Many people believe that serving on a board of directors takes gray hair and C-suite experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can join a board at any point in your career—even as soon as you graduate—as long as you choose the right organization. Getting onto a board of directors as soon as possible is often one of the best returns you’ll see on an investment. It will put you ahead of your peers not only for job opportunities but for industry-related appointments and elections as well.
What Is a Board of Directors?
Board service involves working with a group of people to steer a nonprofit organization or a for-profit business. “Steering” an organization means helping set the big-picture agenda and monitoring the results. Office staff usually manage the day-to-day operations of companies run by boards.
Corporate boards lead large and small for-profit businesses, national trade associations, state and local chapters, and national and local charities.
What are the Benefits of Serving?
- You will make important network connections.
- You will be one of the first to hear about new job opportunities—and they’ll be more lucrative than what gets broadcast to the general public.
- You will improve your personal brand with increased visibility.
- You will command a higher salary.
- You can become a thought-leader in your profession or industry.
When you serve on the board of directors of your industry’s trade association, for example, potential employers will see you as a more attractive candidate because hiring you gives the employer more credibility. You’ll also bring better connections and access to other industry leaders if you’re hired.
How Hard Is It to Get on a Board?
You’ll need gray hair and C-suite experience to serve on the board of directors of Apple, Starbucks, and the American Medical Association. The entry path is much easier, though, for other boards with less name recognition.
For example, if you work in HR, you can start the process by serving on the newsletter, website, or annual golf tournament committee of a state or national HR trade association. After a year or two of service, you might become the committee chair. After a successful stint as a chair, you’ll likely be asked to serve on the board of directors, easing into the role as a board member at large with limited responsibilities.
In some cases, you’ll be invited directly onto a board after only a short tenure. Many nonprofits and trade associations are desperate for board members—all you have to do is volunteer. Some boards have a management staff running the organization, and that staff will support you (often telling you exactly what to do) to make sure you’re successful.
It’s usually a multi-year path to a board chairpersonship or presidency, including stints as the organization’s secretary and treasurer. In both of those roles, you’ll be offered support to help fulfill those functions correctly.
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Where Should You Start?
You can start small, like working as a committee member for a local youth sports league, animal shelter, or church.
Check out the local and state chapters of trade associations and professional societies in your industry. If you’re not a member, join. You might want to check out the LinkedIn pages of the board and committee members to learn about their backgrounds.
You can also start attending more industry events, such as cocktail parties, trade shows, conferences, award banquets, and workshops. Be seen. Meet the players in your profession.
If you want to maximize your earning potential and advance quickly, get on a committee as soon as possible. In the association world, 80% of the work is done by 20% of volunteers. You have tons of opportunities waiting for you!
What Skills Are Needed on the Board of Directors?
- Brush up on your project-management skills and networking skills. You’ll need to navigate politics and cliques, explain your projects and proposals to your peers, and deliver on the assignments you take on.
- Learn Robert’s Rules of Orders. It’s a simple protocol for running board meetings that’s used by most corporations.
- Read the organization’s bylaws to learn what it can and can’t do. For example, some trade associations lobby state and federal legislatures, while others may not.
- Go to Candid (formerly GuideStar and the Foundation Center) and research the trade association or charity you’re interested in. Download copies of the last three Form 990 filings (tax returns) to see how they earn and spend their money.
- Read back issues of an organization’s newsletter or trade magazine.
Get This on Your Calendar
Don’t decide that board service is something you’ll do “someday” to boost your career. Take a sheet of paper and jot down the steps you’ll take this month to start moving toward board service. This will include picking an organization, visiting its website, looking at its committees and board members, and initiating your networking objectives. Once you begin volunteering with a board of directors, even if it’s in a limited capacity at first, you’ll start to enjoy greater credibility and more professional opportunities.
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