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Looking for your first board director role? – 5 steps to get you started.

Choosing to begin a new phase in your career as an independent board director requires some forethought and planning. Reaching a senior level in your executive career and feeling like you’re looking to add something new and different to your experience, does not necessarily mean that board service is for you. Board work is still working, and usually is hard work, and it does not always carry significant rewards. If having dispelled some common misconceptions about board work you are still keen, then read on.

Because companies come in all shapes and sizes, the board of directors governing them also vary greatly. Therefore, it is difficult to describe the work and responsibilities involved accurately for all boards. It is for this reason I have never really found myself employing the phrase ‘board-ready’ when talking about aspiring directors. This term implies there is a universal threshold applied to any person wishing to take this career step. I can tell you categorically; there is not. Boards require all sorts of skills, experience and perspective to function effectively in their fiduciary and oversight duties. What is true, is there are very clear competencies that most board directors must exhibit, and these are common to almost all governing bodies. It is for this reason that we’re constantly evaluating how to measure the right competencies and how these must change and evolve.

1: Understand the pathway to board service

There are many ways in which to find that first board role. Today there remains two dominant ways in which people find board work. The first is your network. To work out if your network is going to help you, you’ll need to conduct a network audit. An audit will help to establish the number of useful connections and how strong your relationship is with those people. You then need to be very intentional in connecting and communicating to that network your desire to serve on boards.

The second channel is executive search firms who are actively engaged in board work. Not all search firms do board work, or have board practices – the economics of this work is different. However, a good executive search firm can help you in not only providing access to opportunities, but also acting as an advisor to you as you craft your search strategy, develop your pitch, and support you with solid advice about how to choose the right board when you reach this seemingly enviable position.

2: Find the right board to join

You must think through how you expect to deliver value to a board and its corresponding company. The experience, skills, contacts and perspective you bring should have relevance to the board you’re aiming to serve. There are many ways that you might do this. One such way is to foresee the strategic opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for a company and know why your experience could be of intrinsic value to the company and board. Thinking this through comprehensively would be a tremendously beneficial way to heighten your compatibility with the board/s you’re targeting. There is, of course, the need to think too about any conflicts of interest or other restrictions which might prevent you from joining a board, especially where you continue to serve as an operating executive.

3: Think like a Director, not an Executive

Making the step to becoming a board director may not, on the face of it, seem like a dramatic change in the way you’ll operate. After all, you’ve probably been interacting with boards a fair bit of your career by now. Many first-time directors though, do tend to jump in and show a willingness for helping companies in a way most consistent with their experience in an operating role. Sure, boards need technical specialists, people who can go deep on topics that are central to their business. They also need directors to be able to take a broad and elevated view of the vast cross-section of issues they’re perhaps facing. Effective board members know when to delve in deep and when not to. As a director, knowing where the board plays a role and where else it must fall to management is a really important judgement.

4: It is more than the technical know-how

There are a growing number of board courses and qualifications for aspiring board directors to take. These qualifications can lay the foundations of your technical understanding of board work; such as financial literacy, strategic planning and corporate governance. However, there is a lot more to being an effective board member than know the technical aspects. A board of directors, usually with its 7-10 constituent members, are environments where the nuances of communication, influence and power play out in a significant way. Much of this know-how has to acquired over time, as with experience in any role you have fulfilled hitherto, but new board members must prepare for such an environment. One strategy for this is to ensure the board you’re joining has an experienced director on it who might be prepared to guide and mentor you.

5: Define the commitment you’re able to give

If you have well defined the type of company you wish to join, you may already have an understanding of the likely commitment required from a board director. A common mistake among many new board members is they do not appreciate the time commitment to serve on a board. Most people are aware they’ll have to attend board meetings frequently, although even these can vary greatly regarding number and cadence. Serving on a board places greater demands on your time than the board meetings though. You have preparation and board materials to read, sometimes in vast quantities delivered very close to the meeting. If you serve on a board committee, these can often meet separately on different dates to the whole board and carry added duties. You can also envisage that you’ll spend time meeting with the CEO and other executives, as well as other stakeholders, as you get to know the business, and so you can serve to your fullest potential. It is therefore important to be ready for this commitment, especially where it might be alongside a day-job.

If you have decided to join your first board, then congratulations for at least getting to this. Hopefully, the pointers above will make that an easier objective to reach.

  • Liftstream is an executive search and leadership advisory company serving companies across the global life sciences industry.
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