What are my three ideas for aspiring directors to succeed?

In the past year, I’ve had several aspiring directors ask me what they should do to position themselves to be ready for board roles. Further, as the co-facilitator of BoardAgender’s mentoring programme for Aspiring Women Directors, I’ve observed the journeys of our ten mentees over the past six months. These experiences have prompted my own reflection on my journey to becoming a director over the past few years.

While some people seem to effortlessly move from C-suite roles into the boardroom when they ‘retire’ from full-time employment, this isn’t the case for most. In addition, I’ve found that stepping out of their professional roles into the boardroom for some aspiring directors can be daunting.

The challenges of transitioning into board roles

Many people interested in board roles view them as ‘retirement’ jobs. Others interested in taking them on earlier in their careers can’t do so, as their employers don’t allow them to take on external commercial board roles. In my case, I could only take on approved not-for-profit positions due to independence restrictions whilst working full time.

One challenge is that some of the skills and attributes of effective board directors differ significantly from those of successful C-suite leaders, particularly when it comes to managing board dynamics. Becoming a board director is starting a whole new career.

By the time many aspiring directors have the time to explore director roles, they frequently don’t have the networks nor the relevant experience to easily transition into these positions – which can mean that their transition process can be challenging.

Recently, I watched an excellent presentation by Herminia Ibarra of London Business School on transition. Those who know me would know that I am a big fan of her work.

Source – Ibarra in RSA (2021)

Some of them help explain why transitions into board roles can be so challenging.

  • Career change requires reinventing our identities. According to Ibarra, in changing career direction, ‘we are working our identities and, in many ways, reinventing our identities. Our identities are very rooted in what we do – not just the title, but how we spend our time habitually. What we do with ourselves… day in and day out, really shapes your identity.’ She suggests that you need to do different things to start making changes.
  • There is no set nor linear pattern. Unlike our identity transitions within organisations shaped by their socialisation processes, there is no one-size-fits-all model when moving out of organisations into board roles. As Ibarra said, ‘The steps are unclear. There are lots of different possible steps to that destination. You’re not necessarily following in the footsteps of somebody who’s done it before. So, it [has] a bit of a “do it your own”, “do it yourself” quality to it.’
  • You will feel ‘neither here nor there’ in the liminal period. Transitions can take a long time. For example, some successful directors I have spoken to have said it has taken them a few years to transition to director roles fully.

What does this mean for aspiring directors?

Ibarra highlighted that, ‘As adults, we’re more likely to act our way into a new way of thinking than to think a new way of acting.’

So, what does this mean for aspiring directors? Here are my suggestions.

1. Take up board roles early in your executive career

It is never too early to gain board experience. I was fortunate to be able to take on not-for-profit roles close to 20 years ago. I am lucky to work with some of the people I met during those times in my board roles today. Further, learning how to operate effectively on a board takes time – it is very different to being part of an executive team.

In today’s fast-paced working environment, senior executives need to keep updated with developments and changes. As a result, both organisations and their senior executives benefit from allowing their executives to take on external board roles. There is a role for organisations to be more open to their senior executives gaining this experience earlier in their careers.

2. Experiment and learn

Experiment with ‘side projects’ so that you can find out what you like and don’t like. You may find that you enjoy board roles, however there may be elements that you don’t enjoy. For example, one of the challenges of being a director is information asymmetry. Further, some larger organisations’ roles are less hands-on, where you may often need to work independently outside of board meetings, which may not be for everyone. On the other hand, many not-for-profit positions can be extremely hands-on.

Consider the types of organisations you would like to work with and experiences you would like to have, then try them out. Further, remember that board directors are expected to have a broad range of perspectives, not just a narrow point of view to add value. If you are in a more specialised role, consider positions or programmes that allow you to acquire knowledge of other business areas.

3. Broaden your networks

The type of networks you will need as a director will differ from those as a senior executive. As Ibarra noted, identity is the company you keep, so you should beware of the ties that blind and bind when undergoing identity transitions. She suggests ‘finding kindred spirits, guiding figures, role models, forming new peer groups’ and ‘reactivating dormant ties.’

Think about the kinds of networks and organisations you can join that will allow you to meet a wider variety of people. Some of these roles may be volunteer roles initially. However, they are an excellent way to get yourself known to others in a workplace scenario, where people get to know how you operate.


Original article published on LinkedIn on 25 January 2022 is available here.

Interested to learn how mentors and other networks can support your transition? Visit here.