Quest for a wider range of directors gets a helping hand.

Simon Telfer is intent on throwing open the boardroom doors to a wider range of directors. He aims to bring transparency to board appointments by helping organisations meet individuals who may fall outside their business or community networks.

Where traditionally appointments might be made by shoulder-tapping a known connection, Telfer has created Appoint Better Boards for boards willing to cast the net wider.

Appoint Better Boards has used Telfer's governance and recruitment industry experience to create a pool of more than 4700 potential directors to whom companies and not-for-profits advertise positions.

"Let's actually get these roles out in the open and give individuals from a variety of different backgrounds an opportunity to apply for them," he says.


"If they don't know about the roles, we're never going to have boards that are more diverse.

"I think there is an understanding that if everyone thinks the same, then the decisions are going to be the same; if people think differently, it will lead to stronger decision-making," he says.

Telfer is a lawyer who spent a decade in recruitment overseas, founding and directing recruitment firms, before returning to New Zealand in the mid-2000s to focus on governance.

Appoint Better Boards has a 4766-strong list of candidates for places on boards and as trustees. Of those, 48 per cent are female, 48 per cent are under 45, 28 per cent are non-New Zealand European, and on average they have 7.5 years of governance experience.

There is more of an appetite for diversity in the business community than there was five years ago, says Telfer.

"I believe that that is being done for the right reasons now, as opposed to box ticking.

"I believe at the majority of organisations there is an advantage to their business by having a diverse range of views around the board table and that, if three people are thinking exactly the same way, then you don't need two of them."

He accepts that when a company is setting up a board for the first time, with an independent director, it may want diversity, "but that is usurped completely by the fact that we need somebody with governance experience and that person with governance experience - just because of the generational side of things - is probably going to be a male and that's just the balance at the moment".

Telfer says the bigger boards, with up to eight directors, have an important role in promoting and appointing aspiring directors from different backgrounds.

"When I look at the board positions that I've actually appointed myself, I'm disappointed I haven't put more women on boards or even more young people on boards. But an organisation putting that board in place for the first time, they want experience and at the moment that depth of experience that will grow over time isn't there."

The solution, says Telfer, is to get more women and people from different backgrounds cutting their teeth in the board environment.

Achieving that means reframing the requirements for a director.

Instead of demanding a board seat be filled by an ex-chief executive or someone with 15 years of governance experience, which throws up the same group of names, rework the criteria for a board position, says Telfer.

"Because if we keep putting people through the same process, the same filters, we'll end up getting the same people."

Creating a board with independent directors isn't necessarily about a company reaching a particular size or stage, he says, but rather about wanting to push forward with a new approach.

He has seen start-ups establish a board with external members before a product has been created and, at the other end of the scale, multi-million dollar international companies running for years without an independent director.

"For me it just goes to show it's not the stage, it's the mind-set."

Telfer says the range of people on his books looking to fill board roles runs the gamut, but the competition for paid directorships is fierce.

"There's relatively very few professional directors in New Zealand that earn a living from purely having directorships, so I think there just needs to be some realism there."

Telfer says he encourages people seeking directorships to think niche, focusing on areas of industry expertise and functional experience, rather than tout themselves as a generalist, thereby putting themselves up against other candidates with decades of governance experience.

While the financial rewards rarely compensate for the time and energy involved in directorships, it is an opportunity to give back, and remain commercially stimulated without the burden of an executive role or play to strengths in strategic thinking, says Telfer. "You can really make a difference."