What first board seat is right for me? The 8 points you should consider

First board seat

If you are considering serving on a board, you are most likely asking yourself, “What first board seat is right for me?”. There are 8 points you should consider when determining what board roles you should pursue. Before doing so, you should ensure you really want to be an independent board director. This article encourages you to explore these 8 points. In doing so, you will discover what is possible and what is unlikely for your first board seat. The result will be a set of more realistic target organizations and more defined board career aspirations.

Looking for your first board seat? 8 points to consider

1- What types of board opportunities are out there?

Based on where in the world you are located, you need to do some research to understand what board or committee types exist. In particular, what kinds of organizations have boards or committees, what type of boards are they, and do they require independent directors?  For example, in the USA, options include Corporations, Cooperatives, Not-for-Profit companies, Limited Liability Companies and Non-Governmental Organizations. For some entities, it is a requirement that they have a board of directors and several independent directors on that board. For others, it may not be a requirement; instead, they have executive committees or advisory groups.

Keep an eye on LinkedIn and other recruitment platforms to see what board and committee opportunities are available. Set up notifications to let you know when potential roles are listed.

2 – What are your passions?

Board chairs and board directors are passionate about their organizations and what they do. You, too, must share this passion. Joining a board that matches your interests and passions will also ensure you stay engaged, energized and focused.

Make a list of organizations that you can demonstrate a passion for. Just wanting to be a board member of that organization does not show passion. Consider what you are passionate about personally and professionally. You may be surprised how many organizations or groups you contact have some board or committee to oversee their activities. Not-for-Profit and voluntary organizations, in particular, are often grateful to receive an offer of extra assistance.

3 – Where do you live?

Location still counts, even with the uptake of ZOOM and remote meetings. Many more traditional boards still take comfort in appointing local candidates to the organization and the community it serves. This may mean limiting your initial search to organizations within easy commuting distance. There will be exceptions to this practice. For strategic reasons, organizations may intentionally seek board directors for different locations. In other scenarios, organizations seek a specific skill set resulting in a broader search for the right candidate.

If the first board seat you are considering is not within your geographical location, you must do two things. You need to confidently convince the board or panel of why they should appoint you over a local candidate and that the distance will not prevent you from functioning effectively in the role.

4 – Do you need to get paid?

There are many benefits of serving on a board. For some roles, one of those benefits is being paid. Voluntary board and committee positions are just that, and most Not-for-Profit boards don’t remunerate their independent directors. Some Not-for-Profits will compensate you for reasonable expenses.  If you need to get paid, you will need to look outside these organizations and sectors. Be prepared that this may make obtaining your first board seat more competitive and more complex. If you are still adamant that you need to be paid, don’t get distracted by unpaid not-for-profit boards. It is best to stop considering them altogether and focus on paid opportunities.

If gaining a paid board appointment is not your primary concern, then Not-for-Profit organizations should stay on your list. They are a far more achievable goal for your first board seat, plus you will benefit from the experience you gain and the connections you make.

5 – Who is going to value your skills?

Not every board or committee is going to value or require every skill. Before you start researching who will value or require your skills, you must first identify “What is your skillset is?” and then be clear about “Why are those skills of value at board-level?” The key here is to view this from the board’s point of view. 

Your thinking should be along the lines of: “Would a large organization with a large HR department require a board member with HR expertise?” It is unlikely. Or, “will your general IT experience be valuable to a specialist tech company?” Going through this process will initially be time-consuming, but it will help identify what first board seat is right for you.

6 – How valuable are your connections?

Your connections, both professional and personal, are valuable. Review your contact list and then ask yourself, “what organizations will want access to, or see value in, your contacts?” In a competitive board appointment process, your connections could be the thing that separates you from the competition.

Your connections are also hugely valuable to you in your search for your first board seat. We know that around 65% of people are appointed due to a personal and professional connection. So you need to review and then research all your contacts. See who currently or previously sat on boards. Look at the organization you currently or previously worked for. Should any of those organizations be on your shortlist? Don’t just focus on those connections you know well, as research shows that those you know more casually may be the ones who provide the results.

7 – How much time can you commit to your first board seat?

Joining a board can be an enriching experience, but it can also be trying and time-consuming. When determining what first board seat is right for you, you must research the time commitment involved in serving on potential boards or committees. If a role is advertised, it will often state what time commitment is expected for attending board and committee meetings. However, what you also need to consider is the time required for travel, meeting preparation, provision of additional advice, emergency meetings, upgrading your skills (inducing governance training) and representing the organization at community events.

You also need to consider how much time need to allocate to finding and gaining your first board seat. Gaining an independent board seat is a competitive process. If you are looking for your first board role, it is unlikely that you will have board experience. So the process of finding the right board role may take some time. I recommend you allocate a 12 months time commitment to this process. If you follow a straightforward process, with the proper documents & resources, you should be able to achieve your goal much earlier.

8 – How competitive are you?

Since there are limited seats on any board, and plenty of people apply for them when they become available, gaining one is a competitive process. When seeking your first seat, you can prepare for this environment and become more competitive by:

    • Accepting the process will likely be a highly competitive one
    • Prepare for the knockbacks and request feedback 
    • Having a board pitch that brings to the fore your value
    • Ensuring you have a board CV and board cover letter that sets you apart from the other candidates
    • Selecting roles that you can realistically compete for
    • Being resilient and persistent, it will pay off

Ready to take the next step

Defining what first board seat is right for you is not an easy task. If you don’t select the right roles and organizations, it will impact everything moving forward. Articulating your board profile and pitch is crucial in the competitive process, which requires resilience and perseverance. During the extensive training incorporated in my Board Appointment Program, I will take you through all of these elements step-by-step, plus much more.

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Appointments. He has over a decade of experience in putting people on boards as an international headhunter and recruiter. He has interviewed hundreds of directors and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP director roles in the world.

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