Getting On Board

Want a major boost to your career? Try getting appointed to a Board of Directors, either within your own company or outside it. Whole new avenues of promise and personal development can open up.

Your timing may be impeccable. According to the Conference Board of Canada, there is a scarcity of acceptable board candidates, and this paucity is the most frequently encountered difficulty in filling vacant board seats.

Nominations committees of major corporations have traditionally filled board vacancies from the ranks of prominent CEOs, relying heavily on personal reputation, status, or connections. But today, CEOs as a group tend to be “boarded out” and are unable to spare time for additional board appointments.

At the same time, hundreds of new companies are emerging, many in the dot-com arena, intensifying the competition for board talent and causing nominations committees to broaden their search for new directors.

As someone who deals heavily in information technology, your skills may already be in demand as a board member, particularly for organizations that need help coming to grips with technological issues or plotting Internet strategies. But how can you increase your visibility and attract the attention of those trying to fill empty board seats? What can you do to present yourself as a suitable candidate for a board nomination? Here are four practical suggestions:

1. Get Involved In Advisory Council Activities

Advisory councils are an increasingly common feature of the better Canadian professional university faculties and technical schools. Such councils, often numbering 40 or 50 individuals, are made up of local and sometimes national professionals with a personal and corporate commitment to improving the quality of post-secondary education. Working with others in a public setting facilitates career development and increases your visibility among professional leaders. Corporate nominations committees seeking to diversify the board may contact the chair of the advisory council, who is in a good position to offer useful and confidential advice regarding people suitable for board membership. Call the school directly to find out who chairs the advisory council. Then call the chairperson and make known your interest in serving on the advisory council.

2. Go Public

David Leighton and Don Thain, prominent corporate governance researchers, provide good advice to women interested in accessing boards – advice that applies equally well to men. They suggest that you “get noticed” by working hard in professional or alumni circles, writing and speaking in public, and listing yourself with executive search firms (which are often asked to locate suitable board nominees). They urge those interested in board service to build a reputation as hard-working, competent and balanced individuals.

3. Volunteer

Join a volunteer organization such as the United Way, local charity, or arts support society. You’ll feel good about your contribution to your community, and you’ll have the chance to develop your board career in line with your personal interests. Boards of volunteer organizations are usually large and diverse, and membership on these boards typically turns over much faster than on corporate boards. As a result, prospective candidates are constantly being recruited. Volunteering allows you to work closely with other community leaders, many of whom serve on corporate boards. Develop valuable personal relationships while giving back to your community.

4. Develop A Media Connection

You can increase your public visibility by making yourself available to select editors and reporters who cover the information technology and electronic commerce industry. Appearing in the press reinforces your credibility and communicates that you are a thought leader in your field. Specialized business publications [e.g., CIO Canada] and newsletters that are widely read by business leaders provide good opportunities for you to demonstrate your breadth and depth of knowledge. Contact your local and national newspapers, and don’t forget about giving (or even offering) interviews on camera.

Contemplate sharing your knowledge and expertise through sitting on a board. You’ll network with other directors (who tend to be accomplished individuals), develop your career interests and broaden your skill base. You might even get paid for it! By getting involved with an advisory council, increasing your public profile, volunteering in your community and working with the media, you’ll be letting the corporate world know you’re interested, qualified and available for board appointments.

Michael Maher was Dean of the Faculty of Management at the University of Calgary for 18 years, Dean of the College of Commerce at the University of Saskatchewan for five years and is currently a professor of strategy and general management at the University of Calgary. He has served as a board member and chair of numerous corporate, private and community organizations.

Malcolm Munro is a professor of Management Information Systems with the Faculty of Management at the University of Calgary. He is currently Vice-President of the Association for Information Systems, an organization representing the information systems academic discipline worldwide.

Flora Stormer is a researcher in the Faculty of Management at the University of Calgary. Her undergraduate Honors thesis on entrepreneurship was recently published in the journal Human Systems Management. She is currently completing her MBA in Venture Development at the University of Calgary.

The above is an abridged excerpt from “Today’s Board and the Academic Option”, which appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Ivey Business Journal.