In recent instalments of our Executive Outlook series, we examined what it takes to secure the seat at the top of the organisation and succeed as a CEO, and provided some insight on joining the board by becoming a Non-Executive Director (NED). While these positions are arguably two of the most desirable and highly sought-after leadership roles, there are several other seats at the table that hold significant voice.
Being appointed as a member of an organisation’s board is both a huge honour and a massive responsibility. As with any position of leadership, one should have a deep understanding of what is required of the role and what your value is. Every day at The Rialto Consultancy, we work with both executives who hold board positions and executives who aspire to them. This has given us strong insight into the process for securing and succeeding in these roles. Read on for our top tips for developing the right strategy to obtain a board position.
An organisation may have various Senior Vice Presidents, Directors, and other senior leaders spread out across its departments, offices, and geographies, but it only has one main board. There is no set number of board seats an organisation is required to have, but most range from three to 30. Some analysts suggest that seven is an ideal number, but the makeup of the main board will really depend on the needs of the organisation.
In addition to the main board, which serves as its primary governance and decision-making body, there are frequently opportunities internal to an organisation to join executive committees or operating boards as well as verticals for specific initiatives, projects, or functions, which can contribute to your career and personal development in a positive way. For example, many companies are putting together committees for COVID-focused health and safety initiatives in the post-pandemic return to work. There are sub committees or verticals tasked with embedding topics such as digital, D&I, and sustainability into day-to-day business operations. While positions on these committees may not always come with a title change or salary hike, they add value by showing initiative, involvement, and a deeper investment into the organisation that may result in a promotion or opportunity down the line.
Similarly, there are external board positions you could secure to help make you a more desirable candidate for an internal role you may be after, such as that of an NED. Some external board positions you could hold might include a role at your child’s school, on the board of a charity you are involved with, or a trusteeship. Holding these positions of leadership can help you develop the necessary skills and positions you well for future high level or high responsibility opportunities.
Regardless of whether it is an internal or external board you are serving on, your purpose remains the same: to lead, govern, and act in the best interest of that organisation and its shareholders/stakeholders. While some board members are brought in from outside of the organisation, many are promoted from within it. Aiming for a board position is like any other job search or attempt at a promotion: you’ll want to put your absolute best self forward. But due to the high demands of these roles, the responsibilities involved, and the limited availability of these positions, you will need to compete effectively. When developing your strategy for securing a board position, we recommend taking the following steps:
To gain a seat at the table, you must first identify what you bring to it. If you have not yet developed your own personal digital brand, now is the time to do so. This blog can help you get started. Just as every successful business offers something valuable to the marketplace, to be successful as a board member you need to bring your own unique contribution. Take stock of the relevant skills, experience, and knowledge that you have to offer that might be worthwhile to the rest of the board. What perspectives can you provide? Perhaps you have a non-traditional background, a wealth of experience in your field, or strong connections in your industry. What gaps can you fill? Once you can answer these questions, you should have a solid idea of what attributes and skills to champion.
Identifying your personal brand and USP is only part of the battle. You must also communicate it clearly and effectively in both online and offline networks so that you become known for the skills, capabilities, experience, and messaging that you want to champion. There are various ways to do this, including thought leadership on social media. This blog will help you to develop your online presence and drill into the ‘digital’ element of your personal digital brand. The goal of this activity is to be seen by the right people for the right reasons. If your USP is your decades of experience in your industry, share some of that wisdom in your content. Comment on the issues facing your sector and share relevant examples of how you tackled similar challenges in the past. Organisations want executives who are at the top of their field sitting on their boards, and you can build that perception about yourself with strategic thought leadership and personal digital branding activity. It takes time and patience, but will definitely be worth it.
In order to get in front of the right people, you have to know who you are attempting to influence. Typically, new board members are appointed by the existing board. What do they read and listen to? What social media are they using? What topics are they interested in or engaging with? Meeting your audience where they already are and providing thoughtful insight into topics they are interested in can go a long way for building your name recognition among the right people. If you are aiming for an internal board position and already hold a leadership position in the organisation, you are likely already acquainted or working with at least one member of the board. Even if you have close relationships with several sitting board members, strategic thought leadership and personal branding activity can help to paint you in a new light and position you as the person who immediately springs to mind when a new board member is to be appointed.
While being your own biggest fan is essential to your cause, it helps to have others who can vouch for you. Your influencers can be very valuable for helping build your credibility with the audience you want to influence. Mentors, colleagues, and even past clients can be some of your most valuable assets.
Business is built on networks, and you never know who your connections might be connected to. So many aspects of business life revolve around who you know, and having the right relationships can lead you to the role you are looking for. But your network can provide so much more than a word-of-mouth referral. Lean into your network for advice, guidance, support, introductions, feedback, and insight. If you have executives in your network who already hold board positions, reach out to them to ask questions, find out more about their experiences, and get their advice for succeeding in the role. Turn to those who know you well and have worked with you closely to glean what you do well and what you can improve on.
A board position is a leadership role, and so many of the core skills required can be gleaned and strengthened from networking. You need to be good with people and work well with others. You need to be the type of person who takes initiative and proactively seeks out opportunity to learn, improve, and grow. Communication skills are key, as is the ability to listen and take feedback on board. All of these are valuable capabilities that nurturing your network can provide.
You have decided to pursue a board position, but are you fully aware of what that will entail? Are you up to speed on board competencies and the mindset required for success? Are you clear on the expectations of the role, as well as any potential liabilities? If an external position, executive committee role, or NED position is what you are after, are you clear on what the time commitment will be and able to give that?
Talking to others about their experiences is one of the best ways to answer these questions, but there are some passive methods to explore as well. Read articles from trusted resources or thought leadership pieces from respected executives. If there are bylaws or handbooks available within the organisation, familiarise yourself with them. Another great tactic is to work one-on-one with a knowledgeable and credible executive coach who knows this space and can provide individualised guidance.
By now, you will have identified what you have to offer and who you are as a professional, and will have found a way to express that. You know who you need to influence, and maybe have some others on hand who are willing to vouch for you. You have tapped into your network and received valuable insight, advice, and feedback. And above all, you are clear on the role you are pursuing, the skills and mindset needed, the expectations involved, and the responsibilities. The time has now come to put the pieces all together into a well-crafted bio.
This bio should be informed by all of the research you have conducted and insight you have gained in early stages of the strategy, and tie your own skills and experiences to the requirements of the role. The bio should clearly and succinctly articulate what you have to offer and why you are the perfect person for the role. It may seem intimidating now, but these are the same messages you have been trying to portray in all of your activity thus far. It’s just a matter of piecing together all of the hard work you have already done. Be patient, be persistent, and be confident in what you bring to the table.
There are many elements to consider when planning to make this significant a career move as you will need to weigh up both the positives and associated risks, but with the right strategy you will be well on your way. Due to the scarcity of these positions, the requirements they entail, and the work required to build your personal brand, we recommend planning your move two to three years in advance of when you would ideally like to secure your role. This will allow you adequate time to make the best impression possible. Be consistent and persistent, and one day you should find the hard work pays off and you gain what may have seemed to be a far off aspirational role.