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Want your first board role in 2023? How to stand out from the crowd

Our experts explain how to navigate challenges and stand out among the competition when applying for your first board role.

Board roles can be incredibly rewarding. They offer the opportunity to work across a diverse portfolio of organizations, allowing you to apply your accumulated expertise while growing and turning companies around. You can also make a real impact on social issues like diversity, inclusion, and sustainability.

The challenge is in getting your first board role. Competition is increasing, and the role itself is becoming more difficult. Greater knowledge of governance is expected of board members, their responsibilities are growing, and there is more personal risk associated with the job.

What core skills do board members need?

Rather than a group of experts who only contribute to their specialism, modern board directors bring strong governance skills and are able to apply these across all areas of a business. Modern boards are increasingly comprised of generalist directors who demonstrate intellectual curiosity across a broad spectrum of areas.

The role is to chart a course for the company’s long-term strategic success while balancing the short-term pressures. Board members need to be collaborative and work as a team with respect and trust. 

Board directors must be capable of broaching tough questions and challenging the CEO and senior management, but as a mentor rather than with a directive-led style.

There needs to be open and frank conversation in the board room but not in a way that is combative; rather questioning what is presented and challenging where necessary.

The modern board member must also have clear values on key social issues, particularly diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. Part of this is balancing the interests of the company’s strategy and management with those of its shareholders, who are placing higher emphasis on ESG issues.

What makes a board role different to a C-suite role?

Board members are there to guide and question, not manage. Their purpose is to provide strategic guidance, not to become involved in the operational minutia of the organization. Their role is to oversee the governance of the company, maintain the business plan, and set business goals.

While the CEO and C-level executives focus on day-to-day business, the board focuses on the results of these activities to ensure the company is working towards its objectives, upholding its values and reaching its potential.

Ultimately, a board role is more about guidance than the hands-on approach of a C-suite executive.

It is about harnessing strategic thinking, ensuring the organization is profitable and moving in a direction to tackle contemporary issues such as ESG. It is then down to the senior management to execute and achieve the strategic objectives.

What are the benefits of taking on a board role?

A board role enables you to broaden the application of your intellectual capacity and leverage skills you don’t have the opportunity to use in a functional role. It also allows you to take the skills and experience gained in one sector and use them to help companies in another.

This provides exposure to other industries and organizations which you wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to work in as an executive or CEO. What’s more, it gives you the opportunity to be a mentor, helping to guide the CEO and other function leaders – a role that is in itself, highly rewarding.

Today, board members are expected to take a stance on social issues.

This gives you the opportunity to affect real change and move the needle forward in areas like diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. It also enables you to engage with the stakeholder communities at large to tackle these areas.

Read more: How to write a CV that’ll get you onto your first board

Do I need liability insurance before accepting a board role?

The level of personal risk associated with being a board member is increasing. Individual public board members might be named by shareholders in lawsuits or held to account by the authorities. Overall scrutiny of boards of directors is increasing, therefore having the right personal insurance is a real necessity.

How much competition is there for board roles?

Despite the role becoming more demanding, the competition for board positions is increasing. Following the pandemic, many executives opted for early retirement while ‘keeping their hand in’ the world of work. What’s more, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for a lot of people to rethink the way they work, the type of work they do, and how much time they commit to their job. As a result, the part-time but highly stimulating work of a board member has become highly attractive.

How do I stand out among the competition when applying for a board role?

To stand out amongst the competition there are a number of things you can do.

Identify your value proposition and the specific knowledge and experience you can bring to a company. Part of this should be identifying your strengths and the expertise you have bought from your executive career.

Are you proficient at change, have you had experience in transformation for example. Then, consider the types of organizations that would benefit from your knowledge and experience – start small for first-time board positions and build your governance skills accordingly. Remember that professional development is important, keep investing in building your skill set.

You’ll need a board-specific CV which will look different and promote different skills than your executive CV. Once complete you need to run a hygiene check on your public image – make sure your social media profiles reflect your board abilities, write for publications, speak at events, and repair important professional relationships that may have gone awry.

Read more: How to prepare for the interview for your first ever board seat

Finally, network as much as you can. Reconnect with your past network, including CEOs, previous board members, and clients. Get to know serving directors and headhunters, and try and find a board mentor.

For more information about securing your first board position in 2023, download our full report here 

Find out more about how to get on your first board, step by step

To find out more about how you can land your first board role please contact the authors, get in touch with us, or your local Odgers Berndtson contact.

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