There’s a vast difference between the curriculum vitae (CV ) that will get you that top CEO position and the right CV to secure a board appointment.
Your CV as a director needs to highlight your strengths in the area of governance, your point of difference in a hotly contested market for board positions, and why you will be able to help the company meet its most pressing challenges, solve a particular problem or help shepherd the business on the right path to growth.
The right combination of skills will depend on your particular strengths and what the company needs to take it forward.
Katie Lahey AM FAICD is the executive chairman of search firm Korn Ferry. Her advice for emerging directors preparing their CV is to think about the value you’re going to add in the boardroom, the issues company directors are talking about such as growth, mergers and acquisitions and what competitors are doing.
“Directors are talking about disruption in the digital world, so think about how you can tease out those aspects of your career and highlight them,” she says.
Lahey says executives tend to be focused on profit and loss figures, talent management and promotion. So it can be a mistake to highlight strengths in this area in your CV at the expense of governance attributes you are able to bring to the business.
“When you get to the board it’s more about the breadth of experience you’ve had, focusing on your governance and regulatory experience. Massage your executive career in your CV so the value you add to a board table is really brought to the fore,” she recommends.
Moving from the executive to the board requires an about-turn in the candidate’s perspective. “You need to stand in the chair’s shoes and understand what he or she needs to help the board best contribute to the organisation,” says Judith MacCormick FAICD, chairman of BoardFocus Advisory.
“Many chairs of more sophisticated boards want to know you have board experience. That can be not-for-profit, corporate, start-up or government board experience. That shows you’re tested for the board,” she says.
According to MacCormick, people need to be careful they don’t take on lots of boards for short periods as this can reflect poorly in the CV.
“You don’t really hit your straps on a board until you’ve been on the board for 12 to 18 months. As boards meet 10 to 12 times a year, it takes a while to get up to speed. If you’re on lots of boards for a short time, there’s a question about your capacity to contribute, and whether you have learnt from managing the challenging times as well as the fair weather times.
“Like pilots, you are hired not just for the good weather flying, but for your ability to navigate through the storms.”
If a board hires you for your skills, what’s key is how the technical aspects of your experience fit into how you present yourself as a whole.
For instance, a former chief information officer (CIO) may bring IT expertise or knowledge of cyber issues to a board. But his or her contribution needs to focus on how those elements link with strategy. Any director hired for his or her technical skills also needs to have the capacity to contribute on broader issues and understand how niche skills and expertise fit into the business.
“People need to think about using their CV differently for every different board role. In each case ask what you might bring to the board. In some cases it might be a huge amount of industry knowledge. In other cases the director may have no particular knowledge of the industry, but they might have broad experience in establishing strategy. Or they might have experience in specialist areas like cybersecurity,” says Philip Forrest FAICD, chair of South-East Asian manufacturing business Readymix Holdings International.
“If a board sees a CV with a statement that reads: ‘my role has been to ensure the company is doing everything possible to protect itself from cyber attacks’, many directors would rush to meet the candidate because that’s a big weakness for an awful lot of boards,” he adds.
Another skill boards look for, aside from governance and strategy, is an ability to identify and network with other senior talent who could contribute to the board and its business.
What to include
It’s important to prepare specific CVs for specific roles. Professional non-executive director Julie Garland McLelland CSP FAICD says the idea is for prospective directors to ask: what in this CV is useful to the board that I’m applying for?
“It’s not a question of fabricating anything; it’s about making sure you present the relevant information at the relevant level for a board. They are interested in your executive success, but they don’t want a great deal of detail about it. So talk about your position and what you achieved, rather than the whole situation, targets, actions and results.”
McLelland agrees your CV as a company director should be precisely tailored and much shorter than an executive CV. “As directors we’re expected to be efficient communicators and the CV should reflect that.”
She says when she assesses a potential new board member she wants a feel for how fast the person develops in a role and how quickly they can have an impact.
