Top Tips on Becoming a Non-Executive Director

Some invaluable advice from Tracey Bleakley, Chief Executive of the Association of Police and Crime
Commissioners, a non-executive director of the Insolvency Service, a trustee of the Money Advice Trust (which runs National Debtline and Business Debtline) and a member of BBC Charity Advisory Committee.

Applying for your first non-executive role can be a minefield and it’s so easy to become discouraged. I know so many dynamic, brilliant women who have tried and given up applying for board roles or public appointments because they have been rejected one or more times and believe they are not good enough. This is almost certainly not true. I’ve seen all sides of the process, having been rejected for several roles, been successful in securing a number of roles, and having become involved in recruiting NEDs, Chairs and public appointments. Here’s the insider view on what really goes on in the sifting process and how to make sure you stand out and secure that role. If you are applying for non-executive director roles:

  • Write a tailored application letter saying why you would love to take on the role, what you would bring to the board, what you would hope to achieve and how you fit the criteria. Also spend time updating your CV to bring out the key areas that are appropriate to the role. It’s amazing how few highly experienced directors do this and how many submissions are clearly recycled and used to apply for multiple roles. A tailored application will stand out and significantly increase your chances of securing an interview.
  • Add a short section about your personal qualities as well as your skills and experience. This brings colour to an application and allows sifters to assess how you would fit into the board and affect the dynamic. Really think about the key descriptors you would use (asking colleagues and friends how they would describe you) and evidence the qualities you want to describe. Again, this will make your application really stand out.
  • Don’t wait until you can perfectly evidence every aspect of the qualifying criteria. Desirable qualities are exactly that, so don’t worry if you don’t have these skills. With essential qualities, write down what you can bring to the role. Don’t embellish, but do set out your experience and why it is relevant. For example, if an advertisement asks for previous board experience and you have been a school governor, have run a local charity group, or been a parish councillor then say so and explain why you feel this is relevant and fits the criteria.
  • Do describe your additional qualities that you bring that you feel would make you a better NED on this particular board (even if the job description doesn’t ask for them). These may give you an edge over other candidates.
  • Follow the rules. If the application asks for a certain number of documents at a certain maximum length, stick to that. If the application asks for key criteria to be addressed, then make sure you have covered each area (even if it is to offer alternative experience or skills). The assessors will be scoring your application against the job specification and applications that miss out key criteria or don’t follow the rules are likely to be rejected at the first sift.
  • Some roles attract hundreds of candidates, some very few. The more specialist or ‘unfashionable’ a role or board, the more likely you are to be in a short long-list (assuming you have the right skills). A generalist role on a high profile board will be more competitive and will be more likely to prioritise candidates with lots of board experience. This isn’t to say don’t apply (you may have exactly the right mix of skills), but be realistic about your chances of securing a role on a well-known board in the early days of your NED career and don’t be put off if you are rejected.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed at first – it may take many applications before you are successful. This isn’t because you aren’t a strong candidate or aren’t ‘good enough’. Boards are often looking for a very specific set of skills and experiences and don’t always set this out clearly in the application pack. The same board might be looking for very different NEDs each time they advertise the role.
  • Always ask for feedback. If you can improve your application each time then make use of every learning opportunity possible to do so. If the feedback is that there were simply a high number of strong candidates matched the key criteria, then believe it – it will be true. If you keep trying, you are likely to end up succeeding. If you don’t keep trying, you definitely won’t!

Of course, there are always positive things boards can do when recruiting new NEDs to make sure new and emerging talent is nurtured through the early days of the application process. Building confidence and inspiring a sense of transparency and fairness amongst new candidates is critical. Here are a few ideas for those recruiting non-executive directors:

  • Do you really want an experienced non-executive director or do you need someone who has the skills and experience to be a non-executive director? Subtly changing the wording will encourage new talent into the application process. If you want to bring fresh ideas into your board, if you are looking to increase diversity and maintain relevance then looking at the same pool of existing NEDs is likely to limit your options.
  • Review your board skills matrix before recruiting new NEDs so you can give as much information as possible in the advertisement. If you need specific skills, knowledge or experience to plug gaps or replace retiring directors then saying so increases your chances of finding the right candidate. It will also encourage fresh talent to apply if they have the niche skills you are looking for.
  • If you come across a CV that isn’t right for you but is clearly a good fit for another board then ask if you can pass the CV across and take the time to do so. Ditto for candidates at interview. Not only will this help new talent to progress, but it helps boards find and attract the right candidates for high performing roles and the whole economy benefits. If you do this as a favour for others it is likely that others will do the same for you, and you may find a real gem.
  • Take the time to give clear, constructive and useful feedback, especially where a candidate can improve their application or interview style next time. Just as importantly – if an unsuccessful candidate was particularly good in certain aspects or if you warmed to them or thought they had some very strong personal characteristics then say so. Not only will this build confidence and make the candidate more likely to apply for future roles, it’s also really helpful to know what not to change as well as what aspects to develop and work on.

Tracey Bleakley |Chief Executive |The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners