What boardroom skills are in high demand?

When applying for board positions, non-executive directors are expected to bring strategic and leadership skills to the table. In today’s challenging business climate, soft skills are also in high demand.

Having a wealth of experience to bring to a non-executive board position is a clear advantage. Application processes for board jobs are competitive, and the time to put your case forward is limited.

So, how do you prepare yourself when applying for non-executive directorships?

“Understand what the gap is that the organisation is trying to fill and make sure you are clear and confident about what you can offer.”

What is your signature skill? 

Across the globe, companies are experiencing extensive regulatory, technological and financial challenges. Managing business through these challenges requires highly skilled and experienced board directors.

“Most boards look for: knowledge, governance expertise, networks, and a connection with audiences,” says Taylor.

“You don’t have to bring all four things, though, so [ask yourself] what’s your signature contribution?”

Board jobs in the UK

Highly valued non-executive directors are well-versed in emotional intelligence – they can quickly grasp other people’s characteristics and agendas.

“Understanding the nuance of board roles is also important,” says Taylor. “Consider where the organisation is trying to get to and what you can bring to the party.

“We are seeing more and more people from all sectors looking for more purposeful ways of using their skills and who want to make a positive contribution to society.

“Always remember: this is your time, so don’t forget to tell the organisation what the role would give you in return.”

What professional disciplines, or hard skills, are currently in demand on UK boards?

“The pandemic recovery period means that effective non-executive leaders are in demand more than ever before,” says Taylor.

“We are seeing increasing numbers of non-executive board members being sought for organisations who need to rebuild or refocus their strategy.

“We have seen a strong trend in boards looking for people with digital expertise and backgrounds in customer service and organisational or cultural change.

Those with financial skills and profit-making skills are now high in demand.

“People who can help increase income or support financial management are also towards the top of the list, as are people who can bring insight into, and connection with, customers and audiences.

However, it isn’t all about increasing the bottom line and opening the right doors.

“One of the shifts we are seeing is a marked move away from focusing too much on professional disciplines. Organisations in all sectors are much more aware of their diversity now than they were before 2020. Creating strong, versatile and authentically diverse teams is now a consistent theme.”

What soft skills are in demand?

An effective board member is hard to define, mainly due to their soft skills, such as the ability to listen and knowing when to speak.

“It’s hard to tell a great non-executive on paper because so much of the role is about how people operate and not what they have done,” says Taylor.

“Great board members are people who understand how to deploy their expertise in a way that has an impact in a non-executive board setting.”

Self-awareness is a powerful skill

“The skills that make the difference are the capacity for self-reflection, so people with insight and self-awareness, also diplomacy and listening skills,” says Taylor.

“Increasingly, people are being expected to bring all their experiences into the board room, not just their professional accomplishments. Sound judgement is key to doing this well and to understand how you can add value.”

When it comes to the interview

This is your time to reflect and prepare. The role you are applying for needs to be fulfilling and worthwhile for you as well.

Be clear. Tell the organisation what you can bring to the table to help it reach its goals and why it matters to you.

This article by Juliet Taylor was written in partnership with the Corporate Governance Institute

Justina Cruickshank

Mariam Ibrahim

Kalm Paul Christian

Javed Edahtally

How to handle rejections for non-executive Board work

Everyone gets turned down for roles, executive and non-executive, even the most experienced non-executives. But every occasion where a recruitment does not go your way offers a great opportunity for you to deepen your insight and understanding of the way non-executive recruitment works, to connect with the recruiter, and to understand and further hone your own offer. It’s important to expect to find yourself in this situation from time to time, and if you do, here are some words of encouragement:

  • Always ask for feedback when you are stood down at the first stage. Try not to avoid or resist it: for the reasons set out below, feedback is rarely a painful thing, but it is important to get some if you can. If feedback isn’t offered in the email or telephone call, ring the hiring organisation or the recruiter and see whether it could be made available on request. In some cases, it may not be offered at all – especially if the field has been very large (it’s not unusual to receive hundreds of applications for some non-executive appointments) but most of the time you should be able to get some.  
  • It’s all relative. Remember that you will rarely have been turned down because of something you did badly or wrong. Where competition is intense – such as where a field is very large and there are limited interview slots available – candidates who appear to be the most relevant or ‘complete’ may be prioritised. It’s important to ask what the successful candidates had in common, and don’t give up! 
  • Remember it’s not a perfect science. Boards are complex entities, with many different aspects and requirements inherent in every role. For this reason, success often comes down to a blend in what you can offer against what the Board is looking to achieve. For example, success is unlikely to come down to one professional background, one experience, one skill, or one strength in any candidate. It may take into account useful networks and contacts you can bring, communication style, connection with certain audiences, understanding of particular subject matter, or diversity. Each time you are successful in receiving feedback, ask where your strengths were most noticed so you are aware of that for next time.     

