Increase your chances of a NED or chair role

21 September 2021 By Victoria Tomlinson

Increase your chances of a NED or chair role image

Well what an experience! Earlier this month we sent out our enewsletter and mentioned we are helping a manufacturing company to find a chairman.

The response was – surprising. Senior people saying they were interested, people we know forwarding the email to colleagues or former colleagues. But the quality of the way that people contacted me was ….. let’s say, basic.

I have worked with numerous headhunters over the years and heard their feedback about senior people moving into the non-executive director market. It was still a shock to see it in action.

So let me give you the background, how people responded and what wasn’t helpful about this – and some tips for how to stand out and possibly win those roles.

I know this wasn’t a classic recruitment process and I am not a headhunter, but I suspect a lot of what I saw will be indicative of how people generally approach this market. The comments are not meant to be harsh but just say it like it is.

The background

Early in March I was asked if I could help a manufacturing business in Yorkshire to find a chair. I made it clear to them – and to others – that we are not headhunters. However, we have a significant network that they wanted to tap into.

For the first time, I decided to charge a nominal fee to see what happened and if there could be a service in here to help our Next-Up market. I spoke to the ceo in March, discussed the brief and agreed the project – we would trawl our network and put forward a long list of 15 names and shortlist of five. These would be people we knew and rated and knew they were interested in further roles.

I sent an email confirming this straight away – then silence. I mention this because the speed of making appointments is usually far longer than anyone can imagine. Or want.

Then early August the client came back and said, yes they would like to go ahead. I submitted the names within a week. A week later they replied and said they knew two of these and had rejected them for various reasons. Could I give them two more names – and could these only be with manufacturing experience. That wasn’t part of the agreement but of course we did a further trawl.

That was mid-August. We still hadn’t heard back by early September when we were sending out our ezine, so I added a line in this newsletter to say, ‘contact us if you have chair experience in manufacturing and would like your name to go forward’.

The response

We have had nearly 20 responses and they are still coming in

  • Several emails on the lines of ‘I’ve worked in manufacturing for 20 years and would like to be considered’. No CV attached, no examples in the email
  • Several emails with a CV attached – but the CV was all about them being a ceo, managing director or operational executive. There was no mention of any non-executive experience, let alone chair
  • Others gave a link to their LinkedIn profile – which had no mention of NED/chair experience
  • One came back and highlighted their NED and manufacturing chair experience – but attached a CV which made no mention of this!
  • We had one email with a pretty reasonable CV and – hooray – it mentioned board experience. However, it was not a ‘non-executive CV’ – and was four pages
  • Another sent an email ‘Would you give me a call to discuss opportunities. Just to confirm I am based in Yorkshire – but not averse to a bit of travel for the right opportunities!’. But no CV. When requested, the CV document name was called ‘XYZ – exec CV’. When opened, there was a sub-heading of ‘Non-executive director’ with a broad summary of the person – and, while mentioning non-executive in several places, nowhere could I find any NED experience

The headhunter’s response

So what was wrong with these? For this blog I am going to put a headhunter’s hat on and include points made by the likes of Kit Bingham, now at Heidrick & Struggles; Sven Peterson from Egon Zehnder who has spoken at a number of our workshops for professionals; Oliver Cummings of Nurole; working with my client Directorbank for a decade and Nimble Thompson who as chair of a number of boards, has recruited a lot of non-executive directors.

  • The biggest lesson for those starting out in the NED market is that the headhunter is not there to help you, the potential non-executive director, find a role. They are focused on their paymaster, the business doing the hiring. Don’t expect headhunters to be your friend or interested in you. If you are applying for a role, you will have to catch their attention in the first 30 seconds – or more likely, five
  • The CV is still the basic tool and starting point for any role
  • No headhunter will ever click through to a LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is useful as a tool when they are doing the original search – which is why you should think about keywords in your profile. But it is the researcher trawling the market who will look at this to put together their long list
  • For non-executive roles, you need a non-executive CV. This is completely different from the traditional CV that you did when leaving university or applying for executive roles. The key word is ‘non’ in non-executive director
  • As most headhunters put it – as tactfully as they can – the challenge for people going for NED roles is that they have been the top gun for some time. Now you are at the bottom again. You have to sell yourself. Think about making an impact in that first five seconds. Everything has to be tailored – you can’t expect the headhunter to work out which bit of your CV is relevant. You have to do the work so they don’t have to

Tips to give you the best chance of a chair role

  • Start with writing a non-executive CV. That means
    • Two pages only
    • The first sentence needs to sum you up and explain what you bring to the party. “Recognised leader in manufacturing, as executive and non-executive chair, particularly skilled at transforming traditional businesses into high performing ….whatever”
    • The first page should have your non-executive experience and highlight dealing with non-executive issues such as strategy, risk, governance, fighting off a hostile takeover, raising finance for growth, entering new markets and more
    • Non-exec experience can include things like governor of a school or a charity trustee – highlighting examples of issues and achievements. For non-exec roles, these seemingly humble roles can in fact be more important than exec experience
    • The second page should cover executive experience, awards, speaking experience, key qualifications
    • Don’t just do a long list of job titles and dates but translate the experience into what is needed for NED roles. At this stage of life, no-one expects lists of roles – especially not things like ‘admin supervisor’ from earlier in your career. Wrap them all into a narrative
    • Tailor, tailor, tailor to the role. I purposely phrased the example above with the keywords that have been mentioned, as in ‘chair for a manufacturing company’. Replay that language right up front. If you don’t have it or can’t do it – should you be applying?

There are plenty of organisations that can help you write this CV, including Next-Up

  • Tailor your CV to the role (we hadn’t shared the brief so this wasn’t possible in the above example)
  • Treat every opportunity as a chance to sell yourself. Your first email should say why you are interested, give a few bullet points of relevant experience and attach your CV
  • Make the process as helpful and simple for the recipient as possible – don’t expect them to wade through your CV to find the relevant bits or click through to LinkedIn or other places
  • Think hard about the non-executive experience that you have – this is often the hardest part until you land your first proper role. There is a lot of chicken and egg about this
  • If you really have none, it may be helpful to look for roles with charities or smaller businesses to gain some. Another route is to mentor businesses. Those appointing are particularly looking for experience in influencing around the board table, when you don’t have executive authority
  • Talk to people you know who are chairs and non-executives and ask them how they recruit NEDs, what they look for, what experience you could build and so on

Every company is different, every headhunter different – and every role. There is no absolute template and there are always exceptions to every rule.

However, these tips should help you at least to be rated and remembered. The CV may sound odd – but numerous people whom we have helped have checked it out with headhunters; who say yes, that is how to lay out their experience. Headhunters are looking at dozens, if not hundreds, of CVs – they make decisions about people in seconds. You have to work hard to capture their attention quickly. It’s a tough and competitive market.

I hope this gives you a few insights and tips to improve your chances. Oh, and the manufacturing company has still not got back to me – it is now over six months from the first contact. This is not necessarily a quick process.

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Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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