Emerging Directors - Keep calm and carry on

Thursday, 01 June 2017


    Being rejected for a board position can dent even the most confident of aspiring directors, but treating it as a learning curve it vital, writes Alexandra Cain.

    Rejection is hard for everyone. But it’s especially challenging for people at the upper echelons of business. Being passed over for a board position hurts. It hurts the applicant’s ego. It hurts their pride. And they may be worried about their reputation if a board has declined to appoint them as a director after they have applied for a board seat. There are lots of ways to pick yourself up if you have missed out on a board role. The idea is to look at the situation as a learning opportunity.

    Becoming a director requires a very different mindset to that which is required for a management position, says Bronwyn Barnes GAICD. She has been executive chair of mining company Windward Resources and a non-executive director of ASX listed Asian infrastructure company JC International.

    “It was incredibly disappointing the first couple of times I was not successful for the board roles I went for. It takes resilience to have another shot. The moment of clarity for me came when I was recruiting board members,” says Barnes.

    “I was able to look at it from the company’s perspective. You have to consider the skill sets you need and marry that with the strategic plan. Often that’s not public; it’s discussed confidentially inside the board,” she adds.

    So you won’t always know why you have been rejected because you’re not privy to inside knowledge.

    Says Barnes: “You might have a fantastic candidate with a great skill set and they’d fit in well with the culture of the boardroom. But they may not be the right person given the longer-term strategy,” she adds. Don’t take it personally if you are rejected for a board role, and don’t think you have wasted your time applying for the position.

    “Only 10 per cent of discussions between a board and a prospective candidate will ever come to anything. But just meeting with the chair or the other directors means another group of people is aware of your skill set, background and experience. So it’s better to have met the board than not have the conversation at all,” says Barnes.

    Executive chairman of search firm Korn Ferry, Katie Lahey AM, says the process for making board appointments is now much more rigorous than it was.

    “It’s now more formal than when I started my board career. You need to do substantial preparation for the interview. You must do due diligence about who else is sitting around the table, what skills are already in the boardroom, likely gaps and whether you meet those gaps,” says Lahey.

    “You need to do a lot more homework before you put your name forward or have your name put forward to even have a chance of getting a seat at the table,” she adds.

    Seeking feedback

    Boards will generally be open to giving constructive feedback to candidates who have missed out on an appointment. This feedback can be immensely valuable when applying for future roles.

    “It’s fine to ask whether there are areas in your experience or background that could have been highlighted more during the recruitment process,” says Barnes.

    But as a director it’s important not to put too much emphasis on the perspective of other people. “If I went into a boardroom worrying about what other directors think of me, I may not ask tough questions in case I was to upset somebody,” she adds.

    Barnes says there may also be valid reasons why the board cannot provide feedback. “I once started a very formal recruitment process for a board role. Two-thirds of the way through, the company received a takeover offer so the process stopped. Understand the environment is incredibly strategic, so you may not always be aware of the underlying factors behind why you have missed out.

    “In this instance, the company had an inkling it was going to be the target of a takeover offer. They were trying to move very quickly to appoint a director who had experience in takeover defence. But that was never articulated in the interview process.”

    When Barnes learned of the takeover offer it became clear why she had not heard from the company. “The process was steaming along and suddenly dropped off the edge of a cliff. But I don’t beat myself up about anything anymore because I know how it works.”

    Lahey says feedback can come from a range of sources. “You can ask the search firm. Or it may be there are other people on the board the candidate knows, who may not have been part of the process but will be able to find out why they didn’t get the role.”

    Trying again

    If you have been passed over for a board seat you should start searching for the next opportunity immediately.

    Says Lahey: “You should always be on the search for board roles, because the selection process is generally longer than for executive roles. As one door closes another one may open; you can’t wait until the selection processes for one board comes right to the end before applying for other positions because it can take six to nine months from start to finish. You should be running a couple of opportunities in parallel if you can.”

    One of the best ways to pick yourself up and dust yourself off if you have been rejected for a position is to look at it as a chance for growth. “Every rejection is an opportunity to widen your network and test your interviewing skills. Be grateful you made it onto the long list of candidates and take positive messages out of the experience,” says Lahey.

    Experienced company director Julie Boyd CM FAICD says cultural fit is often a reason why someone is not appointed to a board. “Every board needs to make sure the people around the table are going to be able to connect and work together. You don’t want directors to think alike, but they do need to have a level of symmetry and an ability to work cohesively for the betterment of the company,” she explains.

    Boyd says it’s important to critically assess why you didn’t get a role. “You may have been aiming too high, in that you may not have had enough board experience or you may not have the skills required to do the role. And be very aware about what’s happening behind the scenes. Make sure you can really add value to the company.”

    She agrees that the search for board roles should be ongoing. “If you have the capacity to take on more board positions you should be looking all the time. It’s not a stop-start situation, unless you’ve got as much on your plate as you can cope with. There are a lot of board roles out there. The idea is to seek positions on an ongoing basis and constantly assess the market for opportunities.”

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