Family and social pressures on top of a busy executive job leave very little time for many to consider anything more than managing the status quo. However, not carving out some time to develop your personal brand can have serious consequences for your future board career. This means that starting your search for board roles early is absolutely critical.
My previous Chairman (an exceptional executive recruiter) used to advise executives that they should consider spending up to 30% of their time focusing on building or sustaining their own brand. Much of his advice was focused on ensuring that they maintained and grew their personal connections.
A great way to do this is by complimenting your executive career with a board role – even if (and often it is) a voluntary one.
So why would anyone want to spend a large proportion of their time on a voluntary or lowly paid board role? I believe that there are a number of compelling reasons to do so.
1. Weak ties: This is a phrase that Malcolm Gladwell uses to describe the influence that people you see ‘infrequently’ can have on your career. How do you develop these connections? A great place to start is by sitting on a board.
2. New networks: I speak with experienced board members on a regular basis. In addition to the board roles that pay their bills they almost always sit on one or two not for profit boards for free. By also sitting on these boards with them, you can quickly generate new and powerful connections.
3. Shared passion: The positions that many experienced board members are most passionate about are often the not for profit boards they sit on. They are passionate about these organisations perhaps because of a personal link or it might just be that they feel they can be more involved. In either case by sitting on a board that you are also passionate about allows for a shared passion with other board members – further promoting your brand and future career opportunities.
4. It counts when it counts: You never quite know when you are going to need more connections than you currently have. In my experience a lack of connections most often becomes an issue when faced with a forced or unplanned change in career. Having been through the GFC in the UK I observed (personally and professionally) that those with the strongest personal brand and widest networks were those who went on to prosper in difficult times. Again, a board role or two can provide much needed leverage.
5. Financial: To be clear, I don’t recommend anyone take a board role because of the money. However, some find that one of the perks of sitting on voluntary boards can be because it often leads to consulting income or involvement in new projects that might turn into a new career opportunity.
6. New skills: To state the obvious, board work differs from executive work. Having an inside perspective on how a board operates can help you navigate your own company’s board better.
7. Precedent: ‘What board experience do you currently have?’ is a question I often ask. Too often the response is ‘Very little – I have been too busy in my executive career’. One of the reasons for boards to appoint certain board members is because they have sat on other boards.
I strongly advise complimenting your executive career with ‘extra-professional activities’. By this I mean finding situations where you can develop networks outside of your usual connections. I think a board role or two is a great way to do this. Additionally, getting on a board early in your career means that, in an often very competitive board appointment process, you are more likely to be appointed.