Make Yourself Relevant – Advice From International Search Experts
This week we were pleased to welcome to BCKR, Dom Loehnis from Egon Zehnder, one of the leading international search firms. Dom was joined by his colleague Fiona Packman and together they spent time talking to us about the Headhunter’s Perspective on seeking a board role.
Here is a summary of what they had to say.
Egon Zehnder have the biggest board practice in the UK, but even they only do about 60-70 board appointments a year, all with very specific, and in fact increasingly specific criteria to fill a particular role in the team. Think more broadly than using just headhunters to get your roles. Virtually none they are ever involved with simply require a generalist NED.
Both our speakers are EZ partners in the technology and media space.
Fiona had been Australian managing partner for several years in EZ, which is a pure lockstep partnership. While there she helped the major professional services firms consider leadership development, but then went on also to consider with those leadership candidates the next stage of their careers, including developing NED portfolios.
Lawyers are not singled out. All professional services are ignored in the non exec process, he”s never been asked been asked for a lawyer, or a professional services person. He’d even been asked not to put forward lawyers on some occasions.
There is very little digging during any NED appointment process about the real individuals, since the chairman start simply by looking at a career outline as shown by the CV and look there for something to hook onto. One career in one place, as so many lawyers can offer, gives very little to hook on to – we have to realise that the chairmen have a strong tendency to hire in their own image, ‘a nice chap’ because the candidate had same career trajectory, same background etc. It’s the same even in the start ups where they say ‘oh so big company’ to counter the FTSE chairman refusing people because they ‘only do small businesses’.
So make it easy for the headhunter and chairs to have the hooks to hold onto – display the links you know exist so that you can resonate with them in your conversations, and in your CV.
Digital is a big theme at the moment, if you have it pull it out. Compliance, governance and security also a hot topic, so play to it if relevant. Move the discussion away from your internal legal professional experience and move it into the work you’ve done for the client. How you operate. Not your experiences. Your attitudes. Play with the managerial experiences of your professional life, the tricky issues, which will then resonate with the decision makers in the appointment process. The leaders of the legal world find it easier to be seen as potential NED candidates. Plain vanilla accountants don’t have a free pass either.
Remember that lawyers can often draw out questions, bringing judgement not ego to the boardroom, showing independence of thought, being balanced and open and questioning and constructively challenging as part of a team. Pattern recognition, to allow you to make judgements across the board. All very useful.
He would strongly urge everyone looking for NED roles to write direct to the chairman to say you really admire/ are particularly interested in their company, and would like a cup of coffee to discuss it further. This is the right way to do it, for all but the large roles, as it’s still a pretty unusual letter for the chairman to receive and many many NED roles are filled by this sort of connection.
Be realistic about where to start, so go for the not for profit. And then once you’re in the board world the momentum builds.
The speakers have only put one lawyer onto a board – John Heaps. Of the 1910 NEDs in the FTSE 100 and 250 companies only 1% are lawyers. So rethink! Go not-for-profit to start with.
He’s never been involved in the not-for-profit board which doesn’t have lawyer on it. It’s easier to get on, and then look at whether the fellow board members are involved in the corporate worls, or just the n-f-p world. This is a strategic way of thinking about it.
Go for organisations which really interest you since it’s much easier to contribute well to something you already have an interest in.
How do you find an organisation that’s on the up? Always look to the chairman – and reference them – find someone you know who knows them.
Think about what are your stand out points. Three or four real strengths, by sector or by situation, so that the headhunter can argue in your favour.
Finance lawyers can regularly look to a company’s accounts and draw sensible conclusions, but it won’t ever be the lead criteria that they accept you onto a long list for. The process won’t initially recognise it as a skill. But it’s still very useful when you actually get to tell people you’re broader than they thought.
The short courses don’t get you over apparent absences in your CV. You are never going to compete successfully against someone they really want who visibly has the relevant skills.
How much do headhunters get involved in private company side – EZ work with a number of PE firms, for governance of their own portfolio. They are the most risk averse in making appts, and look for very narrow spec that matches in sector expertise. The VC world is by reputation dysfunctional, but they want someone to provide credibility in an area of strategic focus, or someone who’s been through the pains of growth/ new geography. So when headhunters get involved it’s because they don’t know in their own VC world, someone that meets the VC’s views of who meets those specific roles. If they want a chair, for instance, they will require someone who’s already chaired a plc or done an ipo.
EZ (through team in India) code up into their database specific facts that CV reveals, plus a natural CV scanner that looks more broadly for key words.
Given that the formal set piece searches are nearly always very specific, you don’t get good bang for your buck by focusing on this but should rather identify the companies you want to work for and go and have a cup of coffee with the chair. Nice out of ten searches are not done through a headhunter so focus on the 90%, and get into the network. Hone your pitch through practising your narrative. There is a narrative gulf between your CV and what most chairman are looking for, so you need to find ways to arc that gulf.
Your international work and knowledge can provide a more useful hook for your CV.
When a lawyer gets onto a headhunter’s database, they start with a filter of experiences, then come competencies then the softer bits of how they are perceived. The collegiate behaviours familiar to all lawyers do not reveal themselves until way down the interview path.
A great way for lawyers to develop their own leadership talent to be a better leader at their own firm, is for lawyers to take on board seats very early, actively, at an early point in the partnership career, both in the commercial and not for profit sectors. The whole area of mentoring, coaching, development etc is going higher up the board agenda. If in your firm you can help lawyers develop their mentoring skills that too will help.