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It used to be that landing a board role was as easy as getting a tap on the shoulder. Most board positions were filled by invitations from colleagues, and all you had to do was say yes. But the rules of board recruitment have changed in the last five years. It’s a much more competitive market. Whether you are looking to land your first board position, or looking for another board to add to your portfolio, here are a few trends we’re seeing and some tips on how to increase your chance of success:
- Sitting on several boards is no longer an asset. We are finding that some boards will no longer consider candidates for a role if they are already sitting on more than four demanding boards. In the past, it was not uncommon to see directors sitting on up to seven boards at a time. In addition, the number of outside directorships that CEOs are permitted to hold has also declined. This means that while there are more opportunities to find a board seat, candidates face more stringent requirements.
- More candidates mean more competition. On a typical day, my partners and I receive several calls from people who want to be appointed to boards. The tide of aging baby boomers is swelling the numbers of those who want to transition from a formal career to an avocation of board service. Also, there has been a gradual elimination of the “retirement age” that was prevalent in many boards. Without a retirement age limit, the size of the pool of candidates is effectively increased.
- Getting a board seat is like interviewing for a job. The days of being the only candidate considered for a board role are over. Today it is not uncommon for candidates to be asked to show why they are the best candidate for the role, and how they fit the board’s needs.
- Director searches have become highly focused. Rarely are we asked by a board to simply find a candidate who has “good governance capability.” This attribute is a given when recruiting for board positions today. Organizations are looking for more specific capabilities that will complement their existing board expertise, such as specific sector experience, functional expertise, committee leadership experience, gender or ethnic diversity, or all of the above.
What boards look for in candidates
Given these trends, you might be thinking, “What are my chances of securing a new board position, especially one with monetary compensation?” The answer depends on several factors. You are more likely to find a board position if:
- You are already a director of at least one, and preferably more than one, private-sector board;
- You are already a director of a large, well-known company;
- You have a well established business network that could bring strategic value to a company;
- You are the CEO, or possibly the CFO, of a large company; a prominent partner in a large law firm or investment banking firm; or a retired prominent partner of a large accounting firm;
- You have senior-level executive experience that could help a company facing a specific strategic challenge, such as expanding into new markets, listing on other exchanges or assessing the impact of technology on the business;
- You are retired and perceived as having the time to devote to a board – but only recently retired, so that your experience is still considered relevant.
How to increase your chances of being selected
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t meet most of the criteria I’ve listed. There are many ways that aspiring board members can better position themselves for success. Here are a few suggestions:
- Accept director appointments with non-profit or public-sector boards: This will give you the valuable experience that boards look for in candidates, and connect you with colleagues who serve on other boards.
- Develop a unique capability that stands out: Think about what you could add to your profile that would give you an edge over other candidates. For instance, could you become an authority on audit committee best practices, or on the evolving role of risk management in governance?
- Ensure the top executive search firms have your current resumé: Boards often engage search firms to help fill vacancies. Being known to the search firms could help.
- Enhance your directorship education: While this is not the only criterion boards look for in candidates, a recognized qualification demonstrates initiative and shows you understand the skills and concepts that are essential to good governance.
- Look for advisory-board positions in privately owned businesses: Owner-managed companies are increasingly using advisory boards to enhance their knowledge. This can provide great experience that will be relevant to other boards.
- Get the word out: Let your colleagues know of your interest in board service, and don’t be afraid to promote yourself. Recently we learned of an individual who was asked to join a board by an acquaintance he met while attending a directors’ education program.
- Build great references: Chances are that your references will be checked if you are being considered for a board position. If you are already serving on at least one board, you must be seen as a stellar performer by your board colleagues, and particularly by your chair. Organizations want to be reassured that they are appointing top people to their boards.
Above all, be persistent. If getting on a board is really important to you, be prepared to work for it.
Ron Robertson is a managing partner in the Ottawa office of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. He is chair of the firm’s Board Recruiting practice. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Director Journal, a publication of the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD). Permission has been granted by the ICD to use this article for non-commercial purposes including research, educational materials and online resources. Other uses, such as selling or licensing copies, are prohibited.