Prior board experience and select executive skills are considered by many to be the most important in the eyes of boards looking to recruit new non-executive directors. The truth is that there are 3 others to consider first.
Don’t get me wrong, some organisations have complex governance structures, requiring non-executive directors with strong governance experience. They also have a variety of engaged stakeholders or shareholders who demand experienced NEDs on their boards which can deal with complex legal, financial, audit and legal matters. For these reasons, these boards look for proven and experienced directors who have deep financial, legal or audit and risk experience. However, this is not the case for the majority of organisations that you are likely to be targeting.
As you move down the echelon of businesses, boards shift their focus to three more desirable selection criteria.
#1 Your personal connections
For many organisations, your personal connections are the most valuable thing you can offer the organisation. It is something that is most likely to. You should not underestimate the value of your connections, business and personal. You should acknowledge them as a part of your unique selling point (USP).
#2 Demonstrable passion for the organisation
Demonstrable passion might not seem at all important to you, but passion for the organisation is critical to all those on the board. Being able to show your passions and commitment can greatly increase your chances of getting a board appointment.
No Chair will appoint a non-executive director to their board who does not have a passion for the organisation and the industry. Why you say? In one word fear! They fear that, without passion, you will realise being a NED is not worth the effort required. You will not give them your full commitment, you will not want to attend extra-professional events and possibly resign in a short time. This impacts the business and, more importantly, the reputation of the Chair.
#3 Cultural Fit with the current board members
If you can not convince the Chair and the other board members that you can effectively work with them, your appointment will never happen. You may have the best credential and CV, but are not seen as a good fit by the board, your appointment will never work. Chairs know this, which is why they often appoint ‘a known’ entity – a person recommended to them by people they trust and who know the business environment.
Let me provide an example
Board Appointments, for example. Whilst we do not have a board of directors, we do have an advisory board. Should we be looking for a new member, our criteria would be bespoke. Our top priority would not be someone with board experience. At times it might be helpful, but far from essential. Nor do we require the skillsets of a lawyer or accountant. Our finances are simple, and complex legal issues are basically non-existent.
What we do need, and are willing to pay for, is someone who has valuable connections. Someone who can open doors, directly or by reputation. Someone who can provide access to firms we can partner with. This would be our, and many other companies (including listed companies), first priority.
Taking this example further. As good as someone’s connections might be, it does not matter if they are not a good cultural fit for us. Likewise, if they lack passion about what we do. These are criteria are NON-NEGOTIABLE and most Board Chairs will tell you that they feel similar.
My final advice
Whether you are an experienced non-executive director or looking for your first appointment, my advice is “do not focus solely on your NED experience (or lack thereof) to gain a board appointment”. You should first shift your focus to your skills and how you can add value to the board and organisation. Then, concentrate on ways to demonstrate your true and legitimate passion for the organisation. By taking these approaches, the results may be obtaining a board role faster than you thought possible.
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.