Crash Course in... Joining the Board

You've been offered promotion to executive director. But what does a seat on the board entail and how can you best prepare for your new role?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

You've been offered promotion to executive director. But what does a seat on the board entail and how can you best prepare for your new role?

Don't sign anything until your lawyer has seen it. A contract for service is of great value as it outlines the limits of your role, but you need your lawyer to check what you're signing up to in terms of severance, non-competitive clauses, etc. Consider taking independent advice on a sensible pay benchmark for your new role.

Think holistic. It's no longer enough to know about just one section of the firm. 'To sign off the accounts as being true and fair, you'll need to understand the whole company as well as your bit,' points out Simon Goldring, a partner at law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain. You'll also be expected to contribute to decision-making across the whole business, so make a whirlwind tour of the parts you haven't previously reached.

Do your homework. Board directors have legal and regulatory responsibilities that range from signing off accounts to making decisions in the company's best interests. Bone up on governance and compliance.

Say hello. If you don't know them, introduce yourself to the non-execs.

'As you're going to be working with them, it's important to understand their views on business and their background, and they will want to understand you as an executive,' says Susan Bloch at headhunter Whitehead Mann. Don't thrust yourself in front of investors and media, though, unless you're mandated by the board to do so.

Keep a proper distance. As a board director, your relationship with colleagues changes. 'Previously, you might have shared everything with your team. Now you have to learn what you can and can't share,' points out Frances Cook at recruitment and coaching firm Penna. You also become an important conduit for the dissemination of information from the board, so your communication skills must not be wanting.

Speak up. A board member who does not challenge colleagues from time to time is not serving the company well. 'You have to learn to be persuasive,' says Bloch. 'One of the most difficult things is having the courage to speak up in a way that is not offensive.'

Get out your diary. It's been estimated that a non-exec's role requires 25 to 30 days a year; an exec can hardly expect to spend less. Apart from the board meetings and AGM, there are board papers, compliance requirements and strategy meetings. 'You have to start working differently,' sums up Bloch.

It's lonely at the top. 'The reality is not as glamorous as people think,' says Cook. She advises finding a mentor or coach, both inside and outside the company. 'They'll help you to fit in, and with issues such as conflict resolution.'

Do say: 'As an incoming board member, I'm eager to expand my knowledge and contacts throughout the group.'

Don't say: 'Anyone for a Havana? Let the good times roll.'

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