By Paul Smith, Co-founder & CEO //
At the Future Directors Institute, we help people overcome the challenges and obstacles of starting their boardroom careers and finding their ideal positions as non-executive directors, whether that’s on a corporate, non-profit, start-up etc.
But our Alumni have often found that once they achieve this initial goal, there are new challenges to deal with. So, I’ve compiled the three most common challenges most new directors are most likely to encounter, as well as how to best overcome them in order to make the transition from board amateur to board influencer.
#1 – Figuring out exactly which skills you’ll need
One of the most common questions we find new directors asking is what kind of skills will I actually need? This stems from the common belief that before you can join a board, you must have maximised all your skills already, which simply isn’t true. You don’t need to be at your professional peak to be a great board director; in fact, many effective directors are at the beginning of their career (meet Parrys Raines, in her early twenties and already an influential board member).
As a new director, you aren’t required to have an extensive list of skills and specialist achievements. Often, all you need is an open mind and an eagerness to learn.
It depends on the board and what they need.
Of course, it is very helpful to have a basic idea of the type of skills you’ll need, but it’s not entirely necessary to begin working on them right away. You can build on these skills throughout your board career, at a time when you’ll have a more profound understanding of the organisation’s structure, as well as the roles and responsibilities of its board directors.
For example, the most common skills-based question we get is about finance knowledge. Can I become a board director is I cannot fully understand financial statements? Again, it depends on the type of organisation and what they need from you. Whilst it is your responsibility to be able to govern to the best of your abilities and not solely rely on other directors for their skills, the reality is that you cannot know everything, but you will need to know enough. You might not need to know it immediately but you should learn quickly.
The same goes for accountants on charitable boards who have very little idea about fundraising…
If you believe you have gaps in your knowledge, that’s okay – it’s not going to exclude you from all board roles. Regardless, proper preparation is essential in finding out any soft or hard skills you might need further down the track. In the meantime, surround yourself with mentors, coaches and other people who can assist you in upskilling yourself. Enlist their help to get a solid understanding of things like the structure of the organisation, the roles and responsibilities of the directors on the board, and the specific duties you yourself will have to undertake.
#2 – Finding your Voice and becoming influential
It can be hard feeling like you lack presence and influence because you’re ‘the newbie’ in any situation, so it’s not surprising to feel some apprehension and nervousness when you join a board. Indeed, these feelings can continue well into a board career. Remember, you are not alone and the most confident sounding person can be hiding a bag of nerves.
But there are really simple and effective ways of overcoming these feelings.
First, understand that you belong there. It sounds stupidly simple because it is. You have been accepted onto the board and that gives you an equal voice to everyone in the room regardless of how long they’ve been there. That doesn’t automatically mean the room will listen but it should give you enough courage to speak your mind when you can add value.
Next, get to know your fellow directors before your first meeting and keep building relationships. They are only human and have their own skills, challenges, ego, baggage, opinions etc.
Once you’ve been interviewed and accepted by the board, see if you can get the contact details of the other board members, and take the initiative to introduce yourself prior to your first board meeting. Reach out to them through a phone call, video chat, personalised LinkedIn message or, ideally, a face to face meeting. Begin getting to know the people you’ll be dealing with, and start building your presence amongst them.
The more you know your audience, the more influential you can be, and as a new director this will allow you to be more helpful on both an individual and organisational level. You’ll find that once you arrive in that first board meeting, it’ll feel a lot less nerve wracking than it might otherwise because you’ve already met a few (if not all) of your colleagues.
On a larger scale, also reach out to key company stakeholders, such as management, major donors, suppliers and important customers. You should ensure that doing so doesn’t break any protocols, so check with the Chair first. If they’re wary of the idea, it might help to remind them that the more you speak to and understand all the different stakeholders, the better you can serve and govern them in your board role.
Depending on the company’s culture, they may encourage that sort of transparency and integration, or they might prefer you not to. Either way, introducing yourself to people within the organisation on all different levels will help build your presence, create your network and make your integration much easier.
Finally, mentors. Vitally important in helping you not just start a board career but to keep growing one. Make sure they are independent of the board(s) you sit on and, in this context, can help you navigate your challenges.
#3 – When to talk and when to listen
Even after you’ve overcome the first two challenges it’s important to know when to speak and when to listen. Knowing when to speak or not can be all in the preparation. Prepare well in advance by reading all the necessary papers and conducting all research beforehand. Understand your point of view and why you have it. That way, you will know what will be discussed, and you’ll be able to join in with the proper relevancy and knowledge.
One of my favourite sayings is that “we should communicate with two ears and one mouth”.
Not only will prior preparation enable you to mix well with your new board fellows, it’ll also help you get your ideas heard faster and to better effect. Being able to show other directors that you’re well-informed on any topics you’re speaking about will encourage them to listen to you and respect your opinions. To further extend your influence, talk to directors outside board meetings too. Establish yourself as an authority in whatever you’re passionate about, and people will pay attention.
Another key part of knowing when to speak up is correctly reading the culture of the boardroom and the organisation. If you’re invited to speak up and get stuck in straight away, be prepared to do so. Otherwise, enjoy just sitting back and listening. You might even find this to be equally beneficial.
But remember, no board is going to appreciate the input of someone who is clearly just talking to be heard. So pick your battles, do your research beforehand, and really think about the value of what it is you’re trying to say.
At its core, a boardroom is just a group of human beings. If you’re struggling with knowing how to approach your new position, it can help to consider them as a family. You have to work on building relationships and trust, getting to know them, and even dealing with any potential dysfunction (because some families are like that!). Remember that you have been recruited by them because they have seen something in you. So if you’re ever lacking confidence, remind yourself that you have a right to be there, no matter whether you’ve been with them for five minutes or five years.
But the most important thing for you to do is be consistent, and patient. You will reach your strides, but it doesn’t have to happen right now. Instead, just take things one step at a time. Work on building a great support network of mentors and teachers around you, and lean on these people for opinions and advice when you’re feeling lost. All the most successful people haven’t achieved it entirely by themselves – they’ve had people around them the whole time.
So, in summary
- Remember, you deserve to be there because they appointed you
- Say it as you see it. Why hold back?
- However, don’t speak unless you have something valuable to add
- Practice being courageous and confident. Take acting classes!
- Be prepared, draw together different issues, come with questions
- Perhaps test your ideas on sub-committees or with individual directors (even your mentors)
- Keep upskilling in key areas and become known as a trusted source
- Remember, the board is just a group of humans. Learn about how to interact with different types of people and get the most out of the relationships.
If you’ve been finding it difficult to settle into a supportive network, get in touch with me today to find out how Future Directors Institute can help you or how you can become a part of our 350-strong Alumni group.