bckr | Selling yourself to the board – advice for lawyers from Tessa Bamford.
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Selling yourself to the board – advice for lawyers from Tessa Bamford.

Selling yourself to the board – advice for lawyers from Tessa Bamford.

This week we were very pleased to introduce to our members Tessa Bamford, a key member of Spencer Stuart’s Board Practice. Tessa is an experienced NED at Wolsely plc and also Barratt Developments. Before this she founded Cantos communications, an online corporate communications company and spent her previous 18 years with BZW and then Schroders.

Tessa took members through what she looks for when appointing NEDs and what lawyers can do to better their own chances.

Here is this weeks summary;

For commercial boards, (Tessa’s area of focus) the recent general drive for diversity on boards has not really helped lawyers to get onto boards, even though Chairmen and headhunters are looking into increasingly diverse ‘pots’ for potential NEDs.

Why is this?

First, your previous encounters with Board members, as a lawyer, may not have been helpful. These encounters are likely to have entailed ‘deep dives’ into major issues, not ‘helicoptering above’ them (which is what is required for the NED role). So Lawyers start 1-0 down – then often go 2-0 down because of innate general prejudice against lawyers!

For PLC NED roles, the market is very competitive. ‘Newbie’ NEDs are getting younger (often just taking a single external NED role while remaining in their full time executive roles). The ‘first pick’ background is still a recent CEO, but there are many NEDs from other backgrounds. You need to work hard at it, network widely – and get lucky!

What are Chairs looking for in when searching for a NED, from whatever background?

1. Obviously, commercial acumen – ‘business EQ’ – which is why ex-CEO’s are popular
2. Financial literacy – comfortable with balance sheets and P&L’s – must be able to spot trends, anomalies etc.
3. The ability to view things through a wide angled lens, cope with complexity and ambiguity
4. Knowledge and experience of risk issues
5. Courage, and ability to challenge constructively

Most commercial lawyers will be able to meet these criteria, but you have to demonstrate it very well. Lawyers often undersell themselves. So present yourself differently from how you have done during your career – look at your experience through the eyes of a prospective chairman. Think ‘what have I done/learned which might be relevant to a Board?’ – NOT a deal list, but rather the experience and skill set you gained from involvement in those. Tessa was an Investment Banker in the past and had to make a similar shift when seeking NED roles (Tessa is on two major PLC Boards).

The interview process for NED roles is different from executive roles – it feels like a general chat but it will have underlying themes and the intention is to weigh you up. You have to demonstrate your skills and relevance (i.e. not wait to be asked questions). For example, many lawyers have lead teams; practices, offices, firms and you need to get this over in a way that shows transferable skills. Another thing to get across is your ability to contribute across a wide range of issues to counter any feeling that you might just see the NED role through a legal perspective.

Your CV (two pages is enough) needs to focus on what makes you special for a NED role, not try to cover everything from your past.

Then how do you go about it in practice?

1. Think about how you will explain why you want to be a NED and what you can contribute at the boardroom table. Highlight international experience, working with people (e.g. HR Directors are finally getting onto some Boards – Remcos etc.)
2. You will then need to network. You will have some good contacts in the corporate world. Don’t ask for help, just ask for advice. A cup of coffee with no obligations gets your name lodged in the right people’s minds – who can then mention you later.
3. And get to know the main NED headhunters. 80% of PLC searches are done with headhunters. A dozen or so firms have very good NED search practices.
4. Within your network, try to find a person or people who will be willing to be your sponsor, your advocate. This is helpful in networking and can be important to help get you in front of the headhunters, too.
5. Consider some NED training. The FT and Institute of Directors run useful courses, plus Spencer Stuart’s own Directors’ Forum, a two and a half day course aimed at aspiring and new NEDs, is very useful for role-play and networking.

Once you are involved with an NED opportunity, really do your due diligence before you meet the Board. Research the company thoroughly. Get a good understanding about the business in advance: for example, if it were a retailer board role, visit their shops, experience them on-line, understand their operations etc. Explore the dynamic between CEO and chairman; meet as many people on the board as possible, read the analyst reports (which you can get from the headhunters) etc.

Advice for managing your relationship with headhunters
– If you have new information to add to your CV (such as a new role) then that is a good time to touch base with a headhunter again but once your portfolio has settled down, an update every 12 – 18 months suffices.
– Don’t send one standard email to several different consultants within the same firm – keep one main point of contact.
– If you don’t feel you are getting anywhere with certain headhunters, do ask for feedback
– If a headhunter regarding a role rings you, ask for the job specification before submitting your CV so you can tailor your CV to the specific role if needed.

Finally, Spencer Stuart is very keen to identify potential ‘newbie’ NEDs. Whatever their career background. When they meet them they place great emphasis on the ‘Three I’s’… Intellect, Integrity, and Inclination to join the debate, and so to contribute effectively to a Board.