Getting on a corporate board – the most frequently asked questions.

23 Nov 2020

Getting on a corporate board – the most frequently asked questions.

Many leaders are interested in board directorship. But navigating the recruitment process can be a little different than a typical career move. We recently ran a live webinar – How to Get on Your First Corporate Board – with speakers Elaine Roper, Head of the Board Practice at Odgers Berndtson, and Deborah Rosati, Founder and CEO of Women Get on Board. We received a lot of great questions following the event and have gathered the answers here.

Missed our webinar? You can watch the recording here.

Understanding the value of a designation/board education

Do board directors require a designation? Is one designation better than the other? Is it worth the time and investment even if you have lots of board experience?

Both the Institute of Corporate Directors, Director (ICD.D) and Chartered Director (C. Dir.) designations provide a great foundation for professionals looking to optimize their leadership potential at the board level. But a designation is not currently essential to getting on a corporate board.

Understanding whether it is a worthwhile time or financial investment really depends on the experience that you already have. Governance, as a body of knowledge, is constantly evolving and it is essential that you understand its processes and your fiduciary responsibilities, and that you are staying up to date on relevant legislative and industry regulatory changes.

That said, the director role is professionalizing, and demands and liability are increasing. If you are serious about being a board director, at some point you should take formal education courses. We also believe that, over the next five years, a designation may become a prerequisite to sitting on a corporate board, but it is not currently.

Both the Institute of Corporate Directors and The Directors College offer high quality accredited director programs and ongoing continuing education to improve board effectiveness.

What kind of finance expertise or course training would you recommend for someone who does not have it? Where are these courses available?

Having a CA or MBA is not a requirement to becoming a board director, but you must have some financial acumen to participate effectively and succeed at the board level. You can get this experience throughout your career, but if your professional roles do not provide that exposure there are other executive education programs specifically for non-financial managers.

This is a small sampling of available courses, though most post-secondary institutions offer similar programs:

What is ESG expertise and how important is it for boards going forward?

ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) is a term often used to refer to sustainable or socially responsible investing, where decision-making considers environmental, social and governance criteria alongside other financial factors during the investment process. This could include climate concerns like water scarcity and deforestation, or human rights and governance issues like the #MeToo movement and diverse hiring practices.

A board director’s role is to identify, assess and help the organization mitigate risk. In order to fulfill this fiduciary duty, boards need directors who can understand, evaluate and communicate the risks that arise from ESG factors, and who can provide guidance and leadership to help an organization increase resilience and mitigate these risks.

This type of expertise is becoming increasingly important for boards and will continue to be in the future.

Self-identifying as a diverse candidate

Should a candidate bring up diversity on a board CV? How does the initial review process factor in diversity (e.g. race, ethnicity, gender, identity, background, and many other lived experiences)?

Discussing your identity should always be a personal choice. Most board recruiting processes now provide opportunities for candidates to self identify discreetly and create open opportunities for candidates to share how their unique background, and personal and professional experiences, that complement those of other directors.

If you identify as being a member of an equity-seeking group, openly discussing this can be beneficial, because having a diverse and balanced board composition is more important than ever. Having representation from diverse communities and perspectives is now proven to increase board effectiveness.

That said, you should never feel obligated to identify.

Creating a board résumé

Should a board résumé be set up differently than a corporate résumé?

Yes! These résumés could be similar but remember to always customize any résumé for the opportunity and organization. Because you are the product, the packaging matters. The key difference between your board and a more traditional corporate résumé is how you highlight your experience. Typically, your corporate résumé highlights your key leadership experience and your top KPIs in your role.

Conversely, your board résumé should be shorter and more focused. It should highlight the board and community work that you do, and effectively communicate how your experience and expertise will add value and unique insights to board discussions and decision making for the organization.

Getting the right experience

Is it essential to be in an executive position, for example at the vice-president level and above, to be a corporate director? How much experience do you really need?

To get on a corporate board, you really need to have experience setting organizational strategy and policy, and that kind of experience is typically developed at the senior management level. However, for not-for-profit or some Crown boards, executive leadership may be less essential, although candidates typically have some managerial-level experience.

