How To Get On A Board
More and more people are recognizing how important it is to have a diverse range of voices in power positions on organizational boards. But how to get on?
One thing I have seen over years of consulting with organizations: meaningful change does not happen without active support from the top. That’s support from Executives, the CEO, and the Board.
Over the last few months, as we’ve seen prejudices unmasked and savage abuses of power, young people particularly have gathered in the streets and online to demand change. It’s time to fix unjust, immoral systems, they say. And what are organizations doing to crush inequity and respectfully serve an increasingly diverse roster of customers?
What is clear – particularly in light of some companies’ ill-timed, ill-worded responses to current atrocities – is that more diverse voices are needed at the top. More variety in gender, race, religion, orientation, age, physical abilities, socio-economic background. That’s more diversity in Executive, CEO, and Board slots. With a balance of voices in power, research tells us, organizations show improved decision-making, communication and intrapreneurship.
Starting at the most powerful Board level, some organizations say they struggle in finding qualified diverse candidates. Meanwhile, exceptional leaders who are not in the usual pipelines wonder how they can find their way onto a good board and have impact. How to open board doors to these experienced, ‘atypical’ leaders?
In search of answers, we spoke to Elizabeth Watson – Queen’s Counsel, named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, and founder of WATSON: a cross-Canada company renowned for its work in building effective boards.
“Most boards,” Watson says, “want to be more diverse but don’t do enough to make it happen.” Some cite the lack of diversity at the C-suite level – an attractive pool for board work – as tied to the lack of diversity on boards. Yet, Watson finds, more organizations are starting to “engage in a more rigorous director search process supported by external experts.” They are taking anti unconscious bias training, looking outside their usual networks and, as a result, starting to consider a broader range of candidates.
So, what can candidates do to ready themselves for board work?
i. Analyze the different types of boards
As Watson says: “if you’ve seen one board, you’ve seen one board. Even within sectors, boards vary significantly.” There are for-profit boards, not-for-profit boards, and those that fit neither category, such as Crown corporations, authorities, co-operatives, credit unions, associations, regulatory bodies and post-secondary institutions.
“Public and private company boards tend to be more formal,” says Watson, “in terms of group dynamics, but also in terms of the structures, processes and practices in place. Typically, not- for-profit boards tend to be more diverse. They can also be more informal when it comes to governance-related issues which can cause challenges.”
ii. Understand pay/no pay structures
In Canada, Watson explains, not-for-profit directors typically are not paid. “In other jurisdictions,” she adds, “there is movement towards compensation for some not-for-profit directors.”
In compensated boards, chairs and committee chairs are paid higher fees than other directors in recognition of the extra work required.
• “A director of a public sector organization or a cooperative/credit union might make from less than $10,000 to $100,000 a year. The chair of a large authority might make up to $120,000.
• A director on a private company fiduciary board (not an advisory board) can make anywhere from $20,000 to $150,000.
• A director of a publicly listed company board might make between $50,000 and $350,000. This could go as high as $750,000 for the chair.”
iii. Be financially literate + board-savvy
You need to understand director duties and good board practice, says Watson. There are plenty of books, online resources, and formal courses to educate yourself on board work. “Be the person who comes to the table equipped and ready to add value,” says Watson. Watson’s website offers interesting board resources and insights.
iv. Build your board skills
How, specifically, can you contribute to a board on Day One? Every board, Watson explains, is looking for directors who can offer “oversight around issues like audit, finance, executive compensation, CEO oversight, corporate/financial performance, strategy, risk.”
These days, she adds, boards are also looking for director insight around technology, digital transformation, global perspective, innovation, organizational culture and Environmental, Social and Governance criteria (ESG) like stakeholder lens, environmental stewardship, social stewardship and transparency. “Be open to feedback,” Watson says. “If someone shares that you need to develop a skill or gain experience to be ready for board service, take action to demonstrate that you’ve taken that to heart.”
“Take on leadership roles to hone your own skills,” says Watson. “Practice strategic perspective.”
“While skills and experience are important,” Watson adds, “we pay careful attention to character. We look for individuals with high integrity who can influence the board’s culture and dynamics in a positive way.”
v. Don’t assume you’re too young
“Larger public company boards that have historically valued experience and grey hair,” Elizabeth Watson notes, “are starting to see the value of younger directors who might be more in touch with culture, community, technology, digital, e-commerce etc.”
As a younger person positioning yourself for a board role, Watson adds, highlight your strategic – versus operational – skills and experiences.
vi. Start smart
“Let people know you’re interested in board work,” says Watson. You might also need to talk to your employer. Will you be needing time off work for meetings and other board obligations? And, Watson adds: “some executives are not allowed to sit on outside boards.”
To gain experience and increase your appeal as a board candidate, consider joining a non-profit or community board that fits your passions and interests. “Depending on your experience,” Watson says, “this might be a not-for-profit, it might be a credit union or co-operative, a Crown corporation, or an industry association. Public sector boards and others often have open applications. Not-for-profit boards are a great place to grow your network and connect with experienced directors who can connect you with future board positions down the line.”
Put your name on lists and registries, Watson adds. “Most governments have a list of the public sector agencies, boards and commissions – federal, provincial and city.” A link to the BC site:
vii. Target sectors and organizations
Look for in-depth information about the organizations on whose boards you’d like to sit, be it now or in 5 to 10 years, says Watson. “Find out what they’re looking for, dive into their strategy and future direction, and see where your skills and experience fit in.”
viii. Assess the diversity values of your target organizations
“If you want to join a board that takes diversity seriously,” says Watson, “ask questions to prove why diversity is important to them.” You want to ensure that the board will also take your input seriously on issues beyond diversity.
If you are outside of the usual board pipelines, you might still find yourself as the only ‘non-traditional’ person on the board. But, says Watson, if you’re willing to take on that role, you may well see more broadening of the board over time.
ix. Build a Board resume
“Boards don’t want to hear that you want to join a board,” says Watson, “they want to hear why and how you have value to bring their board.” Be prepared to explain what motivates you to be a director.
Your board resume will be different than one you would present in applying for a job. “Find out how best to position yourself as an asset to the organization,” says Watson, “and articulate this in a tailored board resume.” Talking to experts who specialize in director search can help you in building a resume that best reflects your board-relevant skills and potential.
As ever, networking is key. ‘Be proactive and creative in developing your network,” says Watson. “Networks are built around your career or the not-for-profit board table and networking is still the most common way to find board positions. Canadians like to help each other. Find someone who is connected to the board you are interested in and figure out how to connect the dots and secure an introduction.”
You can also look to meet future fellow board members through industry groups, business groups, or directors’ groups, such as the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD).
xi. Go for it
Having done all the above, it is time to go ahead and apply for positions, “including those,” Watson says, “that might feel like a bit of a stretch.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
Photos by Luca Bravo