Stay Humble, Hustle Hard: Motivation & Your Board Career



Trusted to serve
by Tamara Paton in Motivation

A potential client asked me recently to introduce him to board opportunities. Rather than applying my tools to find his own gigs, he hoped that I would play matchmaker. And he offered generous compensation in exchange for access to my contacts.

I will admit that I was tempted at first. I couldn’t shake a gnawing feeling, however, emerging from the lack of familiarity I have with this individual. And there was a bigger issue I couldn’t immediately identify.

After I gracefully declined the potential client’s request, I knew I had made the right call. It came down to two things. You have to do the work. And you have to want to do it yourself.

No question, you have to do the work. The networking, volunteering, and hustling. The reading, coaching, and governance training. The helping of others while you watch them advance, unsure of when you will get your own break. You have to do it all. But more importantly, you have to want to do it.

Fortunately, doing so promises huge upside. You can wait until you are a 60-something retired executive to build a board career. Or you can enjoy the benefits right now at whatever age and stage you happen to be. I encourage you to choose the present. Doing so can change your life in three powerful ways.

Diversifying your network

I joined my first non-profit board purely as a networking play. Having just moved to a new city, I had zero professional identity. And with two children under the age of two at home, I valued my fellow directors as a lifeline. The work introduced me to countless stakeholders who cared deeply about the hospital system that we served. Without question, joining that board is among the most important career moves I have made.

German researchers found a causal relationship between the investment in professional networks and career trajectory. Interestingly, it turns out that success is determined not only by the size of our networks, but also their shape. Human beings tend to form clusters of friendships based on where we study, work or relax. These relationships serve as infrastructure for idea exchange, but have an inherent flaw. Ideas tend to circulate within a cluster, but rarely jump from one to another.

Successful networkers stand as connectors between clusters, facilitating the fluid exchange of information. They pull information from a range of groups, translate shorthand, and introduce insights from one group to another.

Social entrepreneur Michael Simmons has this down to a science. “In order to be an effective broker, you must continually fight against the comfort and validation that comes from staying in one group….the simple act of constantly putting yourself in an open network, a network where people aren’t connected to each other, will give you a huge advantage in your career.”

Expanding one’s network is not easy, but the research – and my own experience – suggest that it is worthwhile.

Slingshot your path

If you are a fan of non-linear plot twists, board work can shake up your storyline in surprising ways. The corporate ladder has evolved into a jungle gym, with climbers seeking creative ways to move from A to B. At the risk of butchering the analogy, the playground structure for those building board careers is one hurtling through space. Admittedly, the location and nature of my point B is fuzzy, but the ride sure is fun in the meantime.

What would you say if offered investment opportunities normally reserved for large institutions? How would you feel about speaking at conferences or seeing your words in a magazine? Would you appreciate calls from the executive recruiters who ignored you a few years ago? Or invitations to advise non-profits doing what you consider the most important work in the world?

A board career and the effort you exert to build it can lead to all of these things and whatever else you create.

Sharpen your saw

Most aspiring directors keep their day jobs out of necessity as they build board careers. Fortunately, your board life can directly support and accelerate your core professional pursuits. Corporate director and telecom executive Joseph Natale has seen the benefits firsthand.

“Stepping away from your day-to-day activities for board meetings forces you to take a higher-level, more macro perspective. There’s also a lot of value in having to articulate ideas and solutions to problems to a varied audience. It readily tests your logic and convictions about management policies. By keeping an open and self-assessing mind, you create a real laboratory to advance your capabilities.”

If you aspire to a corner office, working to build a board career can get you there faster. Executive recruitment firm SpencerStuart views director experience as an opportunity to witness different leadership styles, corporate cultures and business models. When recruiting CEOs, the firm views board experience as “training to see issues from a board-level point of view.”


Whatever your motivation, I hope you connect with it frequently. Doing so confirms our commitment to the board service path and carries us through rough patches. Once you begin to experience these benefits firsthand, you won’t doubt the value of investing in your board career consistently and without hesitation.

Question: What benefits have you enjoyed as part of your board work? What keeps you motivated to continue pursuing your goal?

Thank you for reading! If you found this post useful, please click the “like” button on LinkedIn or tweet a comment. Doing so helps my work reach others and would mean so much to me.




Stay Humble, Hustle Hard: Motivation & Your Board Career

by Tamara time to read: 4 min