Use the Direct Approach to get on a Board in the UK

Various studies show that one of the most successful ways you will get on a board in the UK is by directly approaching an organisation. Statistically, 15% of people are appointed to a board using a direct approach. However, to be successful, you need to know how to do this in a way that generates the right opportunities for your to get on a board.

More than 50% of UK organisations with boards recruit a board member each year. That means there are thousands and thousands of board roles made. However, fewer than 10% of these opportunities are advertised, meaning that you likely missed the opportunity to apply. In addition, many organisations will have standing board vacancies that they rarely advertise. Instead, opting to wait for ‘the right candidate’ to appear Essentially, they are always open to considering new talent who can add value to their board to appear.

Why the Direct Approach is the best way to get on a board

The direct approach is so powerful for a number of reasons:

    • By approaching an organisation directly, you can place yourself on their radar prior to a board vacancy arising. Together with a compelling board pitch, this approach can even lead to an immediate appointment.
    • Either way, you will not be competing with hundreds of other candidates, which is indeed the case with an advertised board role. Your chances of success improve dramatically, not least of which because your skills and experience won’t be compared against other candidates.
    • The direct approach eliminates the most competitive step to get on a board – making it past a gatekeeper. These gatekeepers include recruiters & headhunters, human resources executives and executive assistants.
    • Finally, this approach is less stressful and cheaper for the appointing organisation. Those who have been involved in any form of recruitment will agree that the process can be time-consuming, frustrating, resource-intensive and expensive. It is something that many organisations want to avoid if possible. By proactively approaching an organisation at the right time with the right skills & experience, you may be the perfect stress-free solution. You will be helping them by avoiding a recruitment process, saving them time and money.


How to get get the direct approach right

My advice is to follow each of these steps for each of your target organisations. 

1. Get your targets right

In the first instance, and this is non-negotiable, in order for this approach to be successful, you must first identify organisations that you want AND can be appointed to. I call this your target list.

2. Thorough Research

Preparation starts with conducting thorough research. This includes undertaking both desk-based and personal research. The direct approach to getting on a board allows you just one chance to impress. Successful approaches are built on solid research.

 Your research should include the organisation, the industry & the market, the board and the person you will approach. This sort of research will provide you with information and insights that will directly impact all facets of your approach and its success. Essentially it should give you an edge, provide conversation starters and open doors. 

3. Have a well-defined pitch

You must then be able to define your value to that organisation. You need to be clear about what it is you can offer and be clear of your USP – your unique selling point – and why you have approached them in the first place. You also need to be prepared to articulate it in a compelling fashion in a 30-second pitch. Your board pitch should be customised based on your research. Central to this pitch is being able to finish the following statement ‘At board level what I do is…’

4. Articulate how you can help

When reaching out, many people use their newly acquired knowledge of the target organisation to point out their challenges and what they are doing wrong. It is a common mistake and a catastrophic one. In most cases, the organisation already knows what they need to do better. Their challenge is instead working out how to do it. As such, to make an impact, you must take a “how you can help approach” and offer solutions, i.e. by leaving them in no doubt double that you have the skills, knowledge and experience to help.

5. Approach the right people in the right order

Once you have a list of achievable target organisations and a strong pitch, the next step is to connect with your targets. Some might think this is as simple as calling the Chair. It isn’t. So before calling, emailing or reaching out on LinkedIn to anyone – let alone the Chair – even though he or she is the ultimate decision-maker. That is because you will likely only have one conversation with them to pitch your case, and you must be prepared for it. My advice is to speak with the past NEDs first, the NEDs of the stakeholder or clients organisations and even the other current NEDs before you approach the Chair themself.

6. What to say & how

Most initial introductions will occur via LinkedIn or email. In these cases, use a summary of your research, what you have discovered and the people you have spoken with to start your introduction. Then provide a summary of your background and your board pitch. Then, finally, define how specifically you might be able to help and offer the opportunity to speak further.

7 . Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date

There is an expectation that directors have a professional online presence, so keeping your LinkedIn profile updated is essential. Your Linkedin profile should not only be board fit. Your profile must include your board profile, board & committee roles, skills valuable to boards, and governance qualifications. I also suggest you include organisations you are passionate about in the Causes section.

How we can help

Mastering the direct approach to get on a Board in the UK and establishing an extensive target list is something I cover extensively in our Board Appointment Training Series. The 18-module online training series is exclusive to our Executive Members.

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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.

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