How to become a director

Want to sit at the top table? Here are a few tips on getting to board level in your business.

by Dr Roger Barker
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2016

There can’t be many people reading this who haven’t dreamt of being the boss. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson... and you? Why not?

Well, if you are keen to unleash your talents on an unsuspecting board, here's what you need to bear in mind. By definition, board members are there in order to ensure that the interests of shareholders and stakeholders are fulfilled by their organisations. To that end, and certainly at most public companies, those in charge of delivering this remit tend to come from a financial background, supported by a fair amount of industry knowledge.

But, fear not. If you're no bean counter, that doesn't mean the end of your 'director' ambitions. Others too have their role in developing strategy. HR directors, for example, understand a company’s culture and are past masters at effectively deploying resources while good marketing directors can predict change and spot opportunities from 1,000km.

A board should, in other words, be ‘a cabinet of all the talents’ if only to avoid the potential disasters inherent in 'group think', which expose the board to the perils of poor decision-making. Directors need to be able to apply independent thought to the issues and challenges they face. This means even new directors need to find their voice, or more correctly, establish how to speak up and be heard – something which may take time to tune into.

But that’s not the only challenge facing new directors - once on the board, you may well find that the sheer complexity and scope of the role comes as quite a shock. Directors must juggle dual responsibilities: not only must you continue to oversee your functional teams, you will also be required to have a general overview of a company’s operational activities and corporate governance, including an understanding of its exposure to risk and of its strategic direction.

It is a challenging task, particularly with the huge diversity of large organisations which makes full and proper oversight extremely difficult. The disastrous 2008 banking crisis is an all too powerful demonstration of what happens when governance procedures fail.

And despite the challenges they face along with the array of legal responsibilities that come with the role, new directors are often, sadly, given precious little support and guidance in how to ‘step up’ before joining.

So how can you prepare?

Sign up for inductions, mentoring and training as essential components in supporting you as a first-time director - remembering of course that even when the grey hairs sprout and you’ve established your seat at the table, it’s always worth continuing with professional development to stay on top of the political, social and ever-changing business landscape.

You might also consider becoming a voluntary trustee or non-executive director for smaller organisations. This can boost your CV and build your confidence which is key. After all, 'It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse!' Wise words from Adlai Stevenson.

Do you have what it takes to do the job? Try taking the test:


Dr Roger Barker is head of corporate governance at the Institute of Directors

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