Should I use board recruitment firms?

board recruitment firms

Regardless of where you are located, the more significant board appointments occur via board recruitment firms. In the USA, most paid independent board roles are filled by engaging the services of board recruitment firms or executive recruitment firms. If your ambitions include serving on a board, you need to consider where recruiters fit in your pursuit of becoming an independent board director.

My best advice – avoid board recruitment firms

Why do I say this? I used to work at one of the United Kingdom’s top executive and board recruitment firms. People would contact me regularly, hoping to book a time to introduce themselves, trying to get on my radar. When time permits, I would make time for those I felt could be helpful for current or future recruitment assignments.

You must remember that if you are lucky enough to be talking to a recruiter, so are many more equally or even more qualified than you. 

As a recruiter, I was speaking to hundreds of people just like you, hoping to get on an independent seat on a board. That is what my clients were paying me to do. Board recruitment firms are in the business of finding board candidates for paying clients. They are not in the business of finding a board seat for you.

So here lies my reasoning behind my advice to avoid the board recruitment firms:

    • It is estimated that only 10% of all board appointments are made via a recruiter (bare in mind that for some countries and paid roles, this may be higher)
    • Appointment via a recruiter is the most competitive of the four pathways to obtaining a board seat. The other three are: in response to an advertisement, directly approaching a board you want to sit on, and through a personal or professional connection.
    • Recruitment firms work for an outcome that is in their client’s best interests, not you.
    • A reputable recruiter’s role is to invest time and effort in extensively searching for potential candidates. But, they also take on the gatekeeper role, assigned to shortlist those candidates. An array of elements can influence their decision-making processes, including time constraints, commitment levels, personal preferences or biases, reputation, safe selections, and incentives.

My realistic advice – learn how to use recruitment firms effectively

The advice I have given so far is genuine, but it may not be practical for most of you. You will likely want or need to work with a board recruitment firm at some stage. You must know how to work effectively with them.

Understand the culture

Board recruitment firms and executive search firms have worked long and hard to gain the trust of their clients. At the end of the day, the client is paying for the recruiter’s recommendations and opinions, which is what they will provide. Financial stability for these companies is reached by winning future recruitment jobs and referrals from their clients. Reputation is everything. For you, that means that recruiters WILL NOT recommend, to their clients, anyone they do not have sufficient confidence in.

You must acknowledge that their reputation is critical. You will need to do all you can to derisk your candidature and build confidence that you are the person for the role. If they are confident that you are the best person for the role, then they will, in turn, have no trouble looking their client in the eye and saying so.

Board recruiters are people; they have opinions, professional and personal. The client trusts that they will provide their expert opinions. A confident recruiter will not hesitate to advise who their clients should appoint. At the very least most recruiters will guide their decision-making process and provide a shortlist. Those who make a shortlist are often the candidates who impress them the most and will not risk their reputation if recommended.

Work with reputable and suitable board recruitment firms

To make the best use of your time and chances of success, I suggest you select board recruitment firms that are a good fit for you. This involves research, online and in-person.

Step 1 – Compile a list

Compile a list of board recruitment firms operating in your location. Expand your search to include executive search firms that also engage in board recruitment. This research can be done online. Google searches are where you should start. 

LinkedIn is the subsequent tool for you to use. First, conduct some general searches such as “board recruitment firms in the United States”. Whilst performing this task, click to follow any company pages you see fit. Next, search on keywords such as “board recruiters the United States”. Pay particular attention to the People sublist. These results usually include individuals who work as recruiters. Some of these individuals, or their employers, should be added to your list. The last search you should perform on LinkedIn is a Jobs Search. Search for relevant board-related roles in your location. Many of these roles will have been listed by recruiters. Add any additional firms to your list.

The final resource to use when compiling your list is job boards or job aggregator websites. These sites will vary depending on where you are based; examples include Monster, Glass Door, and Zip Recruiter. Follow a similar process and keywords that worked for you during the LinkedIn job search. Again pay attention to the companies listing the roles.

As you compile your list, note the relevant URLs, LinkedIn company pages or other listing pages. There will be a source of reference when completing the next steps of your research.

Step 2 – Research fit

Now you have your list, you should research to determine which, if any, of these firms are best suited to your needs and the board roles you are chasing. Some board recruitment firms specialize in industries that may or may not be a good match for your skill set. Some may only recruit for voluntary or start-up organizations. If you don’t see a good fit, mark those firms off your list, or grade them appropriately. When considering fit, make sure you also consider what transferable skills you have to offer. You may miss out on opportunities if, for example, you limit yourself to one industry.

You can perform this research online by reviewing the company’s website, LinkedIn profile, clients, and past recruitment assignments. You should also consider reaching out in person by phone, email or LinkedIn to find out more.

Step 3 – Research reputation

Not all recruitment firms are equal. If you have arrived at this step and your list is still extensive, the next step is to focus on the reputation of those firms and their recruiters. Investigate the company’s social media pages for comments and reviews. Scrutinize the individual recruiter’s LinkedIn profiles focusing on activity and recommendations. Again if you see any issues, mark them off your list, or grade them appropriately. 

Have a competitive board pitch and board CV

When working with board recruitment firms, I can not stress enough your board pitch and board CV are critical. You have approximately 7 seconds to make an impression and potentially make a highly competitive shortlist. Your board CV and pitch must separate you from your competitors and provide the recruiter with the assurance that you can do the job.

Nurture, but don’t annoy

Most board search firms will have a database of potential candidates where they commence their search. You need to get your details and board CV on the databases of those firms on your list. In some cases, you may be able to do this via their website. Alternatively, you may need to contact a recruiter by email, phone or LinkedIn before you are accepted. A personal approach may be the best avenue if you want to be memorable. Once you have established a relationship, don’t let it go stale. Keep in regular contact, but not to the level where you become an annoyance to them. Remain genuine and not needy. If you get the chance to have a 1:1 conversation with them, make sure you are well prepared. Know what you have to offer to a board and what types of roles you are looking for.

There is an alternative 

There is an alternative to using board search firms and one far less competitive. Up to 80% of board appointments are made via non-formal routes. I will show you exactly how to tap into these hidden board vacancies and even generate opportunities for yourself during my “How to unlock board opportunities Masterclass”. It is accessible to clients of my Board Appointment Coaching Program PLUS.

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Appointments. He has over a decade of experience in putting people on boards as an international headhunter and recruiter. He has interviewed hundreds of directors and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP director roles in the world.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *