With no board experience – who will appoint you? What roles should you pursue?

no board experience

People often stall their journey to a board appointment because they are unclear about how or why their skills and (lack of) experience translate to a board role. This is an excellent question to wrestle with (if you are not yet clear on why your skills and expertise are valuable at board level you can find out how to do that here), but I think a better question to ask is ‘what sort of organisations would appoint me to their board?’

This is an important question to ask and answer because the truth is that not every organisation will value, or get value from every skill-set so you need to be clear about who will. People often incorrectly think that they don’t have the right level of skills or experience to sit on boards. This is simply untrue. If you are clear on what sort of board you would like to sit on and know what value you offer, there is a board appointment for you.

What sort of boards exists?

Let’s first consider the sorts of board opportunities available. Generally speaking, there are five categories of boards. They exist across the public (government), Commercial and Not for Profit sector and include:

  • Non-Executive Directors: Generally elected by the company’s shareholders and are responsible for the performance of the organisation, and its compliance.
  • Management Committees: Also sometimes known as a ‘council’, or just a ‘committee’, people elected by an organisation’s members to represent and advance their interests. Usually, be found in smaller organisations such as not-for-profits and sporting clubs. The role and responsibilities are not dissimilar to that of a board of directors, though they may also have a greater role in day-to-day activities.
  • Advisory Board: A group of people selected to help a business owner on any number of business matters. Usually unofficial (i.e. not made up of formalised company directors listed through ASIC or the ACNC) and do not generally have authority to vote on corporate matters, nor carry a legal fiduciary responsibility.
  • Board of Trustees: Very similar to a Board of Directors. You may likely see a Board of Trustees of organisations such as museums, universities, large government-owned public facilities, charities, and some financial services organisations. Responsible for holding “in-trust” the funds, assets or property that belong to others with a fiduciary duty to protect them.”
  • Board Sub-Committees: Generally made up of board members, committees can also have independent members (i.e. non-board members). The board retains ultimate responsibility for any actions made by the committee. Common committees include audit committee, risk management committee, remuneration committee, compliance committee, nomination committee, and governance committee, fundraising committee, marketing committee, strategy committee, finance committee, membership committee, etc.

I list these to emphasise that there are many sorts of board opportunities available and, unsurprisingly, they require different levels of skills and experience.

Again, I want to emphasise that it is not just those with lots of experience who are required to sit on boards. Many boards have first-time directors or directors with limited NED experience as part of those who are appointed. This may not be true for listed companies, but for many private companies, not for profits, industry organisations or organisations without defined governance structures (like smaller or mid-sized commercial organisations) having prior governance experience is a ‘nice to have’ not a pre-requisite. Let me explain why.

There are 5 core elements that board Chairs look for in successful candidates.

No one is more or less important than the others. They include prior governance experience, executive skills, networks and relationships, demonstrable passion and cultural fit. You can read about these in detail here.

Demonstrable passion and cultural fit are important for all organisations at board level. However, for many organisations – particularly those without strong governance overlays or who already have Directors with this skill-set – prior governance experience is a nice to have. Instead, they put greater value on the relationships you bring, the gravitas of having someone like you on the board or the executive skills you offer.

What organisation would appoint you to their board?

This is a far better question to ask because rather than focusing on your deficits (and we all have them) we focus on the positives. This, in turn, means you will be able to define a list of potential target organisations rather than a long list of organisations that won’t appoint you.

There are some simple ways to determine your target list. In short, the sorts of organisations that will value you and what you offer are most likely going to be ones you are already familiar with. Failing that they will be closely related to the industry you work in or organisations that represent your personal or extra-professional passions.

Having taken hundreds of people through the process of defining organisations that they can and want to be appointed to, I am constantly surprised by how many of them think they have nothing to offer. After spending a little time together we, without fail, can easily define at least 12 targets. Sometimes these targets are apparent, and other times they take a little thinking about but achieving this outcome is straightforward if you follow a simple process that is guided by your long and medium-term goals. More specifically, it involves considering what your skills are, what sort of organisations would value them, what you are passionate about (it could be personal, professional or extra-professional and who represents these passions as well as thinking about who your past clients, employers and the stakeholders of these organisations are.

Prior governance experience is valuable, but for many organisations, it is not crucial. If you balance your board aspirations against the reality of your appointment, then you more likely to be successful.

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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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