When setting out on a board career, you can’t expect to jump straight on to an ASX 20 board. To get that big board appointment, you have to first think small, gaining experience on less glamourous boards. Katie Lahey AM MAICD, Executive Chairman of Korn Ferry Australasia, gives her top tips for getting your board career started.
At Korn Ferry, we often meet candidates who have had strong executive careers and hope to start their board careers on the biggest and most sought after boards – the ASX 20. However, it is a rare executive that transitions straight to a top 20 board; in fact I would say only a high performing top 20 CEO is likely to start their board career there.
The advice we give aspiring directors is to look beyond the ASX 20 to the rest of the ASX. This is particularly relevant to women, who, the reality is, are less likely to be transitioning from a CEO role at a major listed company to a seat at a top board.
For first time directors seeking a board career, the more junior listed companies, which usually have smaller boards, offer a great opportunity to gain board experience and to have a strong voice around the board table. The women who have successful board careers on top 20 boards have often served on boards of smaller, listed organisations, on government boards, or not-for-proft boards.
Korn Ferry’s 2013 report on the pathway to boards for women revealed that there is no single pathway to directorship, rather a range of pathways to the board table. The women we surveyed were highly qualified, cut their teeth on not-for-profit or government boards, understood how boards operated, and had already built a successful executive career. One woman served on 13 not-for-profit boards before she was offered her first listed board seat. Others pursued corporate roles in which they gained relevant experience or sought out mentors to help them prepare for a NED career.
There are many pathways to a seat on a listed board and there is no better training for a board than being a successful corporate leader. One experienced NED noted that an executive career is where you establish technical skills, reputation, and commercial exposure—the positions that will prepare you to bring value to a board.
The allure of the ASX 20 is evident; they are strong boards, represented by the cream of Australian business including our best women directors. However, competition for these board seats is fierce and the best way to be considered for a top 20 seat is to bring varied and deep experience to the table.
Finally, some advice to those boards that do not yet have a female director. If you are looking to boost women’s participation specifically, and I hope you are, this requires understanding—and accepting as legitimate—the varied pathways women often take to a board seat. The journey men travel toward a board career, often from being CEO, CFO, or holding another C-suite role, is not as common for female directors. And yet the richness of experience collected along an alternative route to board service can be equally valuable.
8 tips on starting your board career
(from Korn Ferry’s report Beyond if not why not: The pathway to directorship for women in leadership)
- Develop your executive career with an eye on your board career. Be aggressive in advancing in your line experience. Don’t shift out of management too early. Gain as much senior corporate experience as possible, particularly a C-suite position with P&L responsibility.
- Ensure you have boardroom skills. Fill any gap in skills, particularly related to financials such as the balance sheet and cash flow drivers of a business. Be prepared not only to understand, but contribute to the debate on key accounting and financing issues.
- Complete the AICD Company Directors Course™.
- Obtain board experience. While still an executive, seek a seat on a subsidiary and/or not-for-profit board to gain experience. Be a willing and active participant on industry committees and working parties. Consider government boards in which quality NEDs and good governance exist.
- Know the right people. Networks are extremely important; new director selections are still heavily influenced by existing board members. Find a mentor – or better yet, a sponsor – who will open doors and introduce you to others. Ask senior board directors for recommendations and referrals.
- Choose a board with care. Research the company, the directors and their track record of governance. Do not underestimate the importance of board dynamics and personal relationships in determining whether you’ll find a board position fulfilling.
- Market yourself smartly. Have clarity on the kind of board you are interested in, and know what you would bring to such an opportunity. Have confidence and courage to put yourself forward for roles. Remain confident in your ambition, and know that more often than not, rejection for selection is structural, not personal.
- Be realistic. Consider whether and why a board needs your skills. If there are gaps, seek to fill them. Do not wait around for the high profile board role. You could be gaining bench strength on a smaller board during that time.
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