How to Secure Your First Board Position
By Chris Sheedy - September 2012
Organisations have seen the light in terms of the importance of diversity on their Boards. But no matter who you are, securing your first Board position can be a complicated process. Here, we analyse a case study to illustrate the issues and solutions.
When Nancy Mattenberger, a Senior Director at Oracle Australia, stepped into her first Non-executive Director position on the Board of Face Image Holdings several months ago, it was the result of six months of research, consultation, networking and learning. Now, thanks to the position with the beauty industry start-up, Nancy feels her career has been boosted. A new and exciting challenge was exactly what she was after when she first began to seek a Board position.
"I approached Kylie at Board Portfolio because I felt I needed a road map for my career,” Nancy says. “I wanted to know what was next but I wasn’t sure what that might involve. Kylie got me thinking about sitting on Boards. Actually, she got me thinking on a whole new level and gave me clarity on where I was going and what I wanted to do.”
“It was all a bit of a surprise because I thought people that sat on Boards were old, bearded, grey-haired men who smoked cigars. But it’s no longer like that nowadays. Kylie opened my eyes to that.”
Recognising the career value of securing a Board position is the first hurdle to overcome, but what comes next? For Nancy the journey began with a course run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), followed by a whole lot of networking.
Learning From Experience
"The AICD course was an eye opener and was incredibly valuable,” she says. “In fact, I’d say it was an absolute necessity. It taught me about the investment I needed to make in time. It made me realise there is some risk associated with sitting on a Board. You could be sued as you are legally responsible for the decisions you make. Some of the people in my AICD course were forced to do a serious re-think of their plans once they realised the level of responsibility involved.”
Next up was a period of networking that included chatting online within forums frequented by other Directors, requesting meetings and discussions with experienced Directors, and joining such organisations as Women On Boards. This became even more important when Nancy realised that obtaining a Board position within her own industry - technology - would be extremely difficult. After all, virtually every major organisation in the industry was in competition with Oracle.
“I wasn’t successful in seeking approval from my employer to join boards of technology companies, and that could have made me give up,” Nancy says. “Then I thought about other industries and where else my expertise lies. I’m a woman. I use beauty products. I’m interested in that industry so I simply widened the net.”
“I did research and spoke with other directors about their experiences. I asked what did I need to know and how could I be successful. I approached a number of people and chatted online and got some great advice.”
Nancy’s search for a Board position took five to six months, but would have taken half that time if she had immediately begun looking outside of the technology sector. But the experience was absolutely worthwhile, she says, as she is now in a richly rewarding role that has injected a new energy into her career.
Tips From The Top
These days companies are a lot more willing to look at the composition of their Boards in terms of diversity, says Kylie Hammond, CEO and founder of Board Portfolio. And it’s not just about whether the person is male or female - the diversity also has to do with experience and cultural background.
“In the old days you had traditional Board directors with very strong accounting and legal backgrounds whereas today we’re seeing a strong shift towards HR , IT and marketing backgrounds,” Kylie says. “So people who’ve had a successful corporate career with a range of different functions are valued today as Board members. And people who’ve had successful corporate careers generally have a desire to contribute at the most senior level, which is Board level.”
Kylie says she highly recommends courses such as those offered by the AICD, as it’s vital that potential Board members fully understand the level of commitment and legal responsibility that comes with such a position.
“It’s a substantial commitment,” she says. “It’s certainly not something you’d do light-heartedly. And it’s a bit of a trap for young players because it can be perceived as being quite a low time commitment. You might only serve that company one day per month but that day and all the other activities around that might actually be reasonably robust.”
Here are Kylie’s top tips for a smooth transition into a Board placement:
- Get out there and start learning - Investigate training options, particularly with peak bodies such as the AICD. They’re a very good source not only of learning but also of information and contacts. Talk to other people who have secured Board positions or who hold a number of Board appointments. They are usually a great source of information and are often quite helpful in terms of making recommendations.
- Build your way up to the majors - It’s very unlikely that you're going to walk into a high-profile, ASX 100 appointment. So the way you build up your experience is potentially through not-for-profit Boards or through sports, arts or community-based positions. These are sometimes are unpaid but are good to build experience. The other way to do this is by working with a start-up or emerging business. This can be an excellent option as it can fast track your business networking (such businesses are often surrounded by high net-worth individuals and venture capitalists etc) and start-ups also typically develop quite rapidly.
- Manage your reputational risk - Don’t join a dysfunctional Board. Do this by ensuring your fellow Board members are of a high calibre. Also, check the level of support offered to Board members by the Chairman and other Directors. A Board with a great deal of conflict is not a good place to begin your second corporate career.
- Beware the easy wins - Certain Board positions are far easier to come by than others and, as a result, such Boards tend to be populated by passionate volunteers that don’t necessarily make the most astute business people. Some such Boards can be quite dysfunctional, so be sure to do your research before accepting such a position.