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Career Hedge: Why Board Service is the Ultimate Risk Mitigant

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by Tamara Paton in Motivation, Professional development
career hedge

Have you ever been fired? Or restructured out of a job? It happens to the best of us: Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and J.K. Rowling all received pink slips. Jerry Seinfeld didn’t know he was dropped from a show until he showed up for a read-through and his part was missing from the script.

Unless you live in a utopian dreamworld, you are all too familiar with the fleeting nature of employment. I saw it early in my work in bond sales. My team’s manager was paged to human resources — over the squawk box, no less. The directive closed with an ominous “and bring your coat.”

Even great people who work hard can lose their jobs. Companies struggle, sell divisions, and reorganize. Perhaps your organization pursues a strategy that you don’t support. Or a new leader comes onto the scene and brings with him his favourite foot soldiers.

It pays to be ready for these career shocks. These events may be beyond our control, but we can put strategies in place that minimize risk. Fortunately, serving on fiduciary and advisory boards may well represent a perfect hedge.

In fact, board service makes your career so resilient you just might welcome a severance package one day.

Fortify your personal brand

A number of my coaching clients have contributed meaningfully to their organizations. A few years ago, their respective trajectories levelled off two or three rungs below the C-suite. Uninspired by the political climbing required to advance further, they asked, “Is this really it?”

Part of their challenge relates to the way their long-term colleagues perceive them. When we grow up in an organization, our personal brands can be anchored by the role we played 10 or more years ago. Board service provides a clean slate to redefine our identities as more than the analyst who once ran the office hockey pool.

By serving on a board, you’ll gain new colleagues in the director and management ranks of a new organization. You’ll attend new industry events and conferences, and hear from those who are interested in serving on your board with you. Board-related travel also allows you to keep in touch with far-flung people you wouldn’t otherwise see regularly. All of these contacts will see you for the leader you are today, augmented by the status that a board role brings.

Learn a new industry, function or role

No one expects a new director to know everything. That’s why many board roles begin with director orientation, two or more intense days of education and background. Training continues with one-day courses, director education programs, and specialized conferences.

Beyond the sheer number of learning opportunities, boards create a convenient opportunity to develop outside your area of expertise. If your work to date has shied away from financial statements, dive in. Nowhere else will you have the chance to roll up your sleeves with numbers that are supported by a big picture view of an organization’s story.

I’ve always been a numbers geek, so chairing an HR committee opened me up to executive compensation plans, pension liabilities, cultural transformation initiatives, and CEO succession planning. And I can’t imagine a better setting in which to observe CEOs in action firsthand and raise one’s own C-suite game.

Act on feedback and coaching

New directors will find that most colleagues are open to sharing advice and feedback. Given that board chairs and vice chairs facilitate meetings more than they contribute, they can also offer insight into your performance. The more collaborative, casual nature of committee work makes committee chairs valuable coaches who know you well.

Once they have heard feedback, the most successful new directors don’t stop there. They test new approaches and behaviours, reflect on their impact, and circle back to their board buddy to gauge progress. This sustained feedback loop accelerates development in the boardroom and spills over into their day jobs.

 

Steven Covey once said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” We can be surprised by shocks in our career path or we can prepare for them. Building a board career can be your next step forward, even as the rubble falls around others.

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Career Hedge: Why Board Service is the Ultimate Risk Mitigant

by Tamara time to read: 3 min
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