Why and how to impress board recruiters and headhunters

Impress Board Headhunters

An overwhelming number of organisations now use the services of board and executive search firms and consultants (headhunters) when looking to appoint a new non-executive director (NED). That includes small to medium businesses, start-ups and Not-for-Profit organisations. If you are serious about developing a board career, you must know how to impress board recruiters and headhunters.

The role board and executive recruiters play

Having a clear understanding of the process of an external board search and the role of the recruiter or consultant is crucial. In the UK, board recruitment specialists are usually employed by some of the top and some boutique executive search firms. They are hired by their clients to exclusively search for candidates with the necessary skills, experience, and suitability for a vacant or new non-executive director role. They will begin by collaborating with the client to create a comprehensive brief outlining their specific requirements. The brief will outline the necessary skills and experience for the role and the desired attributes that would align well with the board and organisation. The recruiter will initiate the search for qualified candidates and evaluate their suitability based on their alignment with the brief.

Why you must impress board recruiters

It is not uncommon that, after placing an ad, a recruiter receives 200+ applications for a non-executive. Given those numbers, they will initially spend around 15 seconds reviewing and grading each application (yes, I said 15 seconds). Based on this review, they will select and present a maximum of ten applicants to be considered for the first round of interviews. That means you must impress to ensure that you are not one of the 190 applicants who will receive the dreaded thank you but sorry email. 

Recruiters are not only the gatekeepers tasked with selecting the initial shortlist; they are commonly included in interview and selection panels. Like any good consultants, UK recruiters have opinions and are paid to provide those opinions. Board and executive recruiters will never shy away from giving their advice on who their clients should appoint or, at the very least, guide their decision-making process. When asked, they will usually back one of the candidates in particular. Who that is often depends on who impresses them the most. Organisations pay recruitment firms thousands of pounds and often have an existing relationship and level of trust.

Most executive search firms have databases with hundreds of well-qualified candidates. You should never assume that because your Board CV has been stored in their database, they will consider you when a suitable board role arises. Your board CV must impress, and you must be memorable for all the right reasons in order for you to rise above the competition.

How to ensure you impress board recruiters and headhunters

To impress board recruiters, you should actively develop and nurture relationships and connections with as many as you can. I recommend doing this not only when you see a board role they are handling. Be proactive and introduce yourself to the top or significant board search consultants within your preferred industries or location. The aim of this conversation is to strengthen the relationship and provide enough confidence for them to contact you in the future. Serendipity happens. Let me explain; on countless occasions, I have unexpectedly been reacquainted with a forgotten candidate who would be perfect for a role I took a brief for just a day earlier.

Not convinced? Put yourself in their shoes. Would you recommend someone you had never spoken to, met, or didn’t know? Would you risk the trusted relationship with your client that you are heavily invested in? I am guessing the answer is no.

So, once you have kindled a relationship, you should aim to keep in regular, but not annoying, contact. To do this effectively, you must consider what they will be influenced or interested in. What will make them want to read your email, take your call, or respond to your LinkedIn message?  It may be an opportunity to provide them with new business or expand their network. You could contact them to make recommendations or introductions.

Some more simplistic ways to stay in touch include emailing articles that you think they might be interested in, connecting and interacting with them on LinkedIn, inviting them to events, or providing them with updates when things in your professional life change. While they might not have a board opportunity available at that time, staying in touch makes you more likely to hear from them when they do.

Top TIPS for working with board recruiters

TIP #1
Acknowledge that the recruiter does not work for you. They work for the client. They are not being paid to find you a board role or match you with an organisation. Their relationship with the client is more important and valuable than their relationship with you.

TIP #2
Always call the recruiter prior to submitting your board application. But first, do some research and have well-prepared questions based on your research. Don’t waste their time with questions like ” Please tell me more about the role”.

Make their job easier and make an impact in 15 seconds by… always including a supporting statement with your board application.

TIP #4
Always keep your board CV up to date. Make sure the recruiters you are registered with have the most recent copy.

TIP #5
Make sure your LinkedIn profile is current, confirms the details in your board CV and articulates your board-level skills and board value position. LinkedIn is an executive and board recruiter’s #1 tool of choice. They advertise the board roles they are recruiting for and use it as a database to search for suitable candidates. 

TIP #6
Always follow up with the recruiter seeking feedback if you were unsuccessful with your board application. I can assure you that few, if any, unsuccessful applicants will do this, so it is a prime opportunity to get valuable feedback and impress. The recruiter will likely have more board opportunities in the future.


With more and more board roles being handled by recruitment firms, it is essential to have a strong and ongoing relationship with the right consultants. From making an impact in 15 seconds to keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date, my advice should help you impress board recruiters and headhunters. However, search firms and recruiters are just one of the pathways to gaining a board appointment and the most competitive. During my Board Appointment Traning Series (included in the Executive Membership Package), I show you how to pursue all possible pathways to a board appointment.  

Related Article

From board application to interview – who makes the shortlist?

The style, format and content of a Board CV that will get results

How to use board recruitment firms to get a board appointment

How to write a board application Supporting Statement

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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