How to build a Board career

Against a backdrop of continual change and a myriad of market influences, a quality board is critical to an organisation’s ability to grow and thrive.

Talented directors who demonstrate both technical and soft skills are crucial to success in today’s operating environment.

In turn, appointments to boards provide benefits to individuals such as greater scope for growth and leadership development, enhanced credibility and public profile, a broader professional network as well knowing the decisions you make have a real impact. 

In this article, BDO Partner, Helen Argiris, Six Degrees Executive Director, Molly Green, and AICD’s National Manager, Engagement, Mark Davis outline the first steps you should take in your board career journey, what boards are looking for in potential candidates and what those who are considering a board career need to be aware of.

Identify and articulate your expertise and value

Before approaching an organisation or applying for a board position, it’s essential to understand your value proposition. Consider what career or community experience you have that is relevant to a board position and what value you bring to the specific board you’re seeking to join.

It’s important you’re clear on ‘soft skill’ strengths, which all experienced executives develop over time, and how you’ve demonstrated these throughout your career. These might include collaboration, problem solving, the ability to have a robust discussion or to communicate openly and transparently.

Understanding your value is just the first step. It’s most important to articulate your experience and expertise. To help with this, start with three questions:

  1. Where have you been?
  2. Where are you now?
  3. Where do you want to go?

Clearly articulating your skills and examples in a board-specific CV, in a way that is tailored to suit each organisation, demonstrates an understanding of the traits required in an effective board member.

Build your understanding of good governance

An understanding of governance fundamentals, regardless of your expertise or the nature of the board you’re looking to join, is essential.

Speaking the right language, understanding roles and responsibilities of board members, and how a board functions, not only helps in securing a position but ensures you have the governance mindset needed.

This includes having the level of financial acumen required of all board members. As a minimum, for example, you must be able to read and interpret a profit and loss statement and understand the financial elements of a director’s statutory duties.

Incorporate any governance education on your board CV as this will act as a statement of intent – demonstrating commitment to building your board career and an understanding of the required skillset.

Should you engage with a recruiter?

When considering applying for a board position, it’s recommended to gain an understanding of the role recruiters play, how best to engage with them and to what extent you should rely on word of mouth through your own networks.

The best approach involves a combination of both.

The guidance and networks of recruiters can be invaluable. Begin building a relationship with a recruiter who you feel rapport with, trust and who understands the roles you are looking for. Their experience and advice can be key in securing if not your first role, then potential future roles, as your board career progresses.

While you may feel you don’t have the right network or level of connections to assist in your search, the extent and value of existing networks is often underestimated. Relationships you’ve built over the course of your career are likely more extensive than you realise.

Reaching out to connections and having conversations about your intentions – getting the word out that you’re looking for a board role – is one of the most effective methods you can employ.

What type of board is best to start with?

It stands to reason that building a board career in your existing lane of interest is much easier than stepping outside your expertise and playing ‘catch-up’ in an industry you’re not familiar with.

Similarly, setting your sights on a large company or listed board in the early stage of your career can be challenging – unless you have extensive executive experience in ASX.

It’s recommended to start your board career with organisations that align with your experience and passions.

For those unsure of where this alignment sits, consider starting your board journey with a role in the not-for-profit (NFP) sector, which provides the opportunity to hone your skills and gain valuable experience. Resourcing difficulties in NFPs can result in excellent development opportunities for board members through participation in project-specific sub-committees – whereas company or listed boards will usually call on external consultants for this work.

Community organisations also provide a great starting point. While they may not have a board, committee experience is relevant for your board CV, builds a track record of active participation, and demonstrates a willingness to ‘pitch in’ and do the work required.

Regardless of where you start, putting in the required time and effort and becoming known for contributing value, provides further opportunities. Like any other career, a board career must be built progressively over time.

Do your due diligence

While it can be easy getting caught up in the excitement of being offered a board role, particularly early in your career, taking the time to do your due diligence before accepting the position is essential.

First, ensure the organisation has the appropriate level of Director Insurance in place - AICD offers an insurance checklist for directors, or potential directors, to use in reviewing coverage.

Take time to review the organisation’s financials, meet with the CEO, check who is currently on the board and if possible, spend some time ‘on the ground’ with those who work in the organisation – It’s a highly effective way of understanding how an organisation functions.

If the due diligence process results in any feelings of unease or exposes issues with the finances or governance of the organisation, don’t be afraid to decline the position. Going through this process is far preferable to learning by mistake.

A final word

A board career can be a highly rewarding next step in your professional development – providing the opportunity to contribute your skills and experience to an organisation, deliver value and perpetuate a high standard of governance.

For more information on building your board career, connect with our authors and make use of the additional resources below.