There are times when boards require very deep subject matter expertise and may bring in a consultant to the board. Experienced legal, accounting and government or policy experts often provide education to directors, as do professionals with deep domain or sector experience (like AI, data science or ESG), even without executive-level experience. But they are typically not brought in as directors for corporate boards.

Prior board experience seems to be essential to getting on a board. If one has never been part of a board, what is the best way to get that first experience?

The best place to start is by joining a not-for-profit (NFP), a private corporate advisory board or even certain Crown agencies where you can build out your experience. There are many NFP and Crown organizations that require directors with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of experience, and they are great way to get exposure to board procedures, gain expertise and build out your professional network.

Is it better to have a more junior level role in a Tier 1 organization, or more senior level at a small organization?

Fortunately, there is no one path to board directorship. Top corporate boards are looking for experienced directors that can contribute meaningfully to board discussions, decision-making and the evaluation of risks and opportunities, but they also need diverse, external perspectives and people who can challenge assumptions. If a board requires AI expertise, for example, and you have that experience leading a smaller commercial-sized organization, you might be the best candidate – especially if you are able to differentiate yourself and communicate your value proposition.

What advice do you have for those with executive experience in the public sector or those in politics who want to serve on a corporate board?

Start by aligning your experience and expertise with organizations where you can add the most value. People with deep expertise in the public sector or politics often play important advisory roles to the board but understand that your political background can be a double-edged sword. If you are very politically aligned, it may prevent you from getting on a board.

Your best approach is a non-partisan approach – parlay your understanding of public policy and government relations and show the value that you can add to the organization.

Finding a corporate board role

In the webinar we shared some suggestions on where to find/uncover board opportunities, but we thought it would be helpful to share them again here.

There are several places you can go. Here are a few:

  • The ICD has a members-only database where board opportunities are regularly listed and updated.
  • Public sector and Crown agency roles are listed on official government websites. Federal listings are available here. Provincial level opportunities can be found on official provincial government sites linked to the federal site.
  • Professional associations like the Law Society and CPA Canada sometimes share postings, as do member-based services like Women Get On Board and theBoardlist.
  • Charity Village regularly shares director roles on NFP boards.

If you are specifically looking for corporate board opportunities, also look on company websites, as many post opportunities.

At the end of the day, it often comes down to research and networking. Identify the types of organizations that you’re most interested in and then do your research to find out who is currently on the board. Then, look at how you are connected to these directors and how you can build these relationships.

Can you share tips on networking during a pandemic?

Do all the same things, but do it online – start with your research, reach out to people and do your best to connect and build personal relationships. Zoom coffee dates are a thing!

A few more things…

What’s the biggest mistake that newly appointed board members make when they first join a board?

The biggest mistake new directors make is not immersing themselves in the business, culture and practices of the specific board that they’re on. Board directors need to listen, learn and research. They need to do the homework, read the material and stay informed on the issues. 

If you are starting on a new board, identify a mentor and get some support from other board members, such as the chair of the board or one of the committee chairs. The executive supporting any committee on which you serve can also provide additional insights, materials and perspectives. Take charge of your onboarding and do the work, similarly to how you’d start any other executive position.

I have been approached by a couple of services that help you get board jobs. They charge a membership fee. Are they worthwhile or is the "non-pay" route more effective?

Beware of any organization that asks you to pay to find a role – it is probably not credible. Joining credible organizations (as already mentioned in this article) can be a helpful way to build your network. These organizations usually focus on offering education opportunities, facilitating the process and helping you build your network. But there are no guarantees.

When I was a senior executive with one of Canada’s major big banks we were not allowed to sit on any for-profit boards. Is that changing?

No, this is not changing. The reason some seasoned executives and professional consultants are not permitted on for-profit boards is due to real or potential conflicts of interest with the company that employs them. In certain instances, it might be possible to serve on a Crown agency or subsidiary board, but check with all the involved organizations first in order to prevent any conflict of interest.

Have you read our step-by-step guide?

Are you interested in learning more about getting on a corporate board? Download our e-book, Getting on a Corporate Board.

About our Board Practice

We work with boards to help them create a diverse and balanced composition — one that reflects the organization’s strategic direction and includes the right mix of expertise and experience. Specifically, we offer board assessments to increase board effectiveness, as well as director recruitment and succession planning services to help strengthen boards for the future.

Ready to learn more? Let’s talk.