Regardless of how you are going to be appointed to a board, you will inevitably need to submit a number of documents to support your application. The board cover letter should be the most crucial document you right. It is often the first hurdle to making a shortlist.
I can not stress this enough – if you get this document right, it will dramatically increase your chances of being appointed. If you get it wrong, it will do the opposite.
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. This is why they carefully read cover letters. This is where Chairs can begin to understand whether an applicant is a risk worth considering.
Strong applicants know this. They know that this document offers an opportunity not just to introduce themself, but also offers an opportunity to clearly and powerfully explain why they should be appointed over their competitors. It goes further still; a good cover letter will demonstrate you to be proactive, intelligent, connected, informed, ‘warm’, more intelligent than your competitors and … not a risk.
Your cover letter really does offer the first chance to separate yourself from other candidates and to ‘dare them not to appoint you’. But for a board cover letter to be of any value, it needs initially to be both accessible and readable.
In the past, cover letters were often deemed to be good enough if they introduced you and your interest in the role advertised and then referred to the detail in your attached CV. As a result, they were often too brief, functional at best, added no additional value and, for this reason, often rarely read. Yours is going to add real value, so you don’t want it missed – it must be accessible.
To ensure that your cover letter is easily accessible, it should be included as part of your application (along with your 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 – one document PDF’d.
I also recommend including it in the body of the email you use to submit your application. It is a great way to introduce yourself, make you memorable and distinguish you from other applicants.
Having made it accessible, you must then make it readable. First and foremost, you should aim to write a document no more than a single page in length. 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 few exceptions to this 1-page rule, but one might be that the application process clearly stipulates you must provide a document that combines a cover letter and a supporting statement addressing the key criteria, which is no more than 2 pages long. In this case, you should jump through the hoops before you and provide what it is that has been requested – one document combining a cover letter and a supporting statement.
Content of the Board Application Cover Letter
Before you put pen to paper, know that a compelling cover letter can only be written after conducting significant research and should include five distinct paragraphs.
The first paragraph must grab the attention of the reader, so it should demonstrate your passion for the ROLE.
They 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 NED for that particular organisation.
Based on the research you have conducted – the conversations you have had, the insights you have gleaned, the engagement you have had with the business, sector or industry – you should be armed with the information, contacts and knowledge that no-one else has. All you need to do now is pull it together in a statement that articulates that work and, of course, 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 role, your ability to do it, your intelligence and connectedness. Assuming you have researched what the board and company do, their challenges and needs – not a bad beginning. More importantly, what it really does is provide evidence to the Chair that you are not a risk.
The second paragraph is your board profile – the paragraph that sits on top of your NED 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. Once written, insert it as your second paragraph. Insert it pretty much verbatim from your NED CV. I know many will say that duplication on your application should be avoided, but you do not want this paragraph overlooked. It is your answer to “why should they appoint you?” so it is critical.
The third paragraph should address gaps – real or perceived issues in your 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, your first board role, you are unemployed, you are changing careers or beginning a portfolio career, you seem too busy, or you have a gap in your CV. Whatever the case – real or perceived – you should try to allay any the decision-makers may have.
For example, if you are applying for a 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.), or 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 they are looking for, then this paragraph also offers an opportunity for you to state why you and your particular skill set and experience is more valuable than they might think. State your case here and state it clearly and respectfully.
From experience, I know how easy it is for employers 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 in your CV.
The fourth paragraph should contain something interesting or memorable about you.
The reality is that Chairs want to brag about their new NEDs, so you need to give them something to brag about or remember you by. Your penultimate paragraph should contain something interesting or memorable about you. Remember, the whole application process is about layers of value and not knowing entirely 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 the client who, when considering who to interview in the one-time slot they had left, remembered him before other potential interviewees. He got past the application stage and into an interview, not because of his table tennis skills but because he was the most memorable one. What are the extra-professional skills that are going to make you memorable?
The fifth paragraph is one of the most important sections but different from your opening paragraph.
Again, based on your research, this summary demonstrates your understanding of what the COMPANY does, your connectedness, intelligence and strategic approach. Most importantly, it demonstrates your passion for the objectives or goals of the organisation. It is a strong way to finish any cover letter. It clearly answers the question, ‘why are you applying for this organisation instead of another similar one?’ This final summary mirrors your initial paragraph. It is a strong way to finish any cover letter.
In a competitive environment, when there are far more candidates than opportunities, cover letters form a crucial part of the non-executive application process, regardless of whether you are responding to an advertisement, using a recruiter or approaching a company directly. One page focused 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 get it wrong, it will do the opposite. If you would like me to personally appraise every cover letter before you submit your board 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 and edit each and every one of them before submission.
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.