At the Future Directors Institute, we help next generation leaders overcome the challenges and obstacles of becoming influential non-executive board directors. This most often starts with the finding (and securing) of their ideal first position, whether that’s on a company board, nonprofit, school, start-up etc.
Assuming you have overcome the most significant challenge, having enough time, we’ve often found that once you achieve this initial goal, there are many new challenges to deal with. It’s also worth noting that time continues to be a challenge, but if you’ve found the time to secure a board role you probably have the time for all the meetings, preparation and other duties of a director.
Based on the experiences of hundreds of younger directors, I’ve compiled the most common challenges new directors are most likely to encounter, as well as how to best overcome them in order to make the transition from board amateur to board influencer.
Figuring out exactly which skills you’ll need
One of the most common questions we find new directors asking is “What kind of skills will I actually need?” This stems from the common belief that before you can join a board, you must have already maximized your skill development. This simply isn’t true.
You don’t need to be at your professional peak to be a great board director. In fact, many effective directors are at the beginning of their career. The likes of Parrys Raines and Holly Ransom are still in their 20s and are both already influential board members. As a new director, you aren’t always required to have an extensive list of skills and specialist achievements. Often, all you need is an open mind, the right level of experience, an eagerness to learn and that all important, unique perspective.
Of course, it is helpful to have a clear idea of the type of technical skills you’ll need. It’s not entirely necessary however, to begin working on them right away. You can build these skills throughout your board career, once you have a more profound understanding of the company’s structure as well as the roles and responsibilities of its board directors.
For example, the most common skills-based question we get is about finance knowledge: “Can I become a board director if I cannot fully understand financial statements?” Again, it depends on the type of organization and what they need from you. While it is your responsibility to be able to govern to the best of your abilities without relying solely on other directors’ skills, the reality is that you cannot know everything—you just need to know enough. You might not need this knowledge immediately, but your aim should be to acquire it quickly.
Whenever you develop the necessary skills, your network and connections will be critical. Make sure to surround yourself with many mentors, perhaps a coach, and others who can assist you in expanding your skills. Enlist their help to get a solid understanding of the structure of the organization, the roles and responsibilities of the directors on the board, and the specific duties you will have to undertake.
Better still, get trained up beforehand.
Finding your voice and becoming influential
It can be uncomfortable when you feel that you lack presence and influence because you’re the newbie in a situation. It’s understandable if you feel apprehension and nervousness when you join a board. Indeed, these feelings can continue deep into a board career. You are not alone, though, and the most confident-sounding person can be hiding a mess of nerves and ‘speaking-up anxiety’.
Fortunately, there are really simple and effective ways of overcoming these feelings. First, remember that you belong there. It sounds stupidly simple, because it is. You have been accepted onto the board, and that gives you an equal voice with everyone in the room regardless of tenure.
Next, be as prepared as possible. This includes getting to know your fellow directors before your first meeting and continuing to build those relationships. You’ll find that your first board meeting will feel a lot less nerve-racking than it might otherwise because you’ve already met a few (if not all) of your colleagues.
NB: If the board is effective and professionally run, it will have a comprehensive onboarding and orientation process that will get you up to speed quickly. If it doesn’t, ensure that you help create one based on your experiences.
The more you know your audience, the more influential and helpful you can be, on both an individual and an organizational level. To learn about your audience on a larger scale, reach out to key company stakeholders such as management, major donors/investors, suppliers, and important customers. You should ensure that doing so doesn’t break any protocols, so check with the chair first.
Depending on the company’s culture, the board and chair may or may not encourage that sort of transparency and integration. If you encounter resistance, it might help to remind the chair that the more you speak to and understand the different stakeholders, the better you can serve and govern them in your board role.
Adjusting your expectations
As a leader holding both executive and non-executive positions simultaneously, you’ll have to get used to switching hats, and often quickly on the same day. If you have been well-trained in the differences between management and governance then this will be a little easier.
It can be hard for even the most practiced to move from being involved at a granular, hierarchal and operational level to providing guidance and oversight at a collective board level. You’ll potentially want to get into the trees when you must keep your view on the forest. The best way is to understand how best to transition.
Allow time to get yourself mentally prepared. Some of our program graduates have a cheat sheet of reminders to ensure they go into a board meeting with their governance hat on. Whatever you need to do, just being aware of which hat you are wearing is a step closer to being a truly effective director.
The other part of expectations management relates to resources. We often see those who have only ever worked for large companies struggling with the lack of operational resources in say the nonprofit that they are a board director for. It’s also the same in reverse and I’ve seen a few joining company boards overwhelmed with what is possible and at their disposal.
When to talk and when to listen
Even after you’ve overcome the first three challenges, it’s important to know when your input is (and is not) needed. This is not about having the confidence to speak up in the first place. It’s about speaking only when you have real value to add.
Knowing when to speak can come from your preparation. Read the necessary papers and conduct all research beforehand so you know what will be discussed. Understand your own point of view and why you have that point of view. With this preparation, you will be able to join in with the proper relevancy and knowledge.
Not only will prior preparation enable you to mix well with your fellow directors, it’ll also get your ideas heard faster and to better effect. Demonstrating that you’re well informed on the topics you’re speaking about will encourage your colleagues to listen to you and respect your opinions. You can further extend your influence by talking to directors outside of board meetings too. Establish yourself as an authority in whatever areas you’re passionate about, and people will pay attention.
However, no board is going to appreciate the input of someone who is clearly talking just to be heard or who is repeating what’s already been discussed by others. So pick your battles, do your research beforehand, and really think about the value of what you’re trying to say. If you are invited to contribute but don’t have anything new to say, just say so. You’ll earn more respect for moving things along and not wasting precious time.
If you’re struggling with knowing how to approach your new position, it can help to consider the board as a family. You have to work on building relationships and trust, getting to know them, and even dealing with any potential dysfunction (because some families are like that!). Remember that you have been recruited because they have seen something in you. If your confidence falters, remind yourself that you have a right to be there, no matter whether you’ve been with them for five minutes or five years.
The most important thing is to be consistent and patient. Take one step at a time and you will find your stride. Work on building a great support network of mentors and teachers around you, and lean on these people for opinions and advice when you’re feeling lost. No one has achieved success alone—all of the most successful people have had supporters around them the whole time.
So, in summary:
Paul Smith is an author, and founder & CEO of the Future Directors Institute, www.futuredirectors.com.