How to get a boardroom position: practical tips for success
Many professional women (and men) do not consider board positions as a viable adjunct to a successful career. Board positions are often regarded as being for retiring c-suite executives, business leaders and partners in law and accounting firms or voluntary positions on charities for well connected people with time on their hands and aged over 50. In the modern world of improving corporate governance this perception is being challenged. Board positions are increasingly being taken by working executives, younger people and women. This is particularly the case in countries with quotas and those with strong regulatory systems or mandated corporate governance guidelines for public listed companies, such as the UK. The renewed focus on corporate governance arising from the global financial crisis has resulted in a growing awareness across all sectors in the UK of the benefits that diversity and gender balance bring to the boardroom. The question that arises for many women is how to get there? Below are some tips from Women on Boards for anyone thinking about board positions now, or in the future.
Consider your motivations for being a board member Directors govern an organisation on behalf of owners, shareholders and stakeholders so you need to be comfortable in your role as a fiduciary (an individual who acts in the interest of another person or an organisation). To join a board, in particular a charity board, it is helpful to have an affiliation with the sector in which the organisation operates, an interest in its purpose and be able to commit the appropriate time to be a valuable board member.
Know your company's policy about employees taking board roles Are you allowed to go on boards and if so, which ones, and what is the approval process? If there is not a formal process then ask HR to develop one and offer your assistance.
Consider the sector you are most interested in and best suited to Understand how the skills you have used in your career can be adapted to board roles – this is commonly called your transferable skill set. It includes the assets you have gained through experience, rather than your pure technical skill set. Once you have a clear understanding of your transferable skills, consider sectors and types of organisations they might best suit. Think laterally – you might be surprised how much a hospital is like an airline.
Let others know of your board ambitions Ask yourself "how many people know of my board aspirations?" If the number is low or zero, there is work to be done. In many sectors there are more candidates than roles so it can be a competitive process. Appointments are still often made on the basis of recommendation. It is human nature to favour people we know or people who are recommended by people we know. Of all sectors, government appointments tend to have the most transparent processes.
Be financially literate and understand directors' duties If you are not comfortable with standard sets of accounts and aware of the liabilities and responsibilities of a director, then do something about it. There are a range of courses and programs you can do online or face to face.
Consider what value you add to a board You need to be clear about the value you bring to a board. Match your skill set to the needs identified (or not) by the board. Sometimes you might be a great candidate but the timing is wrong. Rather than beat yourself up that you did not get the role, just move on a look for another one. Serendipity does play a part.
Have a good board ready CV and a professional pitch Your board CV is not your professional career CV. It should be concise (no more than two pages) and contain a summary of your transferable and profession skills (not your role) and the value you bring. Key words around competence and areas of speciality are important. The colloquial version of your summary is your pitch. Use it when introducing yourself at networking functions and when you bump into someone who can help you. Part of your pitch is being ready to do "the ask" when you line up coffee meetings with influential people who can help you – they will not expect their time to be wasted with idle chit chat.
Start to think like a director There is an old saying – "if you waddle like a duck, swim like a duck and act like a duck ... then you are a duck.". To become a successful director you need not only to fit the part, but look and act the part. Remember, a board member sits above an organisation and does not work in it, so your language and positioning needs to reflect a more elevated role where wisdom and judgement are more valued than organisational capacity to get the job done.