On the supply side of candidacy for a board role, what do you need to know? What do you need to be? What is relevant experience?
The biggest mistake candidates make, in thinking they are ready for a board role, is to assume that the skills and talent that elevated them among the rank and file of the organization are the same competencies suitable for advancement to a director's position. What got you to the middle will not get you to the top.
There is a reason for a board. It is called oversight - it is not management. It is strategic leadership. It is the gyroscope function, not the helmsman. It's the producer, not the actor. It requires a transformation of your mental state from a focus on today and now to tomorrow and how.
How can an individual acquire those leadership competencies? How can a talented individual contributor become a valuable resource worthy of a board role? Clearly, the answer does not lie in simply taking a leadership course or reading a leadership book. The answer does rest in the accumulation of practical experiences on the hot seat as a leader, decision-maker, making the tough real world operational choices that only the person in charge can make.
One of the first things I advise talented women executives to do is "look up!" When I ask women to tell me if they have a woman on their company boards, I am astounded by the number who respond, "I don't know who is on our board." Make the minimal effort to learn about the people who are guiding your own corporate future. Where to start? Read the annual report to shareholders. Read the proxy statement. Learn their biographies, experience, committee assignments, and any speeches they might have made. Know who is on your board and the competencies that got them there.
Today, a favorite topic of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) is "asymmetrical information risk." They describe that as the risk associated with management knowing more than the directors, but the greater risk is the disconnect between the leadership potential within the company and the board's strategic needs. It is a dysfunctional two way communication gap. Directors know too little about the bench strength they need to develop while internal corporate managers are too focused on their separate and distinct silos of expertise to build the network of strengths required of a cohesive team.
It is not enough that the board pursue new director candidates who could enhance their collective silo expertise. It is far more important that the potential candidates within the firm develop their own top level perspectives. What does management talent need to do, themselves, to learn about leadership?
Board-interested candidates need to branch out beyond resting on their laurels as an "expert" in their chosen field. They need to acquire a board perspective. Some things that will help:
Know the company strategies: short and long term. How does the company reveal those strategies? Listen to analyst calls to learn the challenges your board is facing from shareholders and investors. How is the board responding to those challenges?
Review the company risk assessments in proxy statements and In priorities discussed by leadership. Do these come across as merely legalese to cover all contingencies or are they substantive caution signs?
Review the company's board committee charters. What are the important cross sector issues they are trying to address? Does your area of expertise interface with any board committee? Are there opportunities to talk with board members about their priority issues? Does the committee reach into the organization to solicit you input or does the board only tap outside consultants?
Do you reach beyond your own area of expertise in the company to collaborate with complementary areas in the firm? Do you make yourself available to address new challenges that the company is facing? Do not leapfrog you boss, but rather work with upper levels of management. Seek out leadership opportunities to take the reins of profit centers in the firm or at professional associations valued by you company.
Update your resume annually, at the new year, in spring, or on your birthday. Seek out board-level coaches to select those facets of your job-oriented resume that would be appropriate for a board-level biography. Be sure you know the difference between the two.
Does your firm have a leadership development strategy? Ae you considered part of that potential? Do you know your financial worth in the company and in your profession? Where do you exercise leadership skills? Do you know how effective groups make decisions? How they make tough financial trade-offs? How do you know if your leaders are succeeding? How do you measure their performance?
Making that leap from manager to leader is what will make you interesting and valuable to a potential board of directors with whom you might one day serve. It most certainly is not an entitlement. It is something to be earned.