An Independent Board Director: 6 tips to get started

independent Director Career

Having helped thousands of people worldwide launch careers as independent board directors, I know that those directors who start the process early achieve the best long-term results. Once you begin the process, you must be persistent and committed to regularly chipping away at your goals. An independent director position is not something that will just be handed to you, nor should it be. Like most things, you need to work hard to achieve your goals.

Here are 6 key tips that you should put into action now to help you get appointed as an independent or outside director:

    • Tell people
    • Understand and be clear about what you have to offer
    • Manage your expectations
    • Get to know board recruiters
    • Build the right connections
    • Have a board CV and cover letter ready

#1 Tell people you want to be an independent director

This has to be one of the most straightforward but compelling advice I give – tell people you are looking for an independent director role. If people don’t know, they can not help or introduce you to those who can. You never know who they may have in their personal and professional networks that can provide advice or open doors. A word of warning, be prepared to be asked, “What type of board positions are you looking for?”

#2 Understand and be able to articulate what you have to offer a board 

Understanding what it is that you offer a board is essential. You should know and practice your ‘board elevator pitch’. Boards must produce results for their stakeholders, so you need to be able to articulate that you can produce results at the board level. Define your corporate successes and achievements, plus the experience you bring. More and more boards and chairs are also interested in gaining access to your networks developed throughout your executive career. 

Additionally, boards are just as interested in your passion for their organization. Make sure you know why you want to apply. It may be worth reconsidering your application if you can’t think of why you want to be an independent director for that organization.

#3 Manage your board career expectations

Many aspiring directors expect their first board role to be a remunerated one. As I am sure you know, these board roles are highly sought after, and the application process is highly competitive. Without demonstrable experience at the board level, gaining this type of role can be very challenging. Instead, consider applying for unpaid board positions in Not for Profit or smaller organizations. These roles can be a terrific launch pad for future more significant or paid directorships.

Alternatively, consider volunteering for an organization you are passionate about – your local sporting association or a charity you support. Not only will you be contributing to your community, but it will also demonstrate your passion for governance and your willingness to give your time. Many established directors describe their small or unpaid directorships as the most enjoyable part of their board portfolio career.

#4 Get to know board recruiters

Executive recruiters, board recruiters and headhunters are a great source of information and often have access to opportunities that you might not know about or are never advertised. Working effectively with them is critical. You should maintain frequent, but not annoying, relationships with these firms and their consultants. You want to remain at the forefront of their minds should an appropriate board vacancy become available.

Whether you want to deal with recruiters or recruitment platforms, you will inevitably have to at some point. A specialist recruiter will handle the most significant independent director positions. In many countries, candidates need to be listed on recruitment or job-matching platforms to access independent director opportunities.

#5 Build the right connection

In many cases, the appointment process for independent board or advisory panel roles is not dissimilar to that of any other appointment process. Many find that opportunities are often not advertised, being filled via word of mouth or existing relationships. Therefore, developing connections with the right people is vital and should form the basis of any board search process.

Generally, I advise my clients that 30% of their time should be spent developing and maintaining these connections. Numerous ways and tools can help:

    • LinkedIn is the perfect tool to find, make and maintain connections. Ensure that your LinkedIn profile is current and reflects your board aspirations.
    • Maintain relationships with colleagues (past or present). Drop them an Email or Inmail (LinkedIn). Don’t forget advice #1 – tell them you want to become an independent board director.
    • Make mutually beneficial introductions between your connections.
    • Write articles or blog posts if you are an expert in your field.
    • Present at conferences or attend conferences and training events.
    • Join relevant online groups or communities.

#6 Have your Board CV and Board Cover Letter ready

Many people assume that their executive CV is appropriate for board applications. In most cases, it is not. In a highly competitive process, not submitting a Board CV is enough to get your application culled in round one.

There are several items that you should include in your Board CV:

    • Board profile – a statement reflects your board-level success, networks and governance experience
    • Board-level experience – including board, committee and advisory panel experience
    • Executive experience – include some demonstrable evidence of success
    • Qualification & professional membership –  include any Governance qualifications you have completed
    • Referees – the names of at least two referees

Every board application should be supported by a board cover letter. This document is essential to separate yourself from the other applicants. A strong cover letter should:

    • Address the selection criteria stipulated in the advertisement
    • Outline what you would bring to the role (governance experience, skills & networks)
    • Articulate your passion for the independent board director role and the organization

Having written hundreds of board CVs and cover letters, I know how to write documents that get you past the gatekeepers and shortlisted for an outside director role. I do the same for all my PLUS Members.

Related Articles

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Board Networking: Strong ties Vs weak ties

How to write a powerful Board Profile

How to use LinkedIn to get on a Board

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.

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