Prepare for Volunteer Board Leadership Positions to Build Your Brand
Serving as a volunteer director on the board of a trade or civic organization can expand your professional skills and visibility in ways that can accelerate career progress or grow your business. Board service can also expand your professional network, increase access to regional decision makers and even position you to influence policy and practices within your community or industry.
While such roles have often gone to the same small number of high-profile industry or community leaders (often white males), there is a growing desire to have more diverse voices at the table. There are steps you can take now to prepare for these roles and position yourself to be noticed.
Develop “Board Readiness”
The qualifications organizations seek in board candidates can be formidable. Many non-profit boards also have a strongly implied “give or get” policy where you will be expected to contribute personally at a certain financial level, or raise funds from others. But it can be highly rewarding, professionally and personally, to apply your skills to board roles that enable you to expand your reach, your impact and your leadership skills. Knowing what boards most want in viable candidates will help you prepare for the role.
The international search firm, Mullwood Partnership, interviewed more than 50 board members from major companies to find out what makes a successful board member. They found that “boardroom capital” is built on five competencies, and an ability to meld these skillsets together. According to their findings, those skills include:
Financial acumen. Although you don’t need to be an accountant yourself, you need to be able to “talk in numbers” according to the survey respondents. That includes reading and interpreting financial documents, such as an income statement or balance sheet, and being able to use them to understand an organization’s financial health and risks.
Strategic thinking. Sitting directors described this fluency as understanding the implications of financial information, as well as being attuned to externalities, such as environmental, social and governance trends, as well as the activities of competitors. As a board member, your focus will remain on the big picture, understanding the implications of major trends, and anticipating changing marketplace dynamics.
Collaboration. If you are accustomed to leading your own small business, or managing a corporate department, you may be used to making decisions independently within your sphere. As a board member, the emphasis is on collaboration and consultation, rather than direct control. You will need to cultivate strong relationships with other members of the board (who may also be used to calling the shots) and look for opportunities to advise rather than direct. Early on, focus on listening and observing the behavior of others before you start weighing in more fully.
Clear understanding of scope. Board members are not in the trenches engaged in the organization day to day. With only monthly or even quarterly meetings, your opportunity to ask questions and exert influence is somewhat limited. Focus on why you were chosen to serve and strive to make your biggest contributions in those areas where you can add the most value.
Foster a supportive culture. Although both parties are committed to the success of the organization, there can be a degree of tension between board directors and organization leaders. The most successful board directors help create a culture of trust where executives feel they can share candid feedback and seek advice on critical challenges. Although the CEO or president ultimately reports to the board, your goal is to facilitate that person’s ability to lead the organization, not supersede it.
You can prepare yourself for board service by building these skills within your current role by volunteering for committee assignments, or in settings such as a local neighborhood group, your church or with your alma mater. Even running a large project at your child’s school, within an Employee Resource Group, or at your synagogue can build board credentials.
Develop a Board Resume
To better able board leaders to consider you, you will need a board-specific resume or biography. While your standard resume focuses first on your work roles and achievements, and includes a section on professional and civic service, a board-specific bio works a bit in reverse. You will still highlight key professional accomplishments and positions of growing responsibility, but the focus is on positioning yourself as a steward of the organization.
Your board bio will highlight examples of organization-wide influence, engagement in committee work, interactions with boards, such as presenting in the boardroom environment, and your engagement with industry and trade groups and government leaders. It is wise to position your capabilities and experience through the lens of the five key capabilities reviewed here that sitting board directors say are the most sought after.
As you develop the skills board seek, and capture them in a concise board-specific bio, you will be ready to spread the word to your network that you have the potential and desire to lead at the board level.