Becoming a member of a board

Fiona Hathorn, CEO, Women on Boards UK

The boardroom matters because the board sets and oversees the strategy, culture, and governance of organisations. 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.

But things are changing. Boards worldwide are beginning to recognise the need for more diversity of thought at the top of organisations today, alongside investors and regulators who are demanding better corporate governance. Board positions are increasingly being taken by working executives, younger people, and women from diverse backgrounds. This is particularly the case in countries with quotas and those with solid regulatory systems or mandated corporate governance guidelines for public listed companies, such as exists in the UK.

Today, the question that arises for many women and minority groups is how to get into the boardroom alongside knowledge of all the career-enhancing board opportunities available in society.

Below are some tips from my colleague Claire Braund, who co-founded Women on Boards over 20 years ago, for anyone thinking about board positions now or in the future.

1.  Consider your motivations for being a board member. Directors govern an organisation on behalf of the 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 commit the appropriate time to be a valuable board member.

2. 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.

3. Consider the sector/industry you are most interested in or your professional and transferable skills are best suited to. Understand how the skills that 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 skillset. 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!

4. 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 based on recommendations. 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. So you need to ensure others know of your interest in being on boards.

5. 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 is a range of courses and programmes you can do online or face to face. It is not rocket science and remember, the last thing that any board needs is a load of accountants on the same board, just as British Cycling does not need a load of cyclists!

6. 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, move on a look for another role. Serendipity does play a part.

7. 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 professional skills (not your role) and what value you bring. Keywords around competence and areas of speciality are essential. 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, but they will be happy to assist, so be direct with your ask. Read this article on “How to write a board-ready CV” and join our network for vacancy and interview support.

8. 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 the organisational capacity to get the job done.

For more information about ‘How to Become a Board Member’, register for the Women in IT Summit and my lunchtime Masterclass, taking place on the 23rd June 2021.

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