The most powerful tool at your disposal in becoming a non-executive is your ability to select opportunities for which you are a good match, and where you have a good chance of standing out of the field for all the right reasons. But every opportunity along the way to understand how you are perceived as a candidate is invaluable. Keep going: don’t give up!

Top tips on writing a great CV for non-executive appointments

There is no such thing as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ CV. However, there are some simple rules of thumb you can follow to make sure you get the point across and make the right impression with each application you make. 

  • Understand how your CV will most likely be used. Over the years, we have seen many people develop very long and full CVs in which all of the career information that is most valued by the candidate is stored. These are very complete documents, but they often say more than is necessary for recruitment, especially at the time of the recruitment process when your CV is going to be used.  Submitting a CV that doesn’t do its job properly risks priority information being lost in a miasma of irrelevance. Instead, understanding how your CV is used and therefore what is helpful to demonstrate, can make the task of preparing it much easier and your application more effective:
    1. Your CV is typically used in a much more binary way in the earliest stages of selection, especially for a paper sift, where a recruiter looks to measure on paper what they can see you can bring to a role against the published criteria.
    1. Your CV only ever needs to be a factual record of what you have done and achieved. A robust and transparent recruitment process has to measure what can be evidenced on paper; for that reason, only experiences or provable competencies count, and not skills, abilities or personal qualities. Take out of your CV any personal profiles or self-testimony. A recruiter cannot do anything with it, and you may choose to say something differently later on, at interview.  
    1. The three questions your CV needs to answer are:
      1. Is this person bringing the knowledge or background we are looking for?
      2. Does the breadth / depth / nature of this person’s background give confidence that they are at a level from which they could transition onto this Board?
      3. What is the person’s career trajectory? For some Board roles, although by no means all, the seniority, weight or reach of executive roles may be relevant. 
  • Make any similar roles you have held immediately visible on page one. If you have any non-executive board, committee or advisory experience at all, talk about it first in your CV so you can show you already have some foundations in place on which to build for a substantive Board role. But, depending on the Board (see our advice on picking the right opportunity), it does not necessarily matter.    
  • Avoid trying to ‘stand out’. Candidates who stand out in the field are those whose applications are tightly relevant to the criteria, clear, focused, and balanced between professional and personal considerations. Keep to mainstream fonts and colours in your CV; we usually advise against photographs and lists of hobbies: if you really stick to the job you need your CV to do for you, there is really no need for embellishment.  
  • Review your CV for each application you make. Tailor your CV for every appointment you go for, dialling up experiences that you can see or intuit will be more useful and relevant, and playing down those that are not so valuable in the role or setting. Don’t forget to help the reader understand or interpret your experiences as you go – avoid jargon and remember to give a sense of scale, reach, impact and influence when talking about your achievements.   

If there is one sentence most recruiters hear more than any other, it’s probably “I haven’t revised my CV for years, do you have any advice I should follow?” The truth is that there is no science to the perfect CV – in fact there is no perfect CV. Just keeping it up to date, relevant and accessible should mean you have a great starting point every time.  

Top tips on writing a great covering letter

Writing a great covering letter or supporting statement for a non-executive role needs a bit of thought. The aim is to underline your suitability for the appointment, which your CV will already have done for you. But a great supporting statement can also be really powerful in highlighting your motivation for becoming part of the non-executive team. Here are our top tips for getting the right message across:

