The decision to join a board as a non-executive director marks the beginning of a new career. By the time you reach a point in your professional journey that corporate board service becomes a legitimate career direction, you will have probably interacted with a board of directors and seen how it operates. Likely, that will have been as an executive leader, or maybe an advisor. But being a board director places new demands on you and must be viewed in a different context to an executive role.
It is this crucial difference in both your contribution and mindset, that makes the ‘board CV’ an important document for beginning the search process. Aside from the obvious function of the CV, which is to present your skills and experience relative to board openings, the writing of a board CV will trigger the introspection that helps you analyse the value you bring to a board situation.
So, before you dust off your chronologically written CV, and produce yet another iteration, be aware, this is not the style that will serve you well. Instead of the ‘what you’ve done and when’ orientation of an executive CV, you want to present ‘who you are and the value you offer’ in a board setting.
As you start to formulate your personal proposition, think carefully about the companies that you’d most like to serve, and where your contribution will be of the highest value. What are the common issues these companies are confronting? How does your range of experience and skills contribute to addressing these problems? For example, if we take the biotech sector. Biotech companies grow in quite a predictable way, with some variability, and it is therefore not complicated to extrapolate the explicit requirements that a board might face. If they are subject to setbacks, these too are commonly identifiable.
Equally, consider the purpose and function of the board. Think about the board’s mandate, the stakeholders, and how, through strategy, oversight and enterprise risk management, directors seek to optimise a company’s performance. While financial management and shareholder returns are a critical component of the board’s role, it is not always where a company is in most need of perspectives and insights. Therefore, write your CV with the broader stakeholders in mind and not too oriented toward shareholder primacy. Any board CV should convey a candidate’s achievements and experience to contribute to the broader strategic and governance issues constructively.
A carefully crafted description of your executive accomplishments helps position you as someone with the seniority and range of experience that a board requires. Still, the absence of existing board experience can be an impediment. Therefore, the inclusion of proxy board service with non-profits, trade associations etc. does offer evidence of your ability to contribute to the process of governance and to function collaboratively in this type of setting.
Too often, candidates transitioning from an executive role to that of a board director, are keen to impress just how competent they are at driving results in an operating context. Such a narrative reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the board, and it suggests that the candidate has not made the appropriate shift in outlook to be truly valuable as a director. It is crucial to write a board CV in language and context that demonstrates comprehension of this difference.
Most careers have quite a narrow functional pathway. This spine of expertise is what commonly makes people inherently valuable to boards. In writing the board CV, this deep functional expertise must come through, supported by quantifiable achievements. But the CV must also make these functional capabilities relatable to board service and must be supplemented with your broader skills and experience. Boards cover many issues, and a director should offer a breadth of skills and experience, alongside deep expertise.
A lot of the value of board directors is in their ability to make introductions and open doors. The appointment of independent directors is an opportunity to plug into new networks of partners, investors, academics etc. In your board CV, putting across the strength of your network, and how you have leveraged this to create value for other organisations, is an effective way to make yourself more attractive as a candidate.
Formatting the CV
All this advice, while hopefully constructive, does not offer guidance on the format. Seemingly, this is where many people struggle. So, here are some broad concepts to follow:
Firstly, the CV needs to capture interest from the beginning. The lead section of the CV needs to answer the critical question of ‘What value will this candidate bring to the board?”
A concise opening summary is often an excellent way to make this initial pitch. This introduction should be positive and assert the qualities that you think best define you, and which are highly relatable to board service. The length of this can be judged case-by-case, but a couple of paragraphs is usually adequate.
Overall, the board CV should not be any longer than two pages, and shorter versions are also acceptable. This brevity can be challenging, particularly when you are condensing several decades of experience. However, a good board director should be able to demonstrate the skill of distilling information into a concise format while presenting a rounded, accurate and compelling picture.
Remember that you are not looking to present a chronological log of all that you have done over the years. Instead, show why you are valuable to a board and relate that to the type of board you wish to serve. Be selective about what you include from your early career. Some of it may well be highly relevant, but you need to balance the CV with board compatible skills.
The tone is essential, as mentioned earlier. It should pitch you at the right level and be written with the use of positive words that press home the crucial points, but don’t saturate it with buzzwords, acronyms or business language. The CV must sell you, but not present the perception of somebody who is egotistical, as this is an unwelcome quality in most boardrooms. The fiduciary duties of a director require you to be willing to act in the company’s best interests, not your own.
Do not heavily employ lists or extensive bulleting, reserve their use only for appropriate and pertinent information. Also, make no assumptions, as readers unfamiliar with your industry, or even your functional experience, may not connect the dots in the desired way, and certainly will not take the time to research it.
We would recommend excluding headshots too. As a practice, we no longer accept CVs with photos, as we wish to de-bias the process of evaluation, and pictures can influence this assessment.
Overall, your CV format needs to be presented in a structured, logical way. It must be easy to read and make the relatability of your professional accomplishments to the requirements of board service clear and obvious. Achieve a balance between what you consider your primary capabilities and your broader skills. Use relevant data and metrics that support your case. Above all, though, make it relevant, clear and focused.
Board service is not something you only do at the end of your career, it is a new career. It requires you to understand your value and how you wish to learn and grow as you join different boards. The board CV is an integral part of your messaging, so put the time in to make sure you are positioning yourself as best you can.
Liftstream is an executive search and leadership advisory company serving companies across the global life sciences industry.