Establishing a directorship career requires hard work, meticulous planning and mixing in the right circles, writes Ben Power.
Non-executive director Marina Go MAICD had a long and successful career as a media executive, including roles as head of Hearst-Bauer Media, publisher of titles including Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.
But as far back as 2003, when she was in her late 30s, she had a clear goal: to transition to a full-time board career, and more specifically to create a suite of paying directorships.
Go, who now chairs Wests Tigers Rugby League and is a non-executive director of ASX listed company Autosports Group, says she has always been interested in where a business and industry is heading. “The idea of being able to spend the majority of my time thinking about the bigger picture really appealed to me.”
But getting on boards in Australia is tough.
“There are way more candidates than there are positions,” says Rene Johnson MAICD, managing director of Pacific Search Partners. “That’s across the whole spectrum of ASX companies, private companies, and not-for-profits (NFPs).”
But the good news is that a growing number of companies are looking for fresh talent. “More and more boards are looking for some extra expertise and extra contributions around the table,” Johnson says. “It’s not just shuffling around the old ‘A’ list anymore.”
An obvious first step is for an aspiring director to meet with a board recruitment firm like Johnson’s. But that can be difficult too. “Due to the long-term nature of building a board career, it is advisable to build sustainable relationships with selected search firms over a longer period of time,” says Bodo Mann GAICD, AICD Group Executive, Advisory.
Networking is critical. “The best opportunities are not advertised,” Go says. “If you don’t have the skill set, you’re not going to get anywhere, but if you do have the skill set, it really does become about who you know.”
Networking has developed something of a bad name. Johnson says it has “been a dirty word forever” and is associated with the 1980s and early 90s where everyone went to the “opening of an envelope”.
“That wore a lot of people out, people just couldn’t be bothered any more” he adds.
But effective networking for aspiring directors is about strategically positioning yourself, and then using contacts to develop paths to decision-makers that appoint directors. The first step is homework and preparation. “Keep in mind that your proposition needs to be relevant to the organisation. You should familiarise yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of boards you are interested in. If you don’t have a sound understanding of what boards are looking for it is unlikely that anyone will put your name forward,” says Mann.
Johnson recommends starting early in your quest for board seats. “It does take a while,” Johnson says. “To be prudent, aspiring directors should start thinking about securing a board seat from the earliest opportunity they feel they could contribute.”
Johnson adds that if an executive is planning to retire at the age of 65, they should be putting the foundations of directorships in place as early as five to eight years before retirement. That could mean sitting on the likes of NFP, government and school council boards. “Start seeding it early rather than retiring at 65 and then asking, ‘what am I going to do? I think I’ll get on some boards’. You’ll be waiting for a while.”
Mann says before they begin networking, aspiring directors need to “have an honest look in the mirror” to work out what they can offer an organisation. That means reviewing their careers and focussing on their strengths. “Preparation also means developing an elevator pitch that outlines your unique selling proposition,” Go says. She was fortunate enough to work with senior Deloitte partners to develop a clear message about what she offered boards.
Once prepared, you can start networking. Johnson says some networking functions, particularly those run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), can be effective. “There are often 350 other directors or chairs in the room. Why wouldn’t you want to get in front of them?” He does recommend you target events that align with your skills sets and interests.
But Johnson says the focus should be one-on-one contact, not simply attending a lunch with 500 other people. “The personal contact element is more valuable than anything else.” He says in the end “chemistry” determines board appointments. “That’s determined by one thing – personal contact. To me it all comes back to that.”
Who you know
The ultimate goal is to get someone to recommend you for a directorship. While introductions and recommendations mean you can jump to the front of the queue, it might take a few steps, so aspiring directors with a target need to invoke the “six degrees of separation” principle: there is someone you know who has a link to your target board. You look at who is on the board. Maybe someone you know used to work for them. Get them to introduce you.
Go’s existing publishing network delivered her first board seat in 2005, the Apparel Group, a privately owned retailer that counted brands such as Saba and Sportscraft in its portfolio.