“As a director, your job is to get up to speed very quickly, because you’re responsible from the moment you sign your consent to act form. So I want to see directors who can do that.”
McLelland suggests not including referees’ details on the CV. “I would say they’re available on request. And choose referees relevant to that particular board.”
Lahey has some advice about how to tweak your CV for specific positions. “You need to have a generic CV you lodge with search firms. You need to have a short, sharp statement at the start that states the value you bring to a boardroom. But you also need to tailor your generic CV to the particular role you’re seeking.”
She is amazed at the basic mistakes people make on their CV, like forgetting to include contact details. Failing to include a pithy statement at the beginning and making it too lengthy are other common errors.
“Make it easy for the reader. The first page needs to be short and sharp, and include personal details, qualifications, a short career summary and an explanation of what you bring to the role,” she says. The second page can include more details on career highlights, focusing on proof points that show why you’re perfect for the position.
The message is the more you talk about operational detail in the document, the less board-like it looks. The idea is to link expertise to the business’s strategy.
“It is not a case of wanting a lawyer on the board; you want somebody with a legal mindset who may be able to see how the legal and regulatory issues fit in with strategy and drive questions about the future,” says MacCormick.
“Don’t write you’re a ‘strategic team player with an innovative mind’. That’s what everyone says. Instead, talk about what you can bring to the delivery of the business’s strategy,” she says.
There are lots of pro-forma online resources budding directors can use to get a sense for what they need to include on their CV, as well as consultants and search firms that can provide advice about how to put together a CV that will help you land a board role. But Lahey says it’s important to use resources wisely.
“You really need to have developed a CV before you visit a search consultant. We are not career advisers. We deal with people that have already got a good CV. We’ll help them polish it, but we need a starting point from which to work.”
McLelland recommends seeking professional CV writing help from somebody that specialises in board CVs, not from a general consultant who specialises in resumes.
“If you can, find a mentor, particularly if you’ve been tapped on the shoulder by a board. Before you send through your CV it’s a good idea to ask your mentor how the chair prefers CVs to be presented. He or she might like short and pithy CVs, or more of a narrative description might be preferable. Another option is dot points. Do the research beforehand to find out the chair’s preferred style,” she says.
Forrest says networking generally is a good way to get insights about what to include in a CV. “A lot of board roles are achieved through networking, and through networking you can find mentors. It doesn’t have to be a formal mentor/mentee process. It is just about finding people you can learn from, who have experience in the fields you’re trying to get into, who can help you craft the right sort of CV for the role you wish to secure.”
Pathways to the boardroom
MacCormick says overseas experience is another way emerging directors can differentiate themselves using their CV, especially when looking for that all-important first role. And don’t underestimate the value of NFP and government board positions on your CV, especially if you’re angling for a spot on a listed company board down the track.
“Not-for-profits are notoriously challenging because you’re balancing all the Corporations Act requirements, as well as emotional requirements from the people you serve to the people you work with, who are often passionate volunteers. Working for a not-for-profit demonstrates a willingness to give back and highlights particular values. It’s important to show you’re not just in it for yourself,” says MacCormick.
“Make sure you include all relevant boardroom experience, even if it’s a non-listed company, sports organisation or family business,” she adds.
Says Lahey: “All experience on other boards is relevant. It all shows you’ve had practice sitting around a board table. If you have had experience managing a subsidiary it’s also worth mentioning that. Even where it’s been part of your executive role, it could give you an edge against another candidate.”
Factors to consider
There are a number of essential elements of every good director’s CV:
- Name and contact details.
- A short statement about what you bring to the role.
- A summary of your career over the past 10 years.
- Tertiary qualifications.
- A small number of personal details about your hobbies or your interests – these can be the icebreaker in an interview.
There are also a number of elements that are advisable to leave out:
- Your age.
- Information about your marital status and dependents.
- Information about every role you’ve held right back to university.