The 4 keys to building personal connections

keys to personal connections

Our networks and personal connections are extremely valuable when seeking a non-executive director (NED) appointment. In fact, studies have found that 65% of people in the UK are appointed via a personal connection. Personal connections also play a role in the form of recommendations, advice, and references.

Therefore, it is essential that you know how to build personal connections that can facilitate your board appointment success. There are four key areas to prioritise in order to build valuable personal connections.

Key 1 – Be Motivated

People who establish meaningful personal relationships are driven and maintain a consistent focus on their goals. They identify connection-building opportunities everywhere: at functions and parties, when travelling, during professional interactions, whilst attending their children’s sporting events, etc.

To ensure you make the right impressions that lead to value connections, you must be unmistakable about your motivation for doing so. There are two kinds of motivation – one good and one bad. 

  1. Towards or positive motivation: Successful non-executive directors are driven by a passion for helping, not for gaining something for their contribution. This should be considered when building personal connections. If your motivation is perceived as genuine, the connections are more likely legitimate and authentic. These kinds of relationships have positive results—whether it be introductions, advice or unlocking NED opportunities.
  2. Away or negative motivation: This type of motivation is described as doing something that is driven by the desire not to feel a negative consequence. For example, you choose not to speed because you don’t want a speeding ticket; you want a NED because you don’t want your colleagues to look down on you, or you only want to connect with someone because you want them to help you get a board appointment. If your motivations are perceived as negative, you will be seen as self-serving and the relationship unappealing.

This difference in motivation is important when you interact with those you meet, and you should consider how your motivations will come across in all interactions. You never know where a new personal connection can lead, so make a good impression from the outset.  Avoid using negative motivational language such as “I only want a paid board position” or “My colleagues tell me that I should become a non-executive director”. This sort of language can be detrimental for both you and the listener and will have a negative impact on your effectiveness in developing personal connections.

Those who come across as authentic, passionate and appropriately motivated will develop valuable personal connections and enjoy the process of doing so.

Key 2 – Be Authentic

I am often surprised when speaking with prospective NEDs that they can be quite inauthentic in their approach. They upsell their skills and experiences, claiming they have more to offer than they really do. For me and others who can impact your board career, these conversations lead to frustration and poor outcomes for both parties.

If you are an aspiring NED, then play to your true strengths. To do so, you must first know exactly what it is you offer a board and then what kind of board would value your skills.  From there, you can ask others with board experience for their advice. You could approach them by saying, “I want to develop a board career. Unfortunately, I haven’t got any board experience, but I am passionate about the (industry, organisation or cause) and want to help. What should I do first?” this is an honest and authentic approach.

Conversely, authentically connecting is still essential if you already have board experience. Start the conversation with something like,  “I am a Non-Executive of (organisation). I see you are in a similar role, so I wanted to introduce myself”. This simple, honest, authentic approach puts no pressure or expectations on those you speak to.

Key 3 – Be Passionate

One of the five criteria that a Chair looks for in successful board candidates is passion. Chairs are committed to their role and passionate about their contribution to the board, what the organisation does, and what the organisation represents. Sharing this level of passion, and better still, common passions, will strengthen your connection with them—making you a more attractive candidate.

But what exactly should you be passionate about? In truth, sometimes it doesn’t matter as long as it is honest. I have seen even the hardened Chair attracted to an inexperienced but passionate board candidate. True passion signifies commitment, whether it is your passion for board service, your industry, what you do outside of work, or what you can contribute. The key here lies in knowing what you are passionate about and how to articulate it.

Key 4 – Your Mantra

“How can I help? How can I help? How can I help?” should be your only mantra. This phrase needs to be swirling around your head and on the tip of your tounge when you are developing personal connections. That means constantly considering how your connections, valuable knowledge, industry access, and strategic experience might be useful to those you meet.

This “How can I help” mantra is incredibly powerful and can be particularly successful. But you have to be prepared to adapt and think on the fly to help find solutions when they answer your question. It is more than likely that you will need to ask them further questions before you can offer any useful support.

Asking how you can help demonstrates an inquisitive disposition and a genuine desire to contribute. These are highly regarded traits for an NED, and displaying them should leave a positive impression. The mantra-based conversation should also provide an excuse for you to follow up on it, further building this personal connection and giving rise to new ones—the critical connections that will help you develop board opportunities.

I often find that one of the best ways I can help is by offering introductions to others who know more about a subject than I do or to someone who may have industry connections. This approach also presents a great excuse to keep in touch and validate yourself to a powerful contact.

A word of warning – Wanting to help and actually helping.

Studies suggest that successful leaders are not necessarily the most outgoing, qualified, or smartest ones. Instead, the one thing most successful leaders do is follow through. If they say they will do something, they do it. Having a “How can I Help” mantra is all well and good but success only comes if you follow through on the promises you make. So, if you promised an introduction or to email through some information, ensure you do so.

Equally, follow-up is as important as follow-through. If you made an introduction, wait a week or two and follow it up. Ask both parties individually how they found the meeting and whether you can help any further. If it was information you sent through, find out how it was received and of use.

One last thing

In my experience those who build personal connections best and most easily are those who are curious. Curiosity is also, I think, the hallmark, of a successful NED. Rarely do they consider themselves to be the smartest person in the room or around the board table. This perspective allows them to ask authentic questions – authentic because they genuinely want to know the answer which in turn unlocks opportunity … it all comes from curiosity. I think curiosity is an amazing trait. For me and for many it doesn’t necessarily come easily but if worked towards it is possible and I think holds unlimited potential for growth – personally and professionally. 

Developing personal connections is not something everyone enjoys, but if you get out there and take advantage of everyday opportunities, you will begin to feel more comfortable connecting with new people. Just get in the habit of becoming curious, introducing yourself to others and offering to help.

Would you like to learn about how to make these valuable connections and use them to open the doors to hidden board appointments? Consider completing my Board Appointment Training series included in the Executive Membership package.

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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 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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