A 33-year old marketing director. A 47-year old tech executive. A CEO in his late 50s. In the past week, each of these individuals has told me of their desire to serve on boards. They spoke the words like a secret, something that only I could know.
I find myself in these conversations often. Some dive into the specific strategies that generate board opportunities, and others frame board service as something to pursue “one day.” Many of us aspire to a director role, but fear holds us back. Because the average age of a S&P500 director is 63, sharing and taking steps towards our goals might feel presumptuous to some.
Fortunately, I hadn’t really heard the conventional wisdom when I sought my first board seat. I had seen enough relatively young directors in action to ask “why not me?” Joining my first non-profit board at 34, I was hopeful that the opportunity would contribute positively to my professional life.
Perhaps you are curious about the “how” and “when” of building a board career. My blog posts, consulting work and online course explore the tactical piece of that puzzle. The techniques are of limited use, however, if you don’t take action. A someday/maybe mindset is far more limiting than external messages we hear about the right time to pursue our goals.
Regardless of where you are in your career, board service can boost your standing today and accelerate your progress going forward. How else can you refine your interpersonal skills, learn new industries, broaden your professional network, travel to new locales, and supplement your income? All of these benefits are possible and may only be the beginning for you.
I have seen leaders achieve their board-related goals at every age and stage of life. Their success began with a clear view of the near and long-term benefits their efforts could yield.
1. Young professionals: Invest in your development
Those in their late twenties and early thirties find rich development opportunities on non-profit boards. These settings offer the chance to acquire desirable skills, build new relationships and contribute to a meaningful cause. On a board, you can also take chances that accelerate your learning. As we evolve our style and interpersonal skills, settings that permit low-risk experimentation and feedback are invaluable. Even if your early board work is unpaid, the experience supports higher compensation in your present employment and beyond.
2. Advisors: Complement consulting work with the predictable activity and income
When I made my living as a full-time strategy consultant, I finished each project feeling proud of the outcome. Approximately 32 seconds later, I would moan that I might never find work again.
A board’s predictable pace complements the feast and famine of freelance, advisory and consulting work. Regardless of where you are in the business development cycle, you will appreciate the consistent activity and income of a board appointment. (See this post for more on the financial considerations of a board career.) And once you have impressed your new colleagues with your talents, your consulting project pipeline may well become fuller than ever.
3. Mid-level executives: Look up outside your daily responsibilities
A very successful friend recently confided that she doesn’t remember what it feels like to be good at her job. Buried in the day-to-day pressure of restructuring, she had lost touch with the talent she brings to work every day. I hear others wonder “Is this it?” when they approach the senior ranks of their organization.
In my experience, these moments happen to every successful leader. They needn’t be a signal to make an abrupt career change, however. Instead, they can be a call to diversify your professional presence outside your workplace. Serving as a director can boost your creative energy, enhance your personal brand, and expand your areas of expertise. Even if you are in love with your work right now, a board role helps keep your options open.
4. Senior executives: Prepare for a CEO role
Executive search firm Spencer Stuart encourages senior leaders to complement their formal responsibilities with board work.
“Many [executives] find that outside board service enhances their ability to interact with their own boards by improving their knowledge of governance and their understanding of board dynamics and director expectations. Board work exposes individuals to different leadership styles, corporate cultures and business models and can broaden professional and personal networks.”
Your time in boardrooms hints at the kind of CEO or board chair you might become one day. Every meeting serves as a case study in leadership and strategy on a lightning-fast feedback loop. It’s a privilege to observe so many CEOs demonstrating their craft and asking for your support along the way.
Wherever you are in the career progression, it’s time to get in the (board) game. In the words of author H. Jackson Browne, “Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor.” I hope you follow the music and enjoy the rewards that follow.
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