  1. Talk about the organisation you are applying to be part of before you talk about yourself. We still read lots of really dense covering letters that are overly detailed where every paragraph begins with “I”. The work any board does happens at a strategic, ‘big picture’ level. Do make sure that you understand, and can refer to, the big strategic priorities an organisation is thinking about for success. Doing this enables you to connect with the reader by showing them you understand their journey and therefore how your own background is relevant and helpful. 
  1. Keep it focused and relevant. Avoid writing pages and pages. Our advice is always to keep the covering letter high level, personal and relevant. Play back to the reader the fact that you have really understood what matters most to them. It’s much better to have two pages of text that resonates with the specific brief for the role and connect with the organisation’s specific position, than five pages of beautifully written text that talks about everything you have done in your working life.  
  1. Remember the experiences, skills and qualities that will be more relevant to the role and focus on these. This is especially important for first-time non-executives because it takes time and practice to transition out of an executive / day job mindset, and into a non-executive way of thinking and seeing the world. Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and list your executive skills and strengths on one side, and the skills, experiences and qualities relevant to the board room on the other. When you have completed your first draft application, go back through it and check that you haven’t strayed too far on to the executive side of the page. 
  1. Make it personal. Especially in the not for profit sector, organisations set a lot of stall by personal motivation and connection when they are looking for new Board members. You will, in all likelihood, need to bring the specific backgrounds or experiences as set out in the pack, but if there is a particular reason why you are attracted to a cause or mission, do say so. Stating personal reasons for wanting to join an organisation used to be seen as irrelevant in a largely competency-based recruitment scenario; however, this is changing and how people bring their whole selves to the board room, to make their best contribution, aligns with a fresher, more contemporary approach to Board recruitment.   

It’s important to follow the instructions carefully whenever you apply for any role. You might find that, for some roles, you are instructed to answer a particular question or follow a certain format. In these cases, always do as you are asked, but you cannot fail by saying something about your motivation and interest in the organisation, even if you only add a few sincere and personal lines at the beginning or at the end.    

Picking suitable Board opportunities

The truth is that many people don’t know how or where to get started when they first decide to become a non-executive. In our profession, we frequently hear candidates talking about non-executive roles as though they are all the same type and size of role, and as if the only thing that makes a difference is what that organisation does. This is not true and in fact it is extremely important to understand how boards differ when you are sourcing your first appointment. Here are five things to think about:

  • Start with the existing Board membership. Even if the Board wants to change or broaden out its membership to be more diverse, it will tend to stay at the same level. Understanding the backgrounds of those currently round the table will help you to judge your competition (because strong applicants may have quite similar backgrounds) and assess whether your background is likely to be seen as a suitable fit. 

Although by and large Boards are changing to become ‘flatter’ and less obviously aloof and hierarchical, the more formal and established Boards are often still populated by people who share very high levels of professional or academic accomplishment. You can decide whether that is for you, given your own knowledge in terms of what you are able to offer. 

Conversely, boards that fly at a lower altitude are often more diverse and, because they tend to be less formal, they may be more open to first time non-executives whose broad professional and lived experiences may be useful. Lower altitude boards are a better bet for your first appointment: choose a board where the level and nature of expertise and experience around the table is more relatable for you. 

  • Avoid thinking that competition will be non-existent for voluntary Board roles. Especially when we are involved in transitioning people with private sector backgrounds to charity boards, we have observed a tendency to think that a role that is voluntary will either not be popular, or even worse, will be easy. Voluntary trustee roles can be very popular, especially for household brands. They can also be highly time consuming, and very exposed, especially if there are aspects of the organisation’s work that present complexities in how it is governed (for example, regulated services). 
  • Start small and build up from there. When you start out, look for roles that are smaller and less exposed in terms of risk. These are great opportunities for you to gain direct experience without the distraction of major challenges and overwhelming learning curves. For example, many people choose to start with a small or local charity board, or you may choose to become a school governor if the opportunity presents itself.     
  • Board culture really matters. We sometimes say that boards have four faces and in every instance the extent to which each face matters will be different, depending on the situation of the organisation. These four faces are: subject matter knowledge; capacity to govern well; capacity to represent the organisation externally; connection with audiences and diversity. You do not need to bring something in absolutely every category to be successful as a board member, but you may find it helpful to think about what you offer that may be especially strong in a certain aspect and to promote your application in line with that. 

Sector also plays an important role in how the Board works, because an organisation’s position directly affects the role its Board needs to play. Public sector boards, for example, may be operating in risky and exposed circumstances, under a political and public spotlight, and need more people with governance expertise. NHS organisations may prefer representation from the local community; charities may need subject knowledge. So do think about what the priorities are for the organisation and its ability to get to its destination; this will give you plenty of clues as to what might matter most in its board members.    

