Aspiring board directors need to start planning early says Steven Cole, who sits on a number of publicly listed, government and not-for-profit boards.

    Cole joined his first board 20 years ago as a 44-year-old solicitor, running a practice employing 300 in Perth. "I always tell people to start planning for that 10 to 15 years in advance by broadening their skills and expanding their networks," he told eXPRESSO.

    Can you give some examples of the skills you think are important to acquire?

    "Listening skills are vital as well as comprehension — the ability to sift through an awful lot of information and distil it. The ability to make a point, make it well and make it succinctly. The gentle art of coercion, bringing people along and selling an idea. Being able to challenge someone’s idea without offending them."

    What’s the best way to build appropriate networks?

    "That’s a lot of effort. Getting involved in industry and professional bodies, and organisations in the not-for-profit sector.

    "There are some networks that are more influential in securing somebody a decent appointment on a board than there are others. I prefer to look for opportunities in areas I’m passionate about and where I believe I can make a real contribution."

    Is the not-for-profit sector a legitimate pathway for those looking for a company directorship?

    "I think it’s overstated. If you went onto a NFP board for the purpose of trying to build a network to get onto a company board, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. And you’ll probably be disappointed with the outcome.

    "But you can also learn so much from the NFP sector – there are different styles of governance, it’s more relationship driven, community based and mission focused rather than financially focused, not that financial discipline is not important.

    "It’s a great opportunity for someone to engage and enrich their own experience and a chance to mix with a broader range of community and business leaders. And, the networking potential is certainly there — don’t underestimate that.

    "Finally, it’s a great chance to feel good about yourself and give a little bit back."

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