But Go realised she needed to be more strategic and build greater experience if she were to reach her long-term goal of a portfolio of paid board seats. She knew that if she could get among other directors, she could get closer.
So as her career progressed over the next 12 years, Go made sure she sat on at least one board at a time. That included unpaid directorships of NFPs, including The Cell & Gene Trust and Odyssey House NSW.
While NFPs can be a great starting point and be a valuable platform through which to meet directors from a variety of backgrounds, Go says that to make it work, the aspiring director needs to be proactive. “Some directors turn up, say their piece and in between really don’t interact with other directors,” she says. “I always made sure I got to meet as many other directors as possible and I let them know that in the future I wanted to do this full time as a second-stage career. It definitely benefited me.”
And her strategy worked. Along with Apparel Australia she joined the Netball Australia board and her fellow directors began to introduce her to other directors. “I started to mix in that directors’ circle. I was invited to events with other directors and I would go up and introduce myself and tell everybody who would listen that I wanted to pursue a non-executive career in the future.”
Go describes effective networking as a ripple effect. “You start with people you know. The most important thing is to be really clear about what you want to do, and what you offer boards.”
But research also shows that you need to push outside your existing network. In a Forbes article published in 2015 called The No.1 Predictor of Career Success According to Network Science, Michael Simmons outlined how science shows that people who operate in “open networks” (part of multiple groups) gain an edge over those who operate in “closed networks” (networks of people who already know each other). In particular, they get fresh insights and ideas, and transfer knowledge between groups.
Breaking through the ranks
Go’s real breakthrough came two years ago. She had been appointed chair of Wests Tigers rugby league club in September 2014, and had decided she would transition to full-time directorships in five years’ time. Go applied for the AICD’s Chair’s Mentoring Program where an ASX chair takes on an emerging female director and mentors them for a year. “I was very fortunate to be accepted into that program and to get Graham Bradley AM FAICD as my mentor.”
Bradley, the former CEO of Perpetual, is a professional company director, chairs HSBC Bank Australia and Energy Australia, and sits on the boards of organisations such as Virgin Australia and Tennis Australia. Go says Bradley spent a whole year introducing her to his network, including ANZ chair, David Gonski AC FAICDLife, and Scentre Group chair, Brian Schwartz AM FAICD. A month after the program ended, Go was offered a position on ASX listed board, Autosports Group.
Although Go has obtained her first seat at the boardroom table of an ASX listed board company, she is still working hard to find others. She says that ideally she would like to secure another three paid board roles.
To help achieve her goal, she’s reminding board search firms she’s around, reminding chairs she is still keen and regularly sends through updated resumes. And she’s continuing to network. It’s working – Go is on the shortlist for three board positions.
Go recently spoke at a lunch for Women for an Australian Republic. Belinda Hutchison AM FAICD, chancellor of the University of Sydney, also spoke. “I’d always wanted to meet her,” Go says. When she sat next to Hutchison at lunch she said she would love to have coffee with her, and she also told Hutchison her goal: to transition to full-time directorship. Hutchison asked Go to forward her resume. “People will help if you ask. Most people, particularly women, are too scared to ask. What’s the worst thing that can happen? If 10 per cent say yes and do it, you’re already better off.”
“At the end of the day, if there is a will, there is a way,” says Mann.
Five top tips for aspiring directors
- Do your homework. Work out what you can offer boards, including transferable skills based on business models you have operated in. Develop a target list of boards based on your skills and interests.
- After identifying a target, look for paths to boards through your existing connections. Seek one-on-one meetings that build connection and trust.
- Push beyond your comfort zone and meet people outside your existing network. Doing so can spark fresh ideas, connections and insights. Don’t forget to operate on the fringe of your network; talk to people you have casual connections with.
- When meeting with contacts, respect their time and be clear about your goal: a directorship. Ask them for useful referrals.
- Persist. It can take years to land a board seat.
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