Are you cut out to be a board director? Ask yourself these 7 questions

Paul-Smith

There are millions of board directors in the world. Every company and organization has them. Let’s be honest, many of them deserve their seat at the table. They bring huge value. Unfortunately, many do not.

“Just because you think you can be a director, doesn’t mean you should.”

Before getting started on a boardroom career, there is one question that every potential director needs to ask themselves: “Am I director material?”

There is no simple way of telling whether you will cut it, but there are certain attributes and skills that those who make a successful go at it tend to have in common. To help you answer this simple, yet direct, question, I’ve broken the it down into seven questions.

Please don’t think you must tick every box to make it as a board director. In fact, you don’t even have to tick any boxes. There is not one way to measure your readiness but, if you are leaning towards the “correct” answers on most of the questions below, you’re going to be at an advantage when it comes to being an effective director. Good luck!

Question 1: Do you prefer to work alone or with others?

If you answered the latter, then congratulations, the boardroom could be for you. There is a bit of solo work in being a director (for example, your meeting preparation) but most of it is working as a team. Oh, and don’t expect the team environment to be plain sailing all the time. Hopefully, they’ll bring a diverse set of views and skills and this could lead to some healthy debates. To quote management expert and author Ken Blanchard: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

Question 2: Do you have time to spare?

I haven’t met many who say they are not “busy”. I’ll admit to using the word. What impresses me are those that aren’t busy, or are trying not to be. This might sound harsh, but busy isn’t a badge of honor.

As a director your time commitment is not just board meetings. Your time includes sub-committees, planning days, networking events, stakeholder representation, training and building relationships.

Every board is different but assume, for a non-executive role, between 5-50 hours per month, with most boards needing an average commitment of 10-20 hours per month. If this is something you can spare, you are ready.

Question 3: Do you like to learn?

True, we are starting to see more and more young board directors but the majority are still senior. They could be forgiven for thinking that they know everything they need to know. Not anymore! We live in non-linear and dynamic times with increasing pressures from many more quarters. As a board director you cannot remain static. Yes, you’ll have skills that you bring to the table and you might even be top of your game. But, you also need to learn new skills to round out your role.

This isn’t just financial skills. Increasingly you need to be across customer-centric design and be up to date on the latest technology impacting your company (and soon your job). What are the latest marketing or HR trends? This makes it easier for you to ask good questions, provide the right level of support and remain relevant.

Question 4: Are you used to getting your own way?

Yes? Then get out of here. The boardroom is not the place for dictators. It is the place for influencers but as part of a team, you’ll often need to put your ego to one side and be open to having your mind changed, or to go with a majority view. There are too many egos in boardrooms, we don’t need anymore.

Question 5: Do difficult decisions impact you?

As a director, the buck stops with you. You must be willing to make tough choices and make decisions.

However, it is a bit of a trick question. If you think no is the best answer, then you perhaps do not care enough to be a director. If it’s yes, then perhaps you don’t have the steel to make the tough choices you’ll have to make. Boards often have to weigh up competing priorities and stakeholders. You cannot please everyone all the time when “acting in the best interests of the company”.

The ideal answer is “Yes, they impact me, but not for long”. This means you have a nice balance of mental toughness and empathy to handle the burdens of being a director and contributing to decisions that will affect many people. Balance is key. Try not to dwell on decisions, you’ll probably not have the time.

Question 6: Do you prefer to listen or talk?

This is a bit of a trick question. Listening is important as a director. Listening to management and their needs, listening to the views of your fellow directors, listening to the needs of your stakeholders (which extend beyond owners to your staff, customers and community). Yes, listening and analyzing what you hear is vital. But, so is talking. Having a view, when it’s qualified, is your job. Asking the right questions at the right time. Being considered, helpful, challenging yet supportive is the role of a director. Can you “communicate with two ears and one mouth”?

Question 7: Do you take pleasure from helping others?

Simple answer please. Yes! Being a board director is all about being in service to others. You’ll give your time and skills, often for no financial reward. The reward is the service.

Remember though, it’s not just others that gain from you being a director. You do too. You’ll learn new skills that will make you a better person, better employee, better director. You’ll meet new and interesting people and who knows where that will lead. You might get paid but if you don’t you’ll probably earn more elsewhere because of these new skills and relationships.

How did you do? As stated at the start there is no right and wrong way to be a director. There are rules that govern the job. There are also expectations that will vary from board to board.

Paul Smith is the Co-founder & CEO of Future Directors Institute.

Is governance training a must have for directors?

One common belief among people working their way into the boardroom is that they need governance training qualifications. While I don’t want to denigrate governance training courses or those who have qualifications, the notion they are a necessary prerequisite to landing a board role is, quite frankly, untrue. Before we talk about why governance training isn’t strictly necessary for would-be directors, let’s quickly bust myths around this belief.

Many believe that without a formal qualification they’ll be overlooked by boards. However, the reality is boards value expertize and experience over training. Out of our program faculty (all of whom are non-executive directors), fewer than half have governance training; likewise, of the people who go through our programs and land a board role, fewer than 20% have formal governance training.

Another misconception around the need for governance training is that without it you won’t have the financial and legal know-how to be effective. Of course, the need for this in the boardroom is vital, especially as it relates to your duties, but this can be learnt without going through formal training. Also, if you are a new director it’s highly unlikely you are being hired for your governance expertize.

What’s more important than this knowledge and anything you can glean from governance training is your experience, how you work with others and your ability to think independently, question, challenge and be held accountable.

Perhaps the reason that so many people go through governance training is because they believe it will allow them to easily find board work. However, these courses fail to offer advice and tips on how to follow through and land a board role or the soft skills needed to excel once you become a director. We believe it’s important to show people the practical steps they need to follow to land a board role, and the skills they’ll need to succeed.

We encourage directors to include training in their career plan but we also encourage them to educate themselves in a range of topics to be better governors; digital marketing, crisis management and cyber-security. As non-executive directors you will be presented with strategies in these areas and you need to ensure you can assess the risks and opportunities for your company and its stakeholders.

Again, none of this is to say that governance training courses offer no value. They do. It’s just they’ll do little to help you find a director position in the first place. We believe they offer more for people already on a board, being more practical and less theoretical. But before you’ve even set foot into the director space, governance training can be a little abstract.

My advice is to understand what governance training courses can do for you specifically. If you spend time on research and you deem it a necessary step, then by all means go ahead. But if you sign up to a governance training course – even a credible and reputable one – without knowing all the facts, then you may be about to spend a large amount of money on something that doesn’t offer much in return.

About Paul Smith, Co-founder & CEO of Future Directors Institute

Paul is a social entrepreneur and non-executive director with a passion for advancing diversity in the boardroom to improve social, economic and environmental outcomes. Utilised effectively, diversity and inclusion are powerful levers for driving more purposeful and ethical business practices and Paul is dedicated to helping leaders shape the future from the boardroom.

Future Directors was established to increase and develop the pipeline of next generation board directors. We help professionals at any stage of their journey, helping to define their goals, their unique value and ensuring they are committed and ready for the boardroom. We also help them understand what it takes to impact and influence as a future director. Since 2015, our award-winning programs have helped 500 on their board journeys.

Paul is Chair of a major NGO and involved in several global strategic committees. He is an advisor and mentor to several start-ups and co-founded a gin subscription business on the side. He splits his time between his home in New Zealand, Sydney and other Australian cities.