you will then identify if you have any relevant common connections and mutual interests. In addition, request to connect with them on LinkedIn. Doing so will keep you in the loop if other board roles become available.
The significance of doing this level of research cannot be overstated. I know it requires effort, which is why only 5% of board candidates will do it. Not only will you be going above and beyond what your competitors are doing, but you will have a better understanding, more confidence and significant insights to make a favourable impression during the call.
After completing your research, which may take a few days, you can proceed to call the board recruiter.
Tips for Making the Call
Once you have completed your research and feel confident in making the call, here are a few tips to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible.
- Have everything at hand: Before calling, make sure you have all of your documents at hand, such as your board CV, the board description, notes from your research and any questions you want to ask.
- Practise your board pitch: Have your customised board pitch ready. Know specifically what value you can add to this board.
- Review your LinkedIn Profile: Ensure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date, board ready and reflects what you are likely to discuss during the call. I can assure you that they will scrutinise your profile before and after receiving your application.
- Speak clearly and precisely: You don’t always get the opportunity to talk on the phone to board recruiters. Speak clearly and not rushed, but at the same time, remember the opening minutes are critical when making the right impression.
- Listen carefully: The recruiter will likely ask a few questions during the conversation. It is important to listen carefully and answer all questions as best you can.
- Ask questions: The conversation should not just be one way. Asking relevant questions about the role and the board’s expectations to shows that you have done your research and are serious about the position.
- Follow up: After the call, follow up with a thank you email and provide any additional information that may have been requested during the call. This follow-up email is essential, even if you are unsure about the role. This exercise is about nurturing the relationship.
- Returning calls: If you have promised to return a call to a board recruiter or they have left you a message, don’t leave it for more than 48 hours.
Where to from here?
By following the above tips and conducting thorough research before calling a board recruiter, you will be in a much better position to make a positive impression and increase your chances of securing an appointment. Doing your research before making the call is essential and will provide you with the insights necessary to confidently engage in a meaningful dialogue.
Be prepared for rejection. It is important to remember that not every call will result in an appointment; it is just part of the recruitment process. However, this should not discourage you from contacting other board recruiters or applying for other board roles, as you never know what could come of it.
Dealing with board recruiters and headhunters is one obstacle you will encounter while pursuing a board career. There are many more obstacles, which are covered in the online Board Appointment Training Series included in the Executive Membership Package.
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.