Board games – becoming a director

Being a company director is not for everyone, but if you think you're cut out to sit on a board, these tips should help you find your niche.

There comes a time when executives contemplate a board position as an extension of their corporate role or as a step toward a portfolio career.

Being a director is not for everyone, nor should it be. Success in your executive or management committee role may be a start, but more is needed to be right for the changing boardroom landscape. In fact, the odds of a board seat are against you.

In today’s environment, experienced directors, CEOs or specialists are more likely to be targeted, particularly those that have the background or skills relevant to the current issues and complexities being faced by the company or industry sector, not to mention the regulatory framework.

Understandably, trust is a major factor, so name recognition and validation around the boardroom table is very important. Directors have a shared understanding of the significant responsibility and privilege of the position.

But trust and risk go both ways. Know what information you need to discharge your responsibilities and how to obtain it. Know the business model, underlying strategic judgements and financial position. Do thorough due diligence and proceed with caution. Think through what style of director you will be. Don’t be nave and look for deal-breakers, as once you join a board it becomes difficult to manoeuvre a stress-free exit without suspicion.

Dynamics within the boardroom rely on judicious observation, listening and comment. Collaboration and trusted communication underpin discussions on complex matters. Respect from, and of, your fellow directors is needed to be effective. Expect to be critiqued and evaluated.

If you are confident you can enter the fray, consider the type of board where your experience and interest will have greatest relevance and be viewed as a particular asset. Ensure that you respect the organisation – its ethics, values, products and management team – and that you can make an ongoing, meaningful contribution.

You need to get noticed. This includes messaging your aspirations and capabilities to your networks. Ad-hoc efforts will not work. Many directors have found their first board seat through contacts in industry groups or auditors, executive compensation consultants and lawyers who service board clients. Others expressed interest to those involved with IPOs or private equity.

Besides having the right people know you, your mindset must demonstrate you can exercise independent judgement, and operate at director level, rather than an operational manager from a corporation or professional services firm.

Develop rapport with executive search firms, but remember they are retained to find directors to serve on boards, not to find board seats for potential directors. Most search-firm databases focus on directors serving on public company boards, although this is now extending to the larger non-profits. Tapping into director registries may also be a source of potential vacancies.

Approaches, as part of the appointment process, can be from the chair; an existing board member on the nominations committee or the search firm. Sometimes this is a result of being known to them, or having previously acted as an advisor.

If you have relationships with current directors of your target boards, you may find it useful to approach them for advice. Plan and rehearse for the meeting. Be thoughtful and considered with your questions. Don’t be surprised if you start to be interviewed – so be prepared and have a view on the pressing issues.

Serving on government or not-for-profit boards can be purposeful and satisfying. Provided the governance processes are regarded as similar to for-profit boards, they can also build expertise and referrals for a future for-profit board.

Attaining a board position draws on EQ as well as IQ. It will take a strategic, well thought-out set of tactics, executed with professionalism and perceptiveness. If the offer comes, choose well, as your reputation is the ante.

Dianne Jacobs is founding principal of boutique talent capital consulting and executive coaching firm, The Talent Advisors, and a former partner at Goldman Sachs JBWere. She tweets on leadership via @talentadvisors.

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