How do you create a portfolio career?

In practice this is achieved by leveraging your network and/or impressing a board search firm or whoever is sifting your application. So to make progress towards getting a NED it is helpful to do two things:

  • Use your network to publicise your plans and what you are hoping to achieve
  • Let the board search firms and platforms know your plans and what you are hoping to achieve

Vital to these steps is your CV. This needs to be as effective as possible and written from a board perspective. At a basic level, it will not be a deals list if you are a lawyer. It will not have the boards you have sat on added as an afterthought at the end of your executive CV which you have been using for the last 20 years. It will not sell you; the selling should be inherent in your experience (selling is a cultural disaster in the board world). What it should do is flag up the skillsets you offer which are important and useful to a board – remuneration experience, for instance, or experience on an audit committee, main board or subsidiary board. It will be clear. It will, hopefully, set out your experience, including dates and role titles, in descending order.

Your board CV is your passport to get you where you want to go, just as a passport gets you into the country you want to visit. You need to remember that often the CV is all that the headhunter, the HR Director or board member first sees of you. There are many applicants and the process is competitive. If your CV does not show you to your best advantage (or, as is so often the case actively does you a disservice) you are significantly undermining your chances. Poor photographs, quirky quotes, lack of detail showing that you have worked at real scale, confused formatting, difficult-to-follow content, failure to highlight the skills of interest to boards and the flagging of those which are not, diminish your chances. I worked with a client who tremendously increased her marketability by changing her CV to focus on her work digitising large old-world organisations, rather than leading them. Digital has been a board buzz word for the last five years.

I was told an anecdote the other day by a senior businessman. He was retiring, and went to see the founding partner of my former board search firm. “See 20 CEOs,” was the founding partner’s laconic advice. “I don’t know 20 CEOs!” the businessman exclaimed. “See 20 CEOs,” the founding partner repeated impatiently, “and come back when you have.” The businessman did know 20 CEOs, it turned out, and all were willing to see him. One meeting then paved the way to various others. It is this kind of process which can lead to non-executive offers to join a board.

If you are lucky, of course, you may be saying to yourself. True, not everyone has that calibre of network, but many are still “board ready” – with a relevant skillset and background to contribute to a board. What do you do in that case? You plug yourself into the board ecosystem so that you are known to those who are searching for candidates. You ready your board CV (with professional help if necessary; it is a complex process to create a really strong CV) and make sure the board headhunting firms and platforms – such as this one – have it, with a summary of the kind of roles you are seeking.

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You may say that you don’t know who the headhunters are. It is undoubtedly an opaque industry. Executive Grapevine can be helpful in identifying these. Your aim should then be to get in front of the headhunters, either a partner or consultant, both are useful. Easier said than done, I know. But the headhunters are motivated to identify new talent as well as execute client work. And there are plenty of areas where it is still hard to identify good candidates – female audit chairs, for instance, or those who have run money, or who combine general management and HR experience. All of this is predicated on an ability to contribute to a board (you are, after all, sitting above the CEO). This is a function of both content and style. You not only need to be sufficiently senior and with appropriate experience, you need to be able to contribute in the right way to a board. This is the area which often trips up retiring CEOs. They have not made the transition from “executive” to “non-executive” and come across as too hands on and into the detail. For many it takes years to make the adjustment. One former FTSE100 CEO who I worked with as he came out made a good impression when questioned on this. “My CEO role was more akin to a chair role,” was his comment. “By the end I had stepped back from day to day management.” This was entirely plausible as his company was both global and decentralised.

Style is central to success as a NED. You are now undertaking a people career and emotional intelligence is almost imperative. You need to get and keep the gatekeepers, the recruiters and interviewers, on side. That means being charming, responsive, accommodating and friendly. It is crucial not to be on transmit (the most common way people eliminate themselves) and to not take control. Do not run the interview or meeting. Do be honest, but not to a fault. Remember the needs of others. If a headhunter is running you in a process, remember that their reputation and success now partly depends on you. If you drop out unexpectedly at the last minute they will be the one who pays the price. They will be much less willing to run you a second time. And don’t talk too much. This is the second biggest fault of candidates of both genders. Chairman have complained to me: “I asked one question and s/he spoke for the next 20 minutes!” One senior candidate I worked with spent half an hour answering a chairman’s first question. She didn’t let him get a word in edgeways. It meant that he didn’t have time to gather the information he needed about her and it also made him question whether she would be problematic on his board. In all, he managed to ask her two questions in the hour they had together.

When you get to interview stage with a chairman there are three basic mistakes people make:

  • 1. Underprepare. Nothing is more off-putting. “He just didn’t seem to know anything about us,” the chairman will say, looking irritated and/or perplexed. Do your homework; it will pay dividends. Do as much as possible and then wear it lightly.
  • 2. Not be keen. It really helps to be genuinely enthusiastic about the business – these people have put a lot of their own energy into growing it, after all. You can be honest that you are looking at other opportunities alongside, and that you can’t do them all, but you have to demonstrate interest and passion. One chairman I helped to place essentially began running the business before he landed the role. While this approach has its dangers, it certainly convinced that board that he was the candidate to solve their problems. Some of the best candidates will have used the business already – if, say, it is a hotel business they will have stayed in the hotels, if it is a clothing business they will already wear the clothes by choice, if it is a utility they will be a customer. In all cases they will have a view on the service and some kind of affinity with the product. And if they haven’t done or been those things, they will make sure they do the requisite “mystery shopping” before their meeting.
  • 3. The final mistake, of course, is the opposite – to try too hard. Don’t try to convince anyone to take you. An interview at this level is a meeting of equals. You are sounding each other out. You both have weight. If you are selling, you shouldn’t be in the room.

Finding a NED role is rather like dating. Chemistry is vital. It takes time. It takes everyone time. Most people manage it if they have genuine skills to offer. But remember you are there to give, not to get: a board role is not there to help you earn into retirement or to advance your career – or certainly not in the mind of the chairman.

Marianne Macdonald is an expert in non-executive placement. She has significant experience in non-executive search from her time at The Zygos Partnership, the UK search leader in non-executive recruitment. As the founder of Non-Executive Directorships Consulting, she is now focused on helping senior individuals from all sectors and backgrounds gain a NED role or create, broaden or refresh a portfolio career.

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