  • Due diligence. Always turn over the stones before you accept any board role, and make sure you have the full story. Board roles are serious roles and it is important to understand and to be able to judge for yourself your comfort with certain aspects of the job. Get hold of the accounts. Talk to the Chair. See if you can speak to the CEO. Do a thorough media check.  

Boards vary very significantly in size, profile, composition, strategic altitude and culture. Understanding this, and being able to read a board in way that helps you to know whether it is the right opportunity for you, is important.

How to sell yourself

Going through a recruitment process for a board role, either directly or through a recruitment firm, can be an intimidating prospect if you’ve never done it before. We want to make sure you are as prepared as much as possible so that you have the best chance of success. 

Preparing your application

The supporting paperwork required is the same for a Board role as it is for a permanent job – a CV and a supporting statement to get the ball rolling. It’s how you frame your experience, how you create a picture of who you are and what you bring, that will make you stand out. 

Boards are very interested in understanding your motivations about why you want to join their organisation, what values of theirs you share, and what personal and/or professional experience you bring that will ensure they are delivering on their strategy. 

Your supporting statement and CV – Framing your experience and working out your USP

Job adverts can often read like shopping lists, and you might not feel you’ve gained the required level of experience the Board is asking for; the key is understanding what other experience, qualities and abilities you can draw on that will demonstrate to a Board that you are ready to take on the role. 

So how do you work out what your unique selling point or value is to a board? In our professional lives we are used to selling our skills and experience with a focus on outcomes and so the results of our work are easier to quantify e.g., “four years’ marketing experience in a media agency where you achieved, x, y and z.” 

You need to think more creatively when creating a Board ready CV and crucially when crafting your supporting statement. Board members read them, and they do matter! They don’t need to be very long, but they do need to give a fuller picture of who you are and what motivates you. No need to replicate what’s on the CV.

Top tips: 

  • Outline your motivations clearly – why them?  What values do you share? What do you hope to get out of joining the Board? It’s a two-way process and they want to know that you will be engaged and ready to contribute. 
  • Think broadly about where you have gained a wider range of experience and skills; voluntary work you do in your spare time or being part of a school debating society or IT club. That’s valuable experience and shows a clear commitment to contributing to society or your community.
  • Think about your personal life or ‘lived experience’ – your unique experiences and insights are invaluable to a wide variety of organisations looking to positively impact on society.
  • Your youth is also an experience you can add to a board; you will bring new ways of thinking and seeing things from a different perspective and keep them connected to what the younger generation thinks.
  • Ask someone to read your statement and be honest about whether or not your message has come through – this is about you and what you bring and why their Board needs your voice – be a bit bold but make it relevant to their needs.

Preparing for interview 

Going for an interview, even if it’s informal, still needs some preparation. Read up about the organisation’s strategy and understand the work/programmes they run so you can link your answers back in a relevant way. Know their values and understand which ones really resonate with you. Have an idea of who is on the current Board and who is interviewing you. 

First and foremost, be yourself! Everyone brings their own unique set of life experiences with them, and the Board wants to know who you are and what motivates you. This is your chance to bring to life what you have hopefully covered in your statement; what will they get out of having you on the Board and what do you hope to get out of joining? It’s a two-way process and both sides must feel comfortable that it’s a good fit.

  • Why us? What makes you want to give your time and effort to help them further their aims? Be prepared and know their values. Only answer which values genuinely resonate with you and why. A few key ones answered authentically is far better than listing the headings you read on the website but having nothing to back them up. 
  • What will you bring to the Board? That’s your USP brought to life – what specifically do you bring – your work and personal or lived experience, your unique skills and abilities – it’s a combination of all of them. It doesn’t need to be a list – it’s almost a statement of intent about what insights you will bring to help ensure they’re delivering on their strategy.
  • What sort of working environment do you thrive in? These behavioural questions are there to help them understand how to get the best out of you and how you might engage with the rest of the board – are you collegiate and a team player and able to see the bigger picture?
  • What issues are affecting young people now? If you are being brought onto the Board as a Young Trustee this could well be something you get asked. Be honest and try and link your answer back to something that’s relevant to the organisation’s aims.
  • Have some questions for them – show you are interested, have engaged with the organisation and are motivated!