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How You Can Get on a Board Seat

Board positions can seem like this black hole where its difficult to discern how people got on boards and how to get on one yourself. For many of us, sitting on a board is a way to give back and support an initiative that’s important to us and to help an organization be stronger with your expertise. Its also a wonderful networking opportunity, opening yourself up to people from outside your core circles. And on the higher end, its also where you can get paid quite a bit to sit on a public or private company board and impact the direction of a company for its stakeholders. I will focus on the non profit and similar boards rather than the larger company boards in this article.

How do you get on a board? Here are my key pieces of advice. As with any advice, take whatever you read here with a grain of salt and tailor to your specific needs.

Understand your interests and motivation

Think about what sort of board and cause interests you. Being on a board is a large time commitment and most board seats are either volunteer or come with small stipends, so you want to make sure you are motivated to be there. During any application process too, it will be clear to the nominating committee that there is a misalignment between the board and your motivations too if you haven’t thought this through and articulated your motivation.

Know your value proposition

Are you a business leader? Or perhaps a professional with specific industry or functional experience? Perhaps you have pertinent knowledge of the environment the board is operating in. Most boards are either operating with a skills based matrix or are shifting that direction, so understanding how you can add value will better allow you to get where you need.

Make sure your CV/Resume is clear on your value and board experience

One of the easiest ways to communicate your value is to have your CV rearranged for board applications to ensure your board experience is clearly shown, no matter how long ago it was or how short it was. Having some board experience will always give an organization more peace of mind than if you don’t. And if you haven’t specifically served on a board, perhaps you had interaction with a board at work or in your condo for example. These are all indicators that you will understand how to slot in quickly.

Network and communicate your interest

There are multiple paths. The most obvious is applying to various board openings that exist on sites like LinkedIn or on governance school sites like the Directors College or ICD. These are a quick way to identify boards looking to fill roles now, but think back to the alignment and value proposition you bring and its likely to be difficult to find the right fit through this path. The best path to getting on a board you want is to network. Once you’ve identified your interests and value, start researching organizations that may fit and reach out and market yourself. Even if there is nothing available, the fact you reached out means the organization has a motivated individual in their minds now and when the right opening comes up, they will be more likely to reach out for those soft board openings. This is how many of these positions get filled through the board’s network and understanding who can step in to fit the culture and skills needed and its often quite dynamic. Also, don’t discount the power of offering to get involved through other means. Perhaps there are committees or specific projects the board or organization may need help with, so its a good idea to offer yourself up for anything they might need support on. This is a great way to get involved and stay top of mind for the positions when they open up.

Brush up on basic governance

If you get to an interview, brush up on basic governance and board logistics. A quick internet search will take you to many articles on what types of boards there are, what the role of a board member is, how to be an effective board member. Being able to answer 2-3 simple governance questions are table stakes so if you are unable to answer these, you will not get that board seat. Also, take time to think about the organization, its goals, strategy and industry and think about some examples of how the board might need to be involved. Just showing you have thought of this will show initiative and a broader understanding of the needs of the board and differentiate yourself. Finally, be clear on your interest and value you bring and bring it back to that. You want the interviewers to take away that this person understands their role on the board, understands the organization and its goals and culture, and provides value.

Stick with it

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So its always best to apply for something, even if you don’t think you are the right fit now. You never know when a role will open up and they think of you, or perhaps they hear of another board that needs someone with your skills. This is the power of simply showing up.

A few other things to consider:

Governance Education is not necessary, but it certainly will move you up the list when being considered for a role. It gives instant credibility to you and peace of mind to the nominating committee that you will understand your role and be able to add value quickly. Its a bit of a cart before the horse though as you’ll get more value from the education if you have served on boards, but it will also help you get on boards if you have the education.

If you are younger and don’t have the higher level role or board experience that makes it easier to join a board, consider looking into local community organizations that have more operational boards. These are boards that often rely on volunteers to help them since resources and funds are tight and they look to their board to offer computer, finance, marketing, HR experience in a more functional capacity rather than in a governance capacity. These types of boards are often less appealing to individuals with leadership and other high level work commitments so its a great place for younger people to get involved and showcase your skills while building your board experience to be ready for future opportunities.

Ron Laidman, C.Dir., P.Eng.