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How to Get Yourself on a Board: Master the Foundations

Serving on a board can be an incredibly rewarding experience—and it’s one of the best ways to advance your career. Board service has both personal and professional benefits, including opportunities to:

  • Build your network and personal brand
  • Give back to organizations with meaningful missions
  • Learn different perspectives that can be applied to your existing roles
  • Get sponsored for governance education programs (e.g., ICD.D, C.Dir or CDI.D)
  • Develop governance leadership skills
  • Get access to new knowledge, skills, perspectives, management styles, corporate cultures, business models, mentors, and connections

As you can see, serving on a board is a meaningful way to build your career and enrich your network. However, securing a coveted board position is not an easy task. That’s why Women Get On Board’s mandate is to connect, promote, and empower women to corporate boards. It’s also why I’m launching a new 4-part blog series called How to Get Yourself on a Board.

My first blog in this series is called Master the Foundations and it will provide you with practical insights on how to:

  1. Recognize there are different types of boards
  2. Identify the skills needed to serve a board
  3. Develop your governance knowledge and expertise
  1. Recognize there are different types of boards

 The three major board types are: not-for-profit boards, public sector boards, and corporate boards.

Not-for-profit boards

Not-for-profit boards often come to mind to many when considering board service.  Not-for-profits must be operated for public good rather than private interest. They typically have philanthropic or social missions. Examples of not-for-profit boards include charities and foundations. They can also include advocacy organizations such as boards of trade and membership organizations such as industry associations.

Public sector boards

Serving on a public board means serving the public itself as you are working with organizations that have government oversight, such as public utilities, agencies, crown corporations, and public institutions. This means that there are strict regulations and rules you must adhere to. Public board service requires that you take great care to avoid conflicts of interest and that you must ensure you have enough time available to perform your duties diligently.

Corporate boards

Corporate boards cover all other corporations, including publicly traded and private companies.

  1. Identify the skills needed to serve on a board

Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of boards that may need your service, it’s now time to consider how you are able to contribute to a board. Each board has different board skills requirements, so it’s important to analyze your skillset and choose a board in which you would be the best fit.

Some of the skills/expertise that not-for-profits and public sector boards require are:

  • Governance expertise
  • Fundraising capability
  • Investment expertise
  • Operational skills
  • Ability to influence and advocate
  • Membership promotion
  • Services delivery
  • Credibility
  • Policy development
  • Sector knowledge and expertise

In comparison, corporate boards require additional skills. See sample board skills matrix below:

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. In fact, you should also consider your industry experience in general. According to the article “Charting a Path to the Boardroom,” most board members are experienced executives, many of whom were appointed after distinguishing themselves from their peers and moving up through the corporate ladder. That same article highlights that demonstrating know-how in some of the above key skills brings adds depth and breadth to the diversity of thought on a board.

  1. Develop your governance knowledge and expertise

 Now that you have a full understanding of the different types of boards and what is the board you best fit, it’s important to develop your governance knowledge and expertise. Below are four areas that are critical for you to understand before putting your name forward for a board position:

  1. The role of the board

“The primary responsibility of directors is to oversee the management of the business and affairs of a corporation. This is referred to as an oversight duty. As a general matter, a business corporation’s objective in conducting business is to create and increase shareholder value. To this end, in addition to performing an oversight duty, boards also perform a value-added role. Decision-making generally involves developing corporate policy and strategic goals with management and taking actions on specific matters related to those policies and goals. Other matters, such as changes in the charter documents, election of officers, (and other matters referred to above), require board action (and sometimes shareholder action) as a matter of law.

All directors must understand that decision-making and oversight responsibilities come from prescribed standards of duty and conduct.

The corporate statutes impose two principal duties on directors: a fiduciary duty and a duty of care. As fiduciaries, directors have an obligation to act honestly and in good faith with a view to the best interests of the corporation.” For more information, refer to my blog on “Understanding your role on a board.”

  1. Liabilities and protection

If you’re looking for a good overview of the duties and liabilities of directors and officers of the corporation, this guide called “Directors and Officers in Canada” is a concise and informative resource.  After reviewing core company law concepts—notably fiduciary duties, the duty of care, reasonable diligence and good faith reliance—this publication considers potential liabilities in tort and extra-contractual liability, as well as directors’ duties in areas such as employment law, environmental law, and taxation.

  1. Boardroom etiquette and procedure

Every board operates according to a standard set of procedures and etiquette. Typically, these are covered in the board’s bylaws, board mandates and also committee charters. Boardroom etiquette is part of the culture set by the tone at the top.  Refer to my blog on emotional intelligence in the boardroom to find ways to develop your boardroom etiquette—I dig deeper into that in this blog post. Overall, you can enhance your emotional intelligence in the boardroom by increasing your self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills—mind your “Ps & Qs.”

  1. Specialized knowledge

There are also specialized areas of knowledge required in the boardroom depending on the type of committee-below are examples of a few committees of a board:

You may be wondering: how do I learn all of this specialized knowledge? There are a variety of ways to develop your governance knowledge and expertise. These include:

  • Pursuing a director certification (i.e. ICD.D, C. Dir and CDI.D)
  • Taking governance courses, attending topic specific seminars and webinars
  • Mentoring and networking
  • Volunteer experience on not-for-profit boards
  • Registering for the Women Get on Board Getting Board Ready (GBR) Program, delivered in collaboration with LHH KnightsbridgeThe GBR Program is designed to empower women on their journey to land their first corporate Board seat. GBR offers practical and actionable insights in a combination of micro-learning, virtually facilitated discussion by experts, practical homework, and hands-on support. Learn more: https://www.womengetonboard.ca/programs/

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