I don’t have the networks needed to get on a board, so should I even bother pursuing a board career?

Board Networking UK

Around 80% of all board vacancies will never be publicly advertised. For most, this will confirm what you already know: that having the right connections is essential when trying to find and gain a board appointment. But, what if you don’t have the right networks ‘Are you wasting your time?’ Absolutely not. 

Let me explain why.

Strong Ties are not the key to a Board Appointment

When I explain to my clients that 65% of people gain boards directly via their personal connections, they inevitably start thinking about the people they already know or people they wish they knew. Individuals who they know who already operate at board level and they know well enough to pick up the phone and speak about their board aspirations hoping they might get recommended for a board role.

Whilst this may on occasion result in a board appointment, vastly, it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, they are valuable, but these sorts of connections (they are called ‘Strong Ties’) need to be viewed differently. You should consider them as individuals who can introduce you to others who can then independently verify you as a potential NED. Rather than a direct source of board roles. To find out why – read my article on ‘Strong Ties’.

Weak Ties are where the magic happens

‘Weak Ties’, on the other hand, are people you see rarely or infrequently. They are not people you know well. Instead, these are the connections you need to make, and the good news is that they are everywhere! Better news still is that approximately 50% of all board appointments occur through these sorts of individuals. Again, read my article on ‘Weak Ties’ why this is the case.

Not a “natural networker”?

I take great joy in hearing my clients recognise that they don’t have the right connections because this is the first step to correcting this deficit. If ‘networking’ is not your thing then at this point you are likely to be feeling discouraged. You needn’t be. Developing these ‘weak ties’ and leveraging your ‘strong ties’ is surprisingly easy to do, AND it requires no cold calling, and you don’t need to be a natural networker.

Authenticity and Legitimacy is key

However, it starts by first being clear about your value at board level. If you can’t articulate your value effectively, it is going to affect your confidence and ability to deliver a compelling reason why someone you meet should back your potential appointment or introduce you to someone who might be able to help. Next, you need to know who these ‘Weak Ties’ are. To do this, you must be clear about the organisation(s) you want to be appointed to. From here, mapping out the names of people to introduce yourself to is relatively straightforward. 

The beauty of taking this targeted approach is that it is authentic and legitimate. Because the people you will connect with (your new weak ties):

    • You will have something in common to discuss (the target organisation – you are already passionate about).
    • There won’t be any awkwardness since you will both have similar experiences to share.
    • They are more likely to respond to you because of your shared passions, experiences, and shared connections.
    • No cold calling – just a simple introduction.
    • NEDs are up for these sorts of conversations because you are a ‘Weak Tie’ to them just as they are to you.
    • You will obtain insights into the organisation that you can leverage later.
    • You will unlock hidden board opportunities as these NEDs are likely to sit on other boards too.

Now at this point, you probably think it is the current board you should develop relationships with. It is – but not yet. Start by creating a list of, let’s say, six target organisations (we help our clients define a minimum of 12). For each of these organisations, you should map out the names of the past NEDs and the current and past NEDs of your target’s clients, competitors and partners. These are the people you should speak with first. By taking this approach, you should safely be able to identify at least 20 people to speak with before you even start approaching the current board. That means in the space of just a few days of work; you could have a list of over 120 weak ties to develop relationships with. Individuals who may sit on the boards of 1-2 other organisations. Organisations that, statistically, 50% appoint a new every year! 

Honestly, not having the right connections is the easiest thing to correct, is super simple to do and is never as intimidating as it might first seem.

Time to move forward

Don’t put off starting a board career because you feel that others have stronger or better connections than you do. Developing the right connections and relationships is a process, one that you can learn. It is not a skill, a personal attribute or a benefit from associating in the right business circles. During the Board Appointment Training Series, our Executive Members learn how to master this process and use it to find and gain board roles that others can’t.

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.

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