How to Get a Seat on the Board
Positioning Yourself for the Top Table
When you look ahead five, 10 or even 20 years, where do you see yourself?
Are you still doing the same job, at the same desk, with the same people and problems? Or, are you sitting in a plush leather chair, at a long, polished table, skillfully debating what direction your organization should take in the next quarter? Admittedly, this is a stereotype but, if you have ambitions to join a board, you've probably imagined your own boardroom scenario.
A seat on the board can seem like a fantasy to some people. Even today, some boards are shrouded in mystery. People often think of them as a private club that only white, late-career men can join. However, the good news is that this is changing. Boardrooms are still difficult to gain access to, but they are becoming more diverse and skills-oriented, and people with the right ambition, talent and experience can get a seat in one.
Getting a seat on the board can seem like a distant prospect when you're mid-career, but this is often the ideal time to start preparing. In this article, we'll explore the benefits of getting a seat on the board, how you can decide whether it's the right move for you, and how you can start preparing for it if it is.
Organizations take a great deal of care with board appointments, and there's no guarantee that you'll be invited to join, even if you have the drive, skills and experience. However, aiming to get a seat on the board will help you improve your skills and demonstrate your ambition, and will give you the best chance of success in your professional life.
What Do Boards Do?
When someone talks about "the board," he or she is usually referring an organization's board of directors.
Boards of directors don't manage organizations – they oversee and govern them. They discuss strategy, risk, performance, and other key issues to ensure that the right policies and people are in place. They have major obligations and legal responsibilities, and must be "fiduciarily responsible." In other words, they should act objectively, honestly and efficiently with the organization's interests in mind. Board members can come from within an organization ("executive" directors) and from outside ("non-executive" or "independent" directors).
Some organizations also have advisory boards, which are less formal bodies that advise, guide and inform. These boards have no decision-making powers or legal responsibilities, and you don't have to be a director to serve on one.
In parts of Europe, and in Asia, governance is divided between executive boards, which oversee daily operations, and supervisory boards, which are similar to boards of directors.
Benefits of Getting a Seat on the Board
Today, many people want to join a board for intellectual stimulation, rather than for power, status or wealth. Getting a seat on a board exposes you to new responsibilities and interests, more influential colleagues, and a higher level of liability, and it can be exciting and invigorating.
Board service can be an ultimate professional goal, but it can also propel your career development even if you're unsuccessful. For example, you'll be expected to demonstrate confident leadership and be able to speak publicly, so you may need to develop new skills and improve your existing ones. Participating successfully at boardroom level can also raise your profile and demonstrate your professional value.
If you work for a small organization, you might be motivated by a desire to "give back." Aiming to help the board to take the business to the next level can be extremely satisfying and rewarding.
How to Get a Seat on the Board
Aiming for a seat on the board may seem like a logical career move, but it's a challenging path to take. Organizations can also recruit members from outside, so rising through the ranks is no guarantee of being able to join, and it's not something that a person can achieve just because he "put his mind to it." Companies are particularly selective when it comes to board appointments, and you can't be certain that you'll be invited to join.
However, there are four steps that you can take to maximize your chances. Let's look at these in more detail.
1. Decide Whether It's Right for You
The boardroom isn't the easy, privileged place that people once perceived it to be. Joining the board is a big commitment, and it's important to understand how different a demanding boardroom role could be from your current one.
Joining the board would mean taking on extra legal responsibilities and liabilities. Legislation, such as Sarbanes-Oxley (U.S., 2002) and The Companies Act (U.K., 2006), has tightened the regulations that govern directors, and has increased the penalties for wrongdoing. As a result, many directors are cutting back on the number of boards that they join, and would-be directors are thinking twice about joining.
Your workload and the demands on your time would increase, too. As an executive director, you'd have to juggle your existing responsibilities with your boardroom role. You'd need to attend six to eight board meetings each year, for perhaps as long as 10 years.
Although being on the board can sometimes boost your income, few boardroom seats come with pay checks. Would you be willing to work longer hours without additional compensation?
Also, consider where your ambitions lie. If you aspire to run your own company, for example, you may be unsatisfied with a governance role, where you are less "hands on."
2. Prepare for the Future
Boardroom vacancies can be rare and difficult to gain access to, so be prepared for a potentially lengthy wait. However, you can use this time to position yourself as an attractive candidate.
First, work hard to develop an area of expertise, because boards are increasingly recruiting to fill their skill gaps. Sales, marketing, industry knowledge, financial audit expertise, and strategy are already well represented on many boards, but developing skills and knowledge in talent management, technology, or succession planning, for example, could put you in a good position. Review your broader abilities, too. For instance, can you improve your problem solving, leadership, strategic thinking, interpersonal, and negotiation skills?
Seeking promotion is another worthwhile goal. Boards want people with senior leadership experience, so check whether your organization has a leadership pipeline or other internal leadership development program that you can join.
3. Seek Boardroom Experience
Aiming for a boardroom seat might be a distant goal, but you can improve your chances by seeking experience in other, sometimes unlikely, places.
Nonprofit organizations – charities, voluntary organizations, churches, and schools – are great places to gain experience of the demands and opportunities of board membership. They allow you to upgrade your skills, build your credibility, and gain references for a possible future corporate board career. You can also experience the "feel good factor" of making a positive difference in society.
Get involved with an organization that matters to you, is relevant to your life, or does something that you're passionate about. Start by expressing your interest in serving on its board of directors, board of governors, or advisory board. Next, emphasize what you can do for the organization, and listen for opportunities. You could also register with a service, such as BoardnetUSA.org, that can link you with a nonprofit board in the U.S. that would fit your skills and interests.
Another way to gain independent boardroom experience is to train as a professional director, using services such as ProfessionalDirector in Canada, and seek non-executive directorships through services like NEDonBoard.com in the U.K.
4. Make Connections
Target the right people and put yourself forward, as a board opportunity is unlikely to land at your feet. Contact your organization's HR department and its board members, and express your interest. Sell yourself with a pitch that highlights your most attractive skills and experience, and the reasons why you want to serve. Show your awareness of the challenges that your organization faces, and communicate your passion for tackling them head-on. Leave people in no doubt why you would like a seat on the board.
Maintain and nurture your new relationships, so that you're at the front of the board members' minds when a seat at the top table becomes available.
Boards govern organizations, overseeing their financial and competitive health, their risk exposure, and their strategic decision making. Serving on one can be a rewarding way to get ahead in your career, but be aware that you'll be committing to time and legal responsibilities, and that there's no guarantee that you'll be awarded a seat.
Getting a seat can be a long and uncertain process, but this gives you time to refine your skills and experience to match those that your organization's board needs most. Seeking career progression and external boardroom experience can also help you to make a strong impression when you express your interest.