Selling yourself to a Board
By Frances Denz
What’s your USP (unique selling point)?
Gaining a board position is a marketing exercise that matches your USP with the perceived need of existing boards. As I’ll discuss, your USP is a blend of your skills, experience, personal brand, contacts and more.
It’s a Man’s World
We have to understand that this is still a male industry with male systems and processes. While we might not like the current model, we have to work within it if we want a job. We can change the model when we are successful and have the clout and power to so do. But we have to be there in the first place if we are to subvert the process later.
To be desirable, look at the qualities that boards think they want.
Existing boards have developed nomination systems over many years that are based on historic needs, not necessarily future requirements. These are systems the “old boys” are accustomed to. We need to understand their way of thinking if we want to sit at their table – we can make it our table later.
The current requirements Boards think they want in a new director are someone who is/has:
- A CEO or CFO of a listed company. This is the first gate to get through. It is the ticket to ride. Without this you have to look at the different USPs you have and make them stronger
- Technical expertise relevant to their industry
- Provable governance knowledge and experience – formal courses and/or experience on quality boards. Note the word provable; it is subtly different from proven
- A lawyer or accountant with relevant specialties
- Recommended by one of their mates.
Your Brand is Key
Your brand must ring true and be reflected in everything you do. People smell dissonance and will instinctively distrust you if you do not consistently reflect your brand.
Your style has to fit the mould of the organisations you are interested in. Being noisy, loud and colourful will count against you in a suited world, however much you think they need your energy and passion Similarly being boring, suited and “old” will count against you in a fast moving, innovative energetic business.
When developing your brand think about how, where and when you want to be seen. Visual impressions count. Obviously the style of clothes you wear matters. Smart formal suits are the norm. I know it is boring but it can be done with distinction. A good clothing advisor who understands the market you are aiming for is helpful. A smart hair do is essential. And if you are going grey – don’t! It is OK for men to look distinguished, but women are seen as old. Equally we do not want to look too sexy -the studio couch thing doesn’t work. Looking great helps, but overdone can hinder. Think Winkelmann rather than Cooper. Elegant, not fussy.
Get a professional photo with the look you want to promote. It needs to be everywhere! Make sure the newspapers have a copy and post it online. Try to avoid photographs of you with a wine glass in your hand. We all know of the dangers of Facebook, but just as bad are the semi formal snaps of you taken at functions. You look great and are in the right company but do you want the world to think that you cannot live without that wine glass? Put it down when there is a photographer around.
The tone and design of your correspondence is also part of your brand. What sort of paper do you have in your printer, what font do you use, and what is your natural literacy style and how can you adapt it to the market you want to appeal to?
Your Choice of Industry to Specialise in Must Fit Your Brand
Consider which industry/s you want to specialise in. Study the boards in that industry. What are their strengths and weaknesses, what do they think they want on the board, and what do you know they need? Who are the key players, how are they elected, and when? What are their skills and how you can add value?
Study their previous three years annual reports. What do their accounts show and where are the problems? How would your expertise reduce their risks? Google the business and find out what the public are saying about it, and how can you use that feedback in your application.
Understanding financials is critical to getting board appointments and doing the due diligence outlined above. If you don’t understand them, start learning now.
And don’t be tempted to only go for the “soft” boards in the areas of health, welfare etc. That continually reinforces our place in the world as perceived by many men, and is lower paid!
Get technical expertise in something esoteric: that will narrow the competition considerably and give you a very different USP. For example, if you know more than anyone else about building electricity lines across rugged hill country, plus governance skills, you could interest a Lines company. Writing the book on taking a Telco from copper to satellite might get you a job with an innovative Telecommunications industry.
And as companies are going to have to explain what they are doing in the name of diversity, they may be interested in solving two problems – technical and diversity – with one person and get more brownie points.
You need at least two mentors, and be prepared to change them as time goes on. Why two? You need a woman with whom you can safely share the difficulties that you may have, and she can provide support and care to get you through any stressful encounters.
You also need a male mentor who will tell you how to get your message across to the male market. He will provide a stern critique which can be invaluable in learning how to say things and what to do in challenging environments. And usually men have much better networks to introduce you to. You need new networks, not a variation of your old one. Your mentor will not only advise you. If you are good enough, they should promote you to their networks and friends.
Network with board members, the CEO and CFO. Horrors of horrors, you may have to play golf!
Changing the Guard
It has been noticeable in the last couple of years how the SOEs are no longer an entry point for women who lack technical expertise. Under the Labour Government there was an underlying unexpressed quota. Labour women were getting appointments which were excellent as a starting point. If they did well they might get more good appointments. Do badly and there seemed to be no penalty. Now COMU, who appoint the Boards, with sign off from the Cabinet, are looking for much higher qualifications from Board members. It is no longer a soft posting with career opportunities. We are again competing with the big boys on a level playing field.
Boards are becoming more and more professional as directors go to jail for not knowing their job, or for straight out dishonesty. This means there is a changing of the guard, which means there are opportunities.
How are you going to demonstrate your professionalism? What is your training plan?
Take your Time You have time; the career of a quality company director takes years to build. Treat the next years as you would time in University. It is your apprenticeship. It takes time, commitment, learning and passion.
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