While our network is extensive at Modern, we seek to form real relationships with the executives we serve both as clients and as candidates. In conversations, we are often asked, “How do I go about looking for the right first board role?” Drawing on our significant experience following executives as they journey through various decisions (making notes of the resulting satisfaction levels), and combined with input from our own board of advisors, we have compiled a list of insights. The following are a few to consider when seeking out that first board opportunity.
First, set the compensation off to the side and select a board role that gives you the opportunity to serve a company, cause, or industry you are passionate about. A common misconception is that holding a couple of key board positions is an easy way for executives to “ride off into the sunset.” Those who have yet to hold their first board position might be surprised when they learn that board roles often demand significant time and responsibility. Think of board memberships as a kind of philanthropy, where you are giving back to capitalism and democracy. Ask yourself if you would still join a particular board if the compensation was zero.
Karen Larrimer – Head of Retail Banking and Chief Customer Officer, PNC Corporation:
“When considering board opportunities, it is important to find a match with a company that shares your values and is in a field of particular interest to you. You also should thoroughly research the board role you are seeking to help ensure that it will provide you with the opportunity to utilize your full capabilities, as well as the opportunity to grow your skills throughout your service. Board roles are time consuming, so it is critical that you only take on opportunities that you truly have a passion for and on which you know you will enjoy spending your time. When you love what you are doing, you find the time to do it well.”
Another consideration when seeking out that first board role is to try and avoid choosing opportunities purely based on external appearances and the potential uplift to your career trajectory. There must be more to it than good PR. The right board position is not a means to an end, but a means unto itself. After the initial excitement of that board position wears off, the satisfaction and engagement with that role can decline rapidly if it is not the right fit. That is a situation that can impede the growth or mission of the organization you set out to help and leave you both lesser for the experience.
Don Callahan – Executive Chairman, Time:
“Try to pick Board roles where your abilities are needed. Technology is a great example. Most boards know that technology is going to be the key to winning in the future but many do not understand how to position their companies. If you have the capabilities, then join the board but be willing and ready to help. In keeping with this, be ready to be a sounding board. Board members are not players on the field but coaches and are required to regularly give their views and offer ideas. The key is to be of influence, not action.”
Teresa Tanner - CEO & Founder, Reserve Squad
“Advice I often give to others on choosing the right board opportunity is to take time to explore the culture of the organization and in the boardroom. Do the board members have a high level of trust amongst themselves? Is the boardroom diverse? Do the board members have a good balance of support and effective challenge? Does the board handle conflict effectively?”
Finally, make sure the board position is the right type of commitment for you. Delve deeply into the details pertaining to expectations on prep time, committee meetings, board meetings, and travel. Remember that prep meetings often require prep meetings themselves. Given Covid-19 has caused many meetings to be conducted virtually, be sure to ask what the expectations will be regarding meetings and travel once the pandemic has passed. It helps to ask for a board calendar before you commit to the board. Most boards have this a year ahead of time and will help you resolve conflicts with your other boards or daytime job. There may be interesting opportunities to join an independent board in an international region, however these may require additional qualifications, certifications or exams. We would also strongly advise you to do your research and learn about the other board members you will be serving with and how you might fit in the mix.
Bask Iyer – CIDO, VMware:
“Ask ‘do I like the other board members?’ It is a simple question but important. You often end up spending a lot more time with the board than what you were contracted to do so choose a team that is fun to be with and learn from. Tech startup boards and smaller companies expect the board members to open doors, get more involved in technical or business development etc. Be aware of this. General, large company board roles are clearly defined between what the management does and the board member does.”
Being a Board member works best when it differs from your operational role, but also utilizes your expertise in a transferable way. Consider complimenting your professional experience in the following areas:
A. Scale: If you are working in a large corporation, why not consider something smaller and fast growth. As an executive in a large organization, you have a great deal of experience that can support that founder or CEO with the challenges you know they will be facing.
B. Industry: Get out of your industry sector. Examine your transferable skills and gain an understanding of those industries that are adjacent to your own. They may be working through similar transformational journeys to those which you have previously navigated.
C. Mental Agility: Don't choose a board solely based on your functional skillsets. Instead, consider your broad abilities such as leadership, culture, and management style. A great board role is one which allows you to flex different muscles.
Jeff Wecker – CTO, Two Sigma:
“For someone considering a role as a director, there are a couple points to think about. Is the company within your area of expertise or interest that you believe you can help as a fiduciary and advisor? Do you believe that your abilities and network of relationships would be complementary to those of the other directors?”
Your first board position is a careful consideration. Peel back the layers and delve into the “why” that is driving a particular organization, not just the “what” or the “how.” Make sure you have a clear interest in the company’s mission and avoid the trap of accepting a board role for superficial reasons. Make sure you see yourself as a good personal and professional fit with the other Board members because, rest assured, you will be spending a lot of time with them. Once you identify your target role, focus on growing the right network and adapt your resume for the appropriate board biography that aligns with your aspirations.
Wherever you are in your board journey, Modern is here to help guide you.