Strong ties are unlikely to help you get on a board

help you get on a board

Who comes to mind when you consider the personal connections that will help you get appointed? For most, their mind goes straight to the people they know well and trust, who already have board appointments or are well-connected in the business community. They consider which of their old-school ties may have status or influence in the right circles. I am here to tell you that these personal connections or strong ties are unlikely to help you get on a board.

Personal connections are extremely valuable in gaining a board appointment

Personal connections and networks are extremely valuable when pursuing a board appointment. I regularly survey current UK non-executive directors and ask them, “How were they appointed to their most recent board?”. I found that board appointments in the UK occur via 1 of 4 pathways:

  1. Through a personal connection;
  2. The direct approach to board or organisation;
  3. By responding to a board role advertisement or;
  4. Through an executive search firm or recruiter.

I have been doing this for many years with similar results: 65% of people tell me that they were appointed to the board via a personal connection.

Who are your strong ties?

A connection of any kind and in the form is a tie. It could be of an acquaintance, a close friend, a family member, a teammate or a work colleague.

Traditionally, a strong tie is defined as a connection between close-knit individuals. Our interactions with strong ties are usually ones that ensure the longevity and strength of the connection. Strong ties typically share emotional connection, familiarity and mutual respect. They can be broken down into two groups: Friendships and Relationships.

Friendships are people that you likely know from and within a social setting. They may have stemmed from a work environment, but they are now long-held relationships that have moved firmly into a social setting. These strong ties have a strong and personal relationship at the core, which means that each party knows the other well.

Relationships are similar to friendships but are more than friendships. They are often based on mutual respect. Family, family ties and old-school ties fall into this category. Some relationships are professionally driven, having begun in a professional setting. They may be a colleague or a professional stakeholder you work closely with. 

Why are strong ties unlikely to help you get on a board?

You are not alone in thinking that your strong ties should be one of your most valuable assets when looking for a board appointment. They should be the ones you reach out to first. After all, they have faith in you, they know you well, and they trust you; so they should vouch for you.

For a few of us, they may be, but for the vast majority of people, they are not nearly as valuable as you think. There are clear reasons why strong ties are unlikely to get you on a board.

  1. If your strong tie is a friendship, in their eyes, you are unproven as a board director because they have yet to see you in that sort of role. So, you pose a reputational risk if they recommend you for a board role to introduce you to their connections.
  2. Your strong ties think of you in some other context – the lawyer, accountant, friend, busy CEO, retiree, entrepreneur etc. – and not a non-executive director. They don’t even think of you when they hear of appointment opportunities.
  3. They often know you too well, including flaws and failings. They remember when your product launch failed years ago or what you were like after that 2nd drink. Recommending you could risk either of your reputations.
  4. They like you but might not rate you. They enjoy spending time with and admire you personally but don’t think you are good at what you do professionally or ready to take on a board role. So, recommendations will not be forthcoming.
  5. Finally, they may want to avoid damaging the friendship or relationship that you have taken so many years to build. Or you may risk the relationship by asking or not liking the outcome.

These reasons may sound cruel or impersonal, but pause for a minute and put yourself in their shoes. I am sure you have close friends or family members that, even though you love dearly, you would never recommend for a board appointment. Nor would you introduce them to others who you know could help them. For these reasons, and probably many more, your close friends, colleagues and loved ones, whilst wanting to help, will often not take the risk.

Strong ties do have a role in helping you get on a Board

Strong ties can count, but you need to know how to use them. You must accept that friendships should be considered for informal access to other connections, not recommendations or favour requests. At the same time, strong ties based on professional relationships may be considered, but tread carefully. You need to find out if your strong tie is willing and able to assist you in gaining a board appointment. At the same time, you need to consider if doing so will jeopardise the relationship you have with them, whether it’s a business or personal relationship.

The key here is to never risk your relationship with your strong ties by asking for assistance, support or favours upfront. If unsure, ask yourself, “would a refusal to help offend you?”. If the answer is yes, then you know the relationship is not worth risking. 

But if you are comfortable with the risk and want to go ahead, informally ask them for advice on pursuing a board role or seek their professional feedback on your suitability for a board role. You could even use them as a sounding board when determining what skills and experience you have to offer a board. They may surprise you with an offer to help through recommendations or introductions to other people. Remember that for all the reasons above, they may still be unlikely to put you in direct contact with people with opportunities. An introduction is still valuable as they can access people outside your existing network.

In summary

Personal connections are extremely valuable in the board appointment process. Some connections are more valuable, and strong ties are unlikely to help you on a board. Strong ties do still count. But you need to leverage them differently and avoid risking the strong relationship you have built. Time may be best spent developing the personal connections that will lead to a board appointment. This you will learn during my Board Appointment Training series, which is included in our 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 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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