What Boards want (5): Demonstrable Passion


This is the last of my articles addressing the five elements that I know most Chairs or Nominations Committees consider when making board appointments.

 To recap, in my last four articles I detailed:

Today I want to look at how your experience within an industry or working for a cause relates to board appointments. Frankly, this has been the most difficult article to pen. However, it is my hope that by the end of it you will understand that when it comes to your potential board appointment, being able to demonstrate your passion for the industry or cause you have experience in is invaluable during the board appointment process.

Industry experience on the board – a no brainer?

In many ways this seems the most obvious of the five criteria a Chair would want from a new board member. It seems a sensible move to appoint board members who are industry experts. They would obviously be able to provide industry insights that would be of great value when it comes to strategic decision making by the board. Another advantage of having people with deep industry experience on a board, is the ability of the board to then access their relationships, connections and the kind of knowledge that only someone with a ‘finger on the pulse of the industry’, could contribute.

However, when looking critically at the makeup of boards, you will find in many cases that, while Chairs do value the insight that comes from industry practitioners, they equally value the perspective that comes from people outside the sector. So, despite the obvious benefits of appointing this kind of board member, in my experience finding people with deep industry knowledge is not the highest priority. Instead, Chairs want to see across the entire board a DEMONSTRABLE passion for what the organization does or is trying to do.

This may sound obvious but it is worth pausing to consider what this means from an appointment perspective.

Demonstrable passion, really?

The best board members I speak to are definitely capable but more than that they are passionate about what they are doing and they can demonstrate it. They know – as do Chairs – that the missing piece of the puzzle between having the skills, experience, relationships and the cultural fit to contribute to the effective governance of an organization, is passion. They know that when times get tough, board dynamics are tested, the inevitable crisis arrives or the executive job gets busy, it is going to be the passionate ones who continue to contribute. Those less passionate, quickly drop by the wayside. For this reasons, and many more, it is the passionate individuals that Chairs look to fill their board roles.

How do you demonstrate passion?

This is a critical point and where it gets tricky; it brings us back to industry experience. To demonstrate passion for a particular industry or cause will inevitably mean that you must have had some involvement with it. The challenge many will face is how to demonstrate that whilst you might be passionate about the industry (because you have worked within it) your experience is sufficiently different to the CEO’s/Executive’s to warrant putting you on the board.

Why do you want to sit on this board, is a question I ask in every board interview I conduct. Beyond hoping for an answer other than ‘because I saw the opportunity and liked the sound of it’ (you would be surprised how many say something like this) I really want to be convinced that you are passionate about the cause and serving on the board is the best way for you to contribute. Of course, it is not good enough to just say, ‘because I am passionate about the cause.’ If you do use this response, you should be prepared for a follow-up question such as, ‘how can you demonstrate that passion?’

The best answers I have fielded have been ones that evidence some past involvement with the industry or cause. Not necessarily as an executive (though this counts) but rather by evidencing your ‘extra-professional’ experience. By this I mean evidencing the things you have done outside of your executive career. It could be volunteer work or charity donations, being part of industry groups or internal committees focused on particular industry specialties.

This concept is reflected in the old adage: ‘Skills will get you to the door but passion will get you through it’. Clichéd perhaps but think about it. We have all worked with very capable but unmotivated people in the past. Whilst skilled, you don’t want to work with them and for obvious reasons, you would never hire them for your own business. You would look instead for someone who was passionate about contributing.

There are countless ways in which you can demonstrate your passion for a cause but many don’t focus on this enough when preparing for a board career, an application or interview. Board appointments are competitive processes and I can guarantee you that even if you have the skills to contribute, if you don’t have a demonstrable passion to do so you will find it very difficult to convince a Chair to take the risk of appointing you. Even if appointed, I would expect your tenure on the board to be tenuous.

In summary

How then does a Chair juggle the need for new members who understand the business of the board whilst also providing diverse thinking that will benefit the board? It all comes back to demonstrable passion.

  • Demonstrate your passion for the industry by demonstrating some prior or current history of involvement within the industry or for the cause.
  • When playing the ‘industry experience’ card it is of utmost importance that you know how your experience differs from that of the CEO/Executive and as such is valuable in a board scenario.
  • Demonstrate a personal connection or an ongoing relationship with the broader industry. This might include working with similar stakeholders, charity donations, volunteer work or industry committee links.

Being able to demonstrate your passion provides the crux of any board application and should act as a guide to which boards you should target for an appointment. It can be the hardest thing for many to do but it is worth spending time considering. Without this passion, and in a competitive environment, you simply won’t be able to dare them not to see you.

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