How to transition from executive to board member

Friday, 01 March 2024


    When an executive takes up their first board position, how should they approach the transition? Start by viewing it as a separate career ladder, rather than as an extension of the one you’ve been climbing throughout your executive years. That’s the advice of Sally Parrish GAICD, director of the Board Coaching Institute, which supports executive and non-executive directors in their board roles. 

    1. Look from the inside out

    The transition from executive to board member presents new personal challenges, so Parrish suggests some self-reflection.

    “During the transition phase to board director, executives often try to mould themselves to what they think boards want,” she says. “They tend to look outwards and think, which board can I go on or who do I know who can get me on that board? I advise my clients to look within, because while your skills and expertise are important, it’s the alignment with purpose that will really help you to add value.”

    Parrish recommends considering questions such as, what will keep me engaged and excited, and what is my board value proposition?

    “Start with that sense of purpose and then think about what you want to achieve,” she says. “From there, the next question is, what boards align with this?”

    When you have a board in mind, due diligence is essential, adds Parrish. “Executives often think about the top-level risks like finance, legal and cyber, but you also need to consider the alignment with what you want from your board career and what you can bring to that board.”

    2. Adopt a director mindset

    While transitioning from executive to director, how can you switch between roles? Parrish suggests tools for shifting your mindset. “As an example, one of the directors I’ve worked with drives [to board meetings] listening to a governance podcast to get him into the mental state of wearing his director hat, rather than the hat he wears in his day-to-day operational role,” she says. “You need to adopt a director’s mindset. So, in an executive role, it’s the doing. In a board role, it’s the guiding and the strategy.”

    3. Hone your instincts

    While executives are involved in the day-to- day operations of the business, Parrish says non-executive directors must keep their hands out and their noses in.

    “The main governance distinction is that non-executive directors should be all eyes and ears around what’s going on. They should have the skills to question, review, monitor and oversee, without undermining the executive team.”

    There are other executive instincts to leave behind, such as leading the pack. “You’ve got to be part of that ship that’s sailing along and understand that you’re not going to get to steer it all the time,” says Parrish, adding there are some executive instincts worth keeping. “Executives have an instinct for knowing the fact from the fiction. Bring that search for authenticity with you.”

    Creating a trusting relationship with an executive team is another skill that brings value to a board, adds Parrish. “This helps executives to be more authentic with the board and to come to you for help rather than for validation.”

    4. Do your homework

    A successful board transition requires preparation. Along with reading your board pack and the meeting agenda, Parrish suggests considering the context. “What’s the purpose of the discussions you’ll be having in the meeting? What outcome is the board looking for from those discussions?”

    While it’s important to be prepared, she advises against overthinking. “If you’re a newbie, no-one’s expecting you to be absolutely fabulous on day one, so you might add more value to a meeting by observing, reflecting or asking questions that may prompt a board to reflect upon their standard practices.”

    5. Translate experience into insights

    When you’re new to board meetings, Parrish advises thinking about how your skills and experience translate to this new environment before jumping into discussions. “You have a particular expertise and your role is to utilise these insights rather than to relay them. The board will value your guidance in these conversations and decisions, but it doesn’t want to be driven into the operational weeds.”

    She adds that a challenge for NEDs is knowing when to speak. “It sounds simple, but only speaking when you have value to add is important for group discussions and decision-making. A lot of new directors feel compelled to speak up to demonstrate their knowledge, but that can damage the flow of a meeting. Knowing when to speak comes back to your purpose and value proposition — what are you there for, what does the board value in you and what’s really your wheelhouse?”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Making the switch: How to transition from executive to board member’ in the March 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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