Network smartly for clinching that board seat

You can tell lots of people that you are thinking of being on a board, but can only sell a handful on why you really belong

By Dr M Muneer & Ralph Ward

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Published: Mon 15 Jan 2024, 9:21 PM

For board wannabes everywhere, not just in the GCC, our one piece of advice is universally applicable – network more. Despite an increase in the number of board searches handled by executive search firms, the great majority of board offers still result from personal who-knows-who contacts.

While board seekers are doubtless aware of this tactic, they still often mishandle a crucial aspect – how is board networking different from the rest of your standard, everyday business, career and personal networking?

Our interactions with several veterans on the whole matter of networking as part of board-entry strategy threw up solid no-nonsense insights on what works when socialising your way into a board opportunity.

Smart networking for a board role starts with a plan. People say, “Just network” and they call up good people, but often have no plan of what to say. The result is unpreparedness, vague inquiries, and a first impression that you have no idea how boards work, and what is sought in members.

This uncertainty often expresses itself in the board wannabe’s first mention of board interest. While you have enough networking savvy to not lead with “can you help me get on a board,” too much uncertainty is really bad. If your pitch is something like “I am looking at getting a seat on a board of directors... what do you think?” or “what advice do you have for me?” you have sent the board insider you’re talking with all the wrong messages. This tells the contact that you really don’t understand your potential board role, and aren’t ready for one yet.

A better approach would be this: Closely inventory your board strengths, target companies that are ideal and contacts who connect with that profile, and then launch your networking. Start with the end in mind and how you should set up yourself for success. Before starting the networking, spend time deciding on which kinds of boards you would like to join.

You need to prepare your board narrative, and it must advertise you as both confident and competent for the boardroom. You want to show up already board ready, and able to tell your value proposition to the board. For example, with a private company, you need to detail your work experience, private firm boardroom knowledge. Ditto for family owned companies. Share your board aspiration widely in your networks since you never know where the opportunity can come from.

Another common failing board wannabes make in networking is selling their skills too broadly. If you target this board of this company (as you should), assume they would desire you for these particular skills – not all the wonderful vitae you’ve built up over a career. If you’ve done it right, the contact will come away with one, two or three things you can do best. Strong in M&A? If the company is big on acquisitions, make that your mojo. Audit? Compensation? New product launches? Turnarounds? Align your strength with what the company can best use in its unique boardroom – and make sure that’s the message your contact walks away with.

Ralph Ward
Ralph Ward

Assuming you have sent the right messages in your board-entry networking, assume the next step for the contact (or their contacts who may be recruiting) will be to further check you out. In our collective experience, board search winners have this well covered before ever making the initial outreach. You’ve prepared a solid board- and governance-focussed vitae that highlights your board skill specifics (not burying them under career titles and achievements). You have fine-tuned your LinkedIn and other social media profiles with boardability in mind. Media comments, opinion articles, interviews and news items are already out there pre-selling you.

A final board tip flips the script on networking. A popular rule is to set yourself a goal of X-number of network contacts per week for prospecting your board interest (indeed, we have given that advice to board wannabes in the past). But remember instead to put quality over quantity. You just can’t meet 10 people every week, so aim for one or two -- but make them targeted. You can tell lots of people that you are thinking of being on a board, but can only sell a handful on why you really belong.

There is a handy list of networking groups both for board members and wannabes with various associations in every country.

Dr M Muneer is a Fortune-500 advisor, startup investor and co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute for Innovation. Ralph Ward is global board advisor, coach and publisher. Twitter @MuneerMuh

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