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Getting on a Board is not hard. Getting on the right Board may be challenging. Lots of non-profit organizations and non-paying Boards are seeking members to participate. This may be your smartest starting point to earn your wings?

Why serve on a Board? There are many answers to this question and some of the more popular include:

  • Give back to my community, a pay it forward approach
  • Get involved and affect change
  • Share your knowledge and experiences
  • Stay active once retired
  • Remain current in the industry
  • Earn extra money
  • and, more…

Historically, most corporate Boards were populated by older, white, males from a closely knit community within the industry. It was more about who you knew instead of what you knew. It was not a good scenario for corporate governance. Group think and existing peer pressures and pecking order were preset so it was more a game of follow the leader, rather than to do what is best for the employees, company and its shareholders. In some cases, this contaminated environment still exists. Luckily, Boards have been changing a lot over the past decade so they are making strides with a goal of improving the governance. Boards are evolving and becoming more open. The result is that they are seeking qualified individuals who have something to offer the organization. Boards are now seeking more independent directors with a variety of education, skills, experiences, coming from a diverse background that is much better at representing the shareholders and the stakeholders.

So, what can you do to get the dream Board position? Here are a few ideas to gain experience and exposure in order to get on Board of Directors:

  • There are several web sites that advertise Board positions. Seek out State / Province web sites that offer local volunteer and some paid positions with the government having the right to fill seats on arms length Boards
  • There are courses to take for Board education. Independent organizations like the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) and numerous university programs to consider
  • Join the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) or equivalent as a member and read the magazine and attend their functions
  • Earn the ICD.D designation or equivalent
  • List on the ICD web site or equivalent to advertise that you are interested in a Board position
  • Post a completed and detailed profile on LinkedIn and indicate that you are interested in Board positions
  • Network with your friends and business associates to let them all know that you are interested in a Board position
  • Develop a profile outline that describes your Board interests and what you can offer to a Board
  • Consider, identify and document the kind of Board that you wish to join and describe why you would be a good fit for that type of Board; use these notes in interviews and for submissions
  • Engage in learning and research related to the popular literature to gain insights into Board issues and concerns (Harvard Business Review, Globe & Mail, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, etc.)
  • Read research and academic papers, HBR, Google Scholar, etc.
  • Volunteer for non paying Boards in order to gain experience first and build a resume of Board experience
  • Participate in volunteer Boards and serve on as many committees as you can in order to better appreciate what each committee does and to determine which committees best suit your interests and fit your skills, experience, and knowledge
  • Develop a plan to get where you want to be – take a “crawl, walk, run” approach. Start while you are younger and do not wait until retirement to get involved
  • Understand the risks and liabilities and protect your personal interests and assets – ensure that adequate insurance is in place to protect yourself
  • Many directors have found their first board seat through networks involving auditors, executive compensation consultants, or lawyers they have worked with and who service several board clients
  • There are three main traits for a good Board member –
    • First, to be able to think outside the box and strategically on behalf of an organization and be able to communicate those ideas to a team in such a way that challenges the team to think differently
    • Second, that you do not know it all, your ideas are not always the best and that you can probably learn a lot from the process and the others on the board is critical
    • Third, that you have a high degree of ethical behaviour and that your commitment to your beliefs are unwavering and you are willing to stand by those even when others may not agree with you or even criticize you for them
  • Do your homework; learn all you can about the company that you wish to serve and appreciate exactly what its strengths and weaknesses are and what the threats and opportunities are for this company and understand the market place in which it operates
  • Research the existing Board, learn if you know anyone on the Board, and understand the terms of the current Board members – who has recently joined the Board and who may be leaving the Board?
  • People seeking a board position have a paradox on their hands: For example, they were invited because of their technology knowledge, yet they do not want to be pigeon-holed as the techie. So, even though your comfort zone may be technology, you need to be active throughout all of the discussions and participate in committees that have nothing to do with that particular area of expertise. Even if you have finance, legal, business, operations, engineering, human resources, sales, marketing or other capabilities, it is important to cross pollinate your participation and to learn the other disciplines of a Board and build your value. A member of a Board needs to wear many hats; you need to be a technology expert but also a business, marketing, sales, finance and operations expert. Do not forget the core objectives of the Board! Corporate Boards exist to serve their shareholders and stakeholders. Other boards serve the needs of the public, community or aspects of society, first and foremost. You need to clearly understand the mission. But, business sense is never far from the core needs.
  • Be strategic at all times and stay within the role of a Board, it is management’s role and responsibility to operate the business, not the Boards. So, understand the difference between strategy and tactics and appreciate who does which one
  • Being on a Board is a serious commitment. Board membership takes more time than you can anticipate. Between travelling to and attending four to six main meetings a year, reading through the pre-meeting documents and serving on committees with their associated preparation work, you are looking at four to eight weeks of board service a year (minimum). Regardless of the other demands on your time – attend all the meetings, it seems basic, but many people do not do it. When consideration for the second term comes up and members decide that you are not committed, you will not be invited back
  • Smaller and mid-sized companies often demand much more of your time than large corporations or not-for-profit Boards. Understand what is expected and make sure that you can commit this time.
  • Learn to leverage communication technology, such as audio and video conferencing as well as unified communications, to permit participation remotely if you can not attend every Board meeting face to face
  • Non-paying Boards often demand far more time and commitment than pay-for-service Boards, so be prepared to invest your free time in order to gain experience. When you serve on committees and on the Board, it is not unusual to meet several times a month or even every week, so be sure that you can meet these levels of commitment

Serving on a Board can be a rewarding and educational experience that can help you develop and add new skills to your capabilities. It is a wonderful experience if the “fit” is present.

One of my greatest feelings of personal success was attending University convocations while seated on the dais as a member of the Board of Governors and watching the endless parade of bursting with joy faces as they each took their turns to receive their diplomas from the Chancellor and shake hands with the University President in front of their families and friends. The theatre was overflowing with pride and success. For me, it felt more rewarded knowing that a job was well done than any pay could have ever provided. So, I urge you to get involved and share the priceless rewards of participation.


Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM’s Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and earlier was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation. He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.