Transitioning to a Board Role

Several years ago, the CEO of Humans United by Business (Hubb) invited me to become the inaugural chair of a new initiative of Women on Boards, which aimed to mentor women who were at the peak of their corporate careers, to help them transition to board roles. This was a director-led peer-to-peer support group. Each syndicate comprised 12 participants, all very accomplished women, who had achieved great corporate success. Walking into a room of 12 women, as the only male, was quite intimidating. But as one of the women observed, it offered me a glimpse into their world.

We developed a program to run over 8 sessions, and I organised some of the most highly sought after CEOs and Chairs to share their experiences and advice to prospective NEDs. Some of these people included David Gonski of ANZ, Future Fund, Coca Cola; Victoria Weekes of ANZ’s $45bn wealth Management; Cliff Rosenberg, the ex-CEO of LinkedIn; Vas Kolesnikoff, the CEO of the proxy advisors, ISS and Gabrielle Upton, Parliamentary secretary to Gladys Berejiklian.

The insights from these people proved invaluable.

If you are considering a board career as part of your next phase in life, there are some things you need to consider:

Company Directors Course

This is highly recommended, as many companies have this as a prerequisite in their job specification. Even if you never become a non-executive director, the course is still highly recommended, as it is beneficial in its own right.

Do you want to be a NED?

There are several considerations when contemplating this career trajectory: Age is a critical factor, because you shouldn’t be too young. Transitioning to a NED role prematurely can jeopardise career momentum. Once you move away from being a CFO or any senior executive role, if the NED role is not for you, it may be hard to get another executive position.

Being a CFO is an influential position. You are in the driver’s seat in the company, directing staff and making strategic decisions that add value. You are well remunerated and have wealth-creation opportunities through long-term incentive schemes and bonuses. Boards have no real power, no incentive schemes, just responsibility and risk, and periods of very intense hard work.

However, being a NED also has advantages. It is well paid for the hours required, and being on a board can be very mentally stimulating and a lot of fun if you are surrounded by high-calibre, intelligent, high-performing fellow directors and staff members.

There are risks

Most public companies have professional indemnity cover to cover the personal financial risk and legal fees if sued. However, no policy can safe guard your reputation and it can be career ending.  Australia is littered with Directors who have lost their roles and been tarnished in the press, including those from Qantas and James Hardie.

I was on a board that had recently appointed a new CEO. The Chair, unbeknown to the rest of the board, included a statement in that announcement confirming profit guidance.  The CFO knew nothing about this confirmation and didn’t think the business would make its profit guidance. I resigned shortly thereafter.

Getting on a board is fiercely competitive

Unless you come from an ASX 50 or ASX 100 company, whose top executives are often sought after for NED positions, the rest of us are subject to beauty parades.  There are lots of people after the same board appointments.   A lot of board appointments come via networks, so you need to be networking, networking and networking.

I like to give the following analogy: if you are the brightest, most competent and best-looking person and wondering why you don’t have a date, you still need to be ‘out there’ so people know about you.  Sending your resume out to every head-hunter only means you will be added to the extensive list of people they already have looking for board roles. 

Attend functions, call directors you have worked with, make coffee arrangements with those whom you think can help in this regard. You may need to have a lot of coffee dates, but the exposure will be worthwhile even if you just get to meet a lot of nice people.

What can you offer a board and what do you bring to the table?

I am always astounded at how similar most resumes are:  Experienced NED, commercially astute, strong risk governance, financially astute, good with people, team player etc. The company / recruiters have the attention span of a gnat. These similarities make it difficult for yours to stand out. If they can’t fathom what your differentiator is in the first 20 seconds of reading your resume, they’re not going to read the rest. Bear in mind they look at a lot of resumes and most will have very similar introductions.

Your resume should start with ‘what makes you unique and what can you offer a board’. It could be your special skill in mergers, dealing with class actions, dealing with contested takeovers, AI, or digital experience. Don’t put anything on your resume that you can’t substantiate with concrete examples.

One of the women in my Women on Boards group was very passionate about a particular sport, in which both she and her sons participated. She was trying to get on the board of its peak governing body. Her opening statement on her application was her passion for the sport and that of her family members who participated in it. Not only did she get the interview, but today she is chair of the organisation. Of course, she had all the other skills required, but her passionate opening statement captivated everyone who read her resume.

Join a not-for-profit board

A not-for-profit board gives experience to aspiring NEDs, as attending a board meeting as a CFO is very different to attending one as a director. It also helps the resume.

Finally, despite having all the credentials and a well written CV you may not get anywhere. I received a call from a head-hunter who wanted to include my CV in the pile she was sending to company for an open board position. She delighted in telling me that I was the most suitable, best looking etc, but I wasn’t going to get the role as they were looking for a female director.  They only wanted to include my CV to show the client other ‘quality’ candidates. I did let them include mine.

At the end of the day, the most successful route in getting on a board is networking.

Author:  Jon Brett

Jon Brett is a Non-Executive Director of Corporate Travel (CTM) and Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee. Jon is also a Non-Executive director of Raiz Invest (RZI) and the NASDAQ listed Mobilicom.

Jon is the author of the very successful podcast series “The Taking of Vocus” which chronicles the extraordinary rise of Vocus, what went wrong with the M2 merger and concludes with the privatisation of Vocus. The podcast can be found here via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jon-brett-95734732/