Getting Hired – Crucial Advice From Search Firm; Odgers Berndston
Sam Colt from the search firm Odgers joined us for breakfast last week and had some important information and advice for any lawyer seeking a position on the board. This is a summary of our chat with Sam.
Odgers Berndston is the largest UK-headquartered search firms and is the sixth largest globally. Odgers cover all the main areas of the Private sector and, in the Not for profit space, they are leading providers of recruitment services in Government, Health and Education, and also in Sam’s specialism – Arts and Heritage. 70% of Sam’s work in this field is at Board level.
Sam advises that, when looking for board appointments in Arts and Heritage, bear in mind that you may be able to make greater impact on the board of a small charity than a larger one; but do be aware that for many smaller charity, the objective can simply become ‘survival’. Whatever the size, do ensure you will be able to make a useful contribution, which will also be useful in building your CV for subsequent roles.
Sam readily admits that getting a first role is tough. Remember that you are starting a completely different career and inevitably that takes a bit of thought and planning. And there are obstacles – the biggest is that usually you need to get board experience to get a board role! That is where becoming a school governor at your local school or joining the board of a small charity can be a good place to start. You need start thinking about who you are, what you bring quite apart from being a lawyer.
Make sure your CV includes the transferable skills and experience you have gained in your career, in building and leading teams, developing strategy, HR issues, winning new clients and general business development. These are skills that senior lawyers can typically bring – and take for granted – but which the outside world doesn’t readily recognise in lawyers, because they don’t fully understand how law firms work.
Advice for the CV:
• Write your CV for a non-legal audience
• As, mentioned, highlight our experience in building teams, strategy etc.
• Present yourself ‘outside’ the role of a lawyer – as a potential board member, not as a lawyer
• For Not for Profit roles, it is a good idea to reintroduce the ‘interests and hobbies’ section of your CV. The process will
focus your mind about where your interests truly lie and help to communicate these.
• Talk to your clients about their roles and their own interests etc. Most people are comfortable talking about things they are passionate about outside their day jobs. This is another way to strengthen relationships, and potentially to increase your network, gain potential introductions etc.
Getting into the right networks
• There is a huge amount going on in the Arts through informal networks. This includes appointments, which are often made directly or indirectly through networking – not least as funds are tight and using headhunters is expensive.
• There are always plenty of potential opportunities, due to fixed terms – which creates a good turnover of people.
• Be overt and clear about your plans. Give people a steer as to what you are interested in. Tell your relevant contacts what you are looking, what you want, and ask them to mention you if the chance arises. Put yourself in the front of people’s minds, so that when opportunities arise they think of you.
• Look at the boards of organisations in areas where you have an interest. There is quite likely to be someone on the board who knows someone you know, who could then make an introduction. And don’t be afraid to drop someone on the board or the executive committee a note directly – most people are delighted that people share their enthusiasm for a particular cause.
• Sam is always keen to receive new recommendations about good potential directors and trustees – getting to meet able new people with diverse backgrounds and views excites Sam. And a multi-faceted board is usually an effective one.
• Do note that it is essential to demonstrate enthusiasm for the Arts – you won’t get appointed unless you can demonstrate that. Specialist knowledge isn’t needed, but you need to be credible. Generally, arts organisations are looking for passion and enthusiasm – not deep inside knowledge.
• Remember that headhunters are client, rather than candidate, focused, so you have to fight for their attention.
• If you know another partner (with a different specialism) in a headhunting firm, do mention that when you make contact – Sam often seeks the views of her Odgers colleagues with prior knowledge of an individual.
• When a Chair of Trustee role is being recruited for, there will often be other Trustee roles being recruited for – either at the same time or soon after. So if you see an advertisement for a chair, and don’t feel you are ready for that yet, do still let the recruiter know of your interest – there will often be opportunities for new trustees around the time that a Chair changes.
• Also, do look at what arts organisations are sponsored by your commercial contacts, clients etc. Those contacts may provide helpful touch points. for helping out, learning more, getting involved before you apply for anything.
How do you find out about appointments?
• Arts organisations fall into two categories. Those that can afford a headhunter and those that can’t. Roles will be posted on headhunter websites. Rarely in print, nowadays, due to cost. Check out the individual organisation’s’ website as well.
• Even if there is an advertisement, the list of possible candidates is often generated from a limited pool – through the network of those already on the board. If a charity is taking a DIY approach to an appointment, they may not have the skills and time to screen the applications well – so in those cases, try to find a direct point of contact as well as just applying
• Over the years, most of Sam’s candidates have come through conversations and recommendations, rather from the firm’s data base.
• What is the expectation of financial contribution when joining an arts organisation where fundraising is such an important part of their daily existence?
• We are a long way from the US charity board approach of ‘Give. Get. Get off!’ But the UK is already moving some way along that line, and it is probably going to get worse given current funding crisis.
• Fundraising is always going to be some, perhaps small, part of the brief, but this needn’t entail writing a large cheque. It could mean your inviting your network to fundraising events, membership of the parent organisation through regular monthly direct debits or a tiered membership – or simply your willingness to act as an ambassador for the organisation to others.
• Don’t underestimate how appreciative these organisations are for any contribution!
• And don’t feel that you will be expected to go in at the highest tier of supporter level. Even small amounts are considered significant. Spend time on the board before investing larger sums, it can always be a commitment that builds over time.
• ‘Britishness’ works well in the applicant’s favour! They are not looking at you as a ‘cash cow’ but for your passion and enthusiasm.
• What’s your view of Lawyers on boards?
• Lawyers are good, bad and indifferent. Everyone (not just lawyers) gets put in a box. You become good in a role because you have the right experience and approach – not because you conform to stereotypical It’s your enthusiasm commitment attention to detail, ability to get to the bottom of an issue etc. that counts.
• However, being seen as an advisor rather than someone with operational experience can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. Many chairmen have a specific profile in mind, and may find it hard to deviate.
• If you have a client whom you advised in an area which is particularly relevant to the job you want to apply to – consider asking them to be your referee for that specific experience.
• When you apply for the role – do try to contact the headhunter to discuss it. You will make yourself stand out among the pile of CVs they have to review and they may be more likely to come back to you with other roles if this one isn’t right for you.