Where to begin with no board experience: Leveraging your executive experience into a board appointment

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One of the questions I get asked by people who are considering their first board appointment is how and whether their executive experience is relevant at board level. This is a great question to ask and goes some way to inform the way you articulate your value at board level. 

A vast number of skills and level of experience are valued at board level. It is not just those with existing board experience or past CEOs who get appointed to boards, the vast majority of board members have neither past NED experience or were CEOs. But, let’s be honest, not every organisation is going to value every skill-set and some organisations will require more board experience than others. The key to your successful appointment begins by ensuring you balance your aspirations against the reality of your appointment. That is, ensuring that the sort of board you want to be appointed to will actually appoint you. If you can do this then you stand a far greater chance of becoming a Non Executive Director (NED).

I want to spend some time in this article considering how your experience is valuable at board level. This will in turn help you understand the sort of organisation that is likely to appoint you.

Where do you begin?

The first thing to do is to clearly define what your primary skill set is. Many are tempted to state that they offer any number of highly transferable skills. They may, but by stating this you water down your pitch. So, it is of paramount importance for you to be clear on the primary skill you offer a board – whether it be finance, legal, HR, Change, IT, industry experience or something else.

The next thing to do is to articulate why this skill set is valuable at board level. This pitch is very different to your executive pitch and must address concerns and challenges that a board face. It can be surprisingly easy to do. To help you do this think about the primary drivers of a board. They are (but not limited to): risk, strategy, governance and growth or influence.

Taking a macro approach (board drivers listed above) and working backwards often yields a terrific result in terms of your pitch. Let’s say you are a HR executive without any board experience. You are good at what you do but are unsure what value you would add to a board? I would hazard to guess that at board level you help organisations manage risk – the greatest of which is people. Further, by ensuring an organisation has people strategies in place and they are properly implemented the organisation with be more effective which means they will be more profitable or be more efficient. In both cases there would be a clear return on investment (ROI) on appointing someone with your sort of skill set to the board.

This same process should be taken regardless of your executive skill-set. Think about what would happen if someone like you with your skills is not on the board. What are the risks that an organisation exposes itself to with this omission? Conversely, what are the benefits that could be realised by appointing someone like you.

I firmly believe that a breadth of skills should be represented on board because diverse boards make better, more informed decisions. These decisions lead to a better output and a ROI on your appointment.

So the question I think a better question to ask is not whether your skills and experience are going to be valued at board level – they are – but rather how well you can articulate that value. This is one of the things Board Appointments help our members do – regardless of the scope or scale of their experience.

The next thing to do is begin thinking about what organisation is going to value that skillset – because not every organisation will value, or get value from every skill set. You can read about how to define the organisations (your targets) that will value your skills here.

Whilst gaining a board appointment is highly competitive, a recent study found that 50% of organisations with boards recruit a new board member every year. So, there are literally tens of thousands of opportunities available annually. Opportunities that your peers are getting appointed to – many of whom have little or no existing prior board experience.

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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