The Dominion Post
The realities of being on a board
The commercial spotlight is increasingly being shone on boards of directors. With that attention comes people taking more notice of boards, the people who comprise them, and what they do.
As a result, being on a board seems to have become a ‘‘thing’’.
Both the role and the composition of boards are going through a lot of change.
As a result, there is a higher profile around the topic of boards and some expectant board members appear to be attracted by the expectation of change creating opportunity.
Then there is the perception that being on a board will provide an opportunity to work one day a month and get paid $60,000 a year.
At the risk of bursting that bubble, it is not quite like that.
First, most board roles are voluntary. Second, like all voluntary activities, they will soak up all the time you have and more. A tiny percentage of those serving on boards get paid more than the minimum wage for their services.
Notwithstanding, there seems to be a move, including but not limited to those people who fulfil the new-found demand for diversity, to stuff their bland and unspecific CV into an envelope and apply for boards they are not qualified for.
I have sat on several board appointment panels over recent years. These are temporary panels whose job is to understand the needs of an
organisation and manage the process of appointing new board members or reappointing existing ones.
The panel will often include one or two members from the current board, and will also have a sprinkling of well-qualified outsiders to ensure the appointment process is conducted at arm’s length.
As a result of my involvement in these temporary teams, I see a lot of applications for board positions. Many of these come from people who are wasting their time, as well as that of everyone else involved in the process. I have even seen the same application from the same person on three separate occasions for different roles.
Unfortunately, I don’t think most people understand what a board does or how they are comprised. A good board will have a range of skill sets including financial, commercial and industry specific knowledge.
The best boards are put together one person at a time, as you seek to appoint a range of personalities and complementary skills.
Boards need people with vision as well as those with an eye for detail. They need thinkers and doers. A disrupter in the mix is often useful but you also need those who depart the status quo with great caution.
So, if you are one of those people applying for board positions, here are some hints.
It is important to keep in mind that we all need relevant experience. I try to encourage people to become involved with a voluntary board or committee first, before expecting to get paid.
My rough calculation is that I attended more than 300 board meetings over 20 years before I ever got paid for attending.
To find that experience, I suggest you look for something that you are passionate about.
So, whether it is a sporting organisation, a school, arts foundation or a fundraising charity, you had better make sure you are passionate about the cause. Because without the passion, I can assure you that you will be asking yourself why you are sitting in your study at 11pm working on something for which you get nothing but the satisfaction of helping out.
As your search gathers steam, try to define what you can offer to your chosen target. Are you good with numbers? Perhaps you are a marketing whiz. Or a fundraiser? Work out a way to present your special skills in a manner that complements the needs of the organisation.
Next up, you have to look out for opportunities and apply for something that spins your wheels. Bear in mind that your application is designed to do one thing and one thing only. Get you an interview. Here are a few hints to help you get your application together. Research the organisation. Find out everything you can about it. Search its website.
Summon up the courage to phone one of the existing board members and ask them about the organisation, and what skills they are looking for.
What are their challenges and priorities? And think about how your skills fit those needs.
Write a cover letter. This has to be compelling enough to get the reader to turn the page and look at your CV and other related details. Make it specific to the needs of the organisation, and demonstrate that you have spent some time understanding what they want.
If there is an application form, fill it out. Take your time and do it properly. As long as your cover letter convinces the reader to turn the page, your application form will be read.
I am often surprised by the number of people who apply for a board role but don’t fill out the application form.
Present your CV in a manner that is specific to what you are applying for. Remember, you are in a competitive environment (even for a voluntary role), so you have to be relevant.
Highlight why your skills satisfy their needs. But be warned: Don’t overstate your CV. Artificial puffery is easy to spot and does you no good.
Finally, try to demonstrate an affinity for the organisation you are applying to join. Whether the topic is water safety, an athletics club or mental health, make sure the reader knows you have an understanding of and passion for the business they are in.
There is nothing complicated in the suggestions above. However, in my experience those simple things are often lacking. I hope you get as much satisfaction out of your board journey as I have done.
Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book ‘‘The Best Leaders Don’t Shout’’. brucecotterill.com