Pitching For That Spot on the Board
Increasingly, boardroom positions are 'skills-based' rather than 'representational' and many vacancies are advertised. Opening up the recruitment process is particularly notable. It encourages greater contestability and transparency. Organisations wishing to strengthen their board can choose from a field of candidates that is potentially larger and far wider than traditional, inwardly focused processes. It also offers increased opportunities to those who wish to begin or advance their governance careers. However, when there is a large number of applications (1) short listing is less about positive selection and more about eliminating as many of the hopefuls as possible. There is a definite risk that potentially good candidates can be easily overlooked. That is something that my fellow BoardWorks International director, Terry Kilmister and I have been reflecting on recently. (2)
Typical shortcomings in applications for board positions
When positions are advertised the first step is receiving and evaluating written applications. When these are numerous (but even when they are not) the quality of the paperwork submitted by applicants is critical if they are to go further in the selection process. This is particularly important if applicants do not yet have a great deal of governance experience. In our experience, the majority of applications submitted for advertised governance roles do not enhance their writers' chances. Typically that is because:
- applications are not tailored for the position being applied for;
- applications are too long;
- their content does not draw out governance-relevant experience and attributes; and
- they fail to describe how applicants will add value in a collective decision-making environment (e.g. career achievements are often made to appear as solo acts).
Applicants submitting generic CVs originally prepared for another purpose have given no reason to be selected for a governance position. This error is compounded by those applicants who submit a generic CV without even a covering note that speaks to their interest in, and qualification for, the advertised position.
These shortcomings, however, are not entirely of applicants' own making as will become apparent in the next section.
The board recruitment challenge
Selecting for a board selection process is arguably more complex than for a management position. A management position is usually a relatively well known quantity. The recruitment process is about finding someone with an identifiable skill set to fill a well defined 'slot' in an organisational chart.
By contrast, board appointments tend to be something of a jigsaw puzzle in which the final picture is not crystal clear and it can be assembled in many different ways. The challenge is to find someone to appoint on their merits who will also fit into and complement an existing boardroom team. A particular challenge for selection panels is evaluating applicants who can strengthen the board in ways that were not anticipated before the recruitment process commenced.
Whether or not the selection process has involved some explicit succession planning is an important variable. A structured succession planning process helps to focus and direct the selection process. If this has not happened the strengths and weaknesses of the current board may not have been fully explored and may be unacknowledged. It is important to understand how well members work together as a group as well as what individuals bring to the table.
The capability of the management team is another relevant and important variable (3) as is the nature of the working relationship between the board and senior management. This is an inherently fragile relationship that can be easily disturbed (but also enhanced) by a new board member.
These challenges mean that selection panels may not always start off with a clear sense of the person they are looking for - and why. Consequently, the description of the position when it was advertised may have offered little assistance to applicants consider how best to structure their application.
Even when selection criteria have been made available these may become less relevant as the process proceeds and new levels of understanding, both of the board's needs and the potential of different candidates, emerge.
Advice for potential board candidates
The following observations cannot be guaranteed to eliminate the range of difficulties and significant uncertainty that applicants for board positions face. They do, however, reflect our experience as participants in the selection process.
You are in a competitive process. Your application must attract positive interest in your candidacy from the time your application is first sighted. In the first instance 'professional' presentation is possibly just as important as content. Your written application must look good and be free of 'distractions' (e.g. spelling mistakes, poor grammar, etc). It should be short and focused - 4 to 5 pages at most.
A succinct (1 page max.) covering letter is vital. It should demonstrate you can communicate effectively and it should make the reader keen to review the rest of your application. For one thing, this is your opportunity to demonstrate you really are motivated to be on this board - and for the right reasons. It is often hard to tell if applicants are really interested in contributing to the performance of this organisation or whether they are just after a board position and any board will do!
The cover letter should be a short but strong statement about why you think you are suitable. It must help the reader to quickly get to grips with strength of your application ('You will note from my CV that...'). Backed up by the CV it will show that you understand the role, the organisation and how your participation on the board, if selected, will be relevant to the organisation's needs. It will have a polite and respectful tone and thank the reader for considering your candidacy.
In some situations a CV may be optional because you are asked to provide information via an application form. This is usually to ensure that the selection panel has comparable (and distilled) information from each applicant. Be sure that you read the instructions carefully and complete the form. When you simply respond to questions in the application form with 'see CV' or similar you are sending a message which is likely to be somewhere in the following list: you are careless and/or can't read; you are too lazy to tell the panel what they want to know about you; you have no respect for their process and you really aren't serious about the position. You have made the selection panel's job harder but also easier - yours is one application they don't need to spend any more time on.
In other circumstances, however, the CV may be an appropriate medium to provide information vital to your application. The CV (3-4 pages max.) can pick up the essence of your cover letter and deepen it. Always remember you are applying for a board position. Much of what is covered, for example, in an application for a management position, is not relevant unless substantially recast. Make it easy for the selection panel to imagine you on this board even if you don't have a great deal of prior governance experience. For the panel to find a compelling reason to take you to the next stage in the process it must be able to quickly form a picture of how you will fit into a governance role - this one in particular - and add value to the board. No two boards are the same. Tor example, the demands on a director of a small commercial 'start-up' are quite different to those on the board of a large, well established and well resourced government owned entity. A comment that shows you are likely to understand the essence of this board's role is important even if you have a lot of previous governance experience.
Your personal integrity is important to any board. Whatever you claim about earlier roles you must be able to substantiate. That means being scrupulously honest about your past experience and offering referees who have seen how you operate in a governance relevant environment.
The basic content of the CV must speak to the challenges facing the entity and the contribution you can make to assist the board to meet those challenges. To ensure your CV is relevant in this regard you must have done your 'homework' on the organisation. The content should show how you are likely to understand this type of organisation and its operating environment. If your experience is not directly relevant it is even more important to assist the reviewer to understand and see how something else you have done is applicable and will be valuable to have at the table. If you can, try to anticipate how you can bring the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle!
Finally, be conscious that you are seeking to become part of a collective decision making process. How you will participate on the board is a central issue for many selection panels. So far as possible governance CVs should demonstrate a high degree of self awareness and emotional intelligence. So far as you can, draw attention to the sort of person you are and your past experience in group decision making environments.
These comments apply not just to applicants for advertised positions. There are many other ways you might come into contact with a board appointment opportunity. There will almost always be other candidates in the frame and other people whose support has to be gained if you are to be selected. A CV crafted specifically for a governance role, and preferably for the one in sight, will - if nothing else - help you to think through your pitch for that role.
(1) It is not unusual for the number of applications for really attractive board positions to run to over a hundred.
(2) We are regularly engaged by clients to serve as independent members of board appointment panels and we also mentor aspiring board members. My thanks to Terry for his assistance in preparing this article.
(3) The strengths and weaknesses of the senior management team are also relevant to this jigsaw. Some board selection processes will look to a board appointment which complements (i.e. does not duplicate) management strengths. In other cases, it will be considered desirable to match those management strengths to ensure that the board is not overly dependent on the management team's expertise.