This is my 2nd article on the type and extent of research you need to engage in to gain a board appointment. In the first article, I discussed how to conduct extensive online board research. In this article, I want to push you further and encourage you to conduct the type of research that most will not do, personal board research. Despite its somewhat bland title, ‘Personal Research’ is actually really exciting and, when done properly, will influence every aspect of your board appointment process and truly dare them not to appoint you.
Be warned; board research takes commitment
The level of research I recommend might make you uncomfortable because, for many, it pushes you out of your comfort zone. However, many board roles reside in the space of your comfort zone, so make the commitment! Some of you might view what I recommend as over-the-top or excessive. I get that – it is a lot of work – but gaining a board appointment is a highly competitive exercise which, if you are serious about it, you need to put serious effort into achieving.
Online board research review
Everyone expects you to engage in some level of online research prior to pursuing a particular board role. Most applicants will at least view information about the organisation that is readily available on the internet at least twice during the board application process. The benefits of online board research should be considered, but basic online research will not differentiate you from any other applicant. Online or desk-based research should be treated as a launchpad for more valuable and insightful research. This is where the hard work begins with personal board research.
Personal board research is invaluable
“Personal Board Research” is a term I use to describe the research and information you gather via means other than online resources. I know the title sounds boring, but the results are far from it. This information and insights gathered should transform your board application, board interview, and conversions with connections, gatekeepers or board chairs. This means leaving your computer and personally experiencing in person what the organisation, the industry and the competition do.
So, Why do it?
1 – Because so few do. One of the reasons personal board research is so effective is that so few candidates actually do it.
2 – It demonstrates a proactive approach to gaining an understanding of the organisation and its position. A proactive attitude can be seen as a benefit to the board and the organisation.
3- It de-risks your appointment. This level of research will begin to demonstrate to the Chair that you won’t be a risk to the board’s fragile ecosystem. De-risk in terms of your style, fit, skills and effectiveness.
4 – It demonstrates your level of commitment. As a board recruiter, many times have I seen a favourite or known candidate being upstaged by an unknown candidate. This was because of the amount of personal research conducted by that candidate.
5 – It makes you a stronger candidate. To make the shortlist, a candidate must meet at least the required or basic selection criteria. To be appointed, it is likely you will need to meet some of the preferred selection criteria. How you address these criteria will be influenced by what you have learned during your personal board research.
6 – To open doors to new board opportunities. 80% of board vacancies are filled through personal connections or directly approaching organisations. The process of conducting personal board research may result in you having a conversation with someone who can connect you to one of these board vacancies.
How to conduct Personal Board Research
Essentially, I group personal board research into two activity types, engaging and connecting.
Engaging – suggestions for these activities include:
- Physically visiting where the organisation conducts and/or manages its business. Get a true essence of who they are and what they do.
- Experiencing the organisation’s products and services first-hand, such as mystery shopping. Also, experience what the competition offers and compare.
- Review the effectiveness of their non-electronic advertising campaigns. This may include billboards, print media, TV ads, radio ads, branding, in-store promotions and sponsorships.
Participate in promotional events, community events or in a volunteer capacity.
Connecting – involves developing relationships with people connected to, or familiar with, the organisation. These connections should include current and past NEDs, industry specialists and organisations, suppliers and sellers, corporate partners and stakeholders.
You can use online research and communication tool such as email and Linkedin to establish these connections, but to get the best insights, some of these conversations need to step a notch and occur face-to-face or over the phone.
Conducting personal research with the right people will soon see word spread across an influential group that you are intelligent, proactive and motivated. At the very least, you will gain a better reputation. If you are committed, you could discover other board vacancies or opportunities.
You have concerns about personal board research
People say to me that they have concerns about engaging in this level of research. For some feel that it may be construed as crossing a line. drawing undue attention. Others feel that the process would simply not produce a worthwhile return on their time investment. In some cases, these are both legitimate concerns.
My advice here is. Ensure you complete extensive online research first. From there, you will be able to make an informed decision regarding the ROI on the time commitment required to engage in personal board research. When you decide to go ahead, always approach with an introduction that informs them of your interest in the role or organisation and that you are not seeking to influence the decision-making process. If you are genuine about this, you will be overwhelmed with support.
Remember, the board appointment process is highly competitive. Being proactive is an invaluable way to get ahead of the rest. You want to be front of mind when it comes to the shortlisting and interview stages. The personal conversations you have had may now peg you as a known quantity and less of a perceived risk to the Chair.
Of course, there is no silver bullet when it comes to gaining a board appointment; you need to do everything you can to separate yourself from the competition. Extensive online and personal board research can go a long way to do this. Plus, I can guarantee that your competitors will not go to this level of effort.
Learning how to complete thorough board research and how to apply your findings is just one of the 14 training modules included in our 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 in 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.