Applying for director positions is a competitive process – so how can you get an edge in a crowded market?

    Rene Johnson, Managing Director of recruitment agency Pacific Search Partners, urges directors to sharpen their CVs by keeping them short, highlighting past senior leadership and committee roles and demonstrating an ability to ask the right questions.

    They must also show they understand good governance by studying the right courses, keeping up with legislative change and being attuned to community attitudes. “Employers look for the right experience,” says Johnson. “So they're looking for people who have held senior leadership roles, like CEOs, CFOs, General Counsels, because these roles equip a director to ask the insightful questions.”

    1. Short and sharp

    A director CV is short. A normal executive CV might be seven or eight pages -- but board director CVs typically are around about two pages, three tops. On page one, boards or chairs like to get a quick snapshot of current and previous boards for applicants.

    If applicants don’t have board experience, they can pitch themselves by going back through their careers and think of all the committees they have sat on for work. And even school fundraising committees, or those which may parallel experiences they would have on a board.

    In terms of presentation, a written CV is fine - I am not seeing any real trend yet to video CVs. Lots of chairs still look at hard copy rather than online. But it’s in transition. As the years go on, younger directors that are pushing through are all more tech-enabled and will be reading stuff online. So it is a good idea to add hyperlinks on your CV to companies you worked at, or hyperlinks to your LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media handles.

    2. Director qualities

    Understanding good governance and keeping up with the latest information is something employers do look for. I always look for those who have done the AICD courses as fellows or graduates. And when we advertise, our clients (employers) seem to ask for the same thing. We might get 50 or 60 responses and our clients default to those who keep up to date with good governance and corporations law, and all the other responsibilities.

    Directors need to have good judgement and values. Not just good professional and commercial values, but values that are attuned to the community. Possibly due to the royal commissions, I really see that coming through strongly now when I'm getting briefed. Currently I have some chairs, in our briefing conversations, who are looking for people that actually understand where their company fits into the world.

    Generally, one of the skillsets of directors is to be curious. So directors who can smell the smoke are likely to be the ones who are going to ask the questions that are going to get the interesting responses.

    3. Adding value in the boardroom

    I like to see value-adding mentioned in a cover letter, because I think it focuses the mind of the writer to address a couple of the selection criteria. If they write a cover letter, I think it's good to see that somebody has read the selection criteria and has thought as to how they can add value here and there. It does not have to be a 30-page document but just one page highlighting a couple of things.

    4. How challenges have been overcome

    One question I often ask is around what they have learned in their board careers. So if they have say, a 15-year board career, I'll often say: "So, 15 years ago you were a new director. Now you are who you are now. What's happened in the meantime that makes you a much better director than you were when you started? I also like to ask about the hard times they may have been through, the difficult, challenging boards they may have been on. And ask what were the issues? How did you guys deal with that? How did you deal with it personally? They can provide a short summary on their CVs on this point to start with.

    5. Financial literacy

    Something I do see is that boards like to know that applicants have some numeracy, some financial literacy. Boards will usually be populated with people that have more than an average skillset in finance, but the expectation is most will have some form of comfort when looking at a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement. And understand what the CFO's talking about around cash flows and budgets. Boards have for a long time been full of lawyers and accountants. That's changing, and rightly so. It's becoming much more blended now. But I think certainly from the briefs I get, financial literacy and numeracy are still part of key selection considerations.

    6. Start directorships as an executive

    It's a much easier transition into a non-executive career if you start with your directorships as an executive, rather than leaving it till you finish your career as a senior executive and then say, ‘Right, I'm going to get on boards now.’

    Even just one board position on a non-for-profit will get you in the frame and start making you think as part of a collective. It takes you away from being the functional person to more of the overseer, the questioner, the tester, the advisor - that sort of governance role as opposed to a functional role.

    I see a lot of directors starting off with not-for-profit boards and then moving into other types of boards and building up slowly and gradually and when they've finished their executive career it's a much easier transition into a non-executive career.

    7. Send your CV to a search consultant

    Many board positions are not advertised – it’s about 50/50. Government boards are and most member associations, but not others. So it is wise to build a relationship with a search consultant. Often I get briefs that are not going to be advertised. So it's my responsibility as a search person to know who's out in the market place. I'm happy to meet people just on spec. And from a candidate's point of view it's always good to have a connection. People ring me occasionally and send me their CV and say, ‘would you cast an eye over it’, and I'm happy to do that.

    Building relationships is what directors should be doing and having strong networks, and so if you build a relationship with a search person, that person can offer some advice around the way your CV is presented, information on the state of the director market and other services and advice.

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