Most directors would describe their first non-executive board role as a major professional milestone, a terrific growth opportunity and something they are very glad they did, even though it represented a significant commitment. Given the demands of a board position — 20-30 days a year up to nine or more years — it pays to carefully weigh the pros and cons of a given opportunity. The key question, say directors, is whether it is mutually beneficial — one that the prospective director finds engaging and useful as a growth opportunity and that adds a valuable perspective to the board. As one director put it, “You need something that will bind you to the job, because it is a lot of time.” Ask yourself, “Is this a business that I will still be interested in, say, in six to nine years’ time?”
Other considerations may be who else is on the board — especially the opportunity to work with a good chair and gain exposure to experienced executives from other industries — the strength and diversity of the management team, and how well the board and management team work together, which in part reflects how much the CEO values the board’s contribution. “I asked the CEO, ‘Do you like having a board?’ And he very honestly said, ‘Mostly.’ If he’d said to me, ‘I think they’re marvelous all the time,’ I’d know he was lying because that’s just not how executives think,” recalls one director.
When considering whether you can balance board service with other commitments, particularly if you have a full-time executive role, understand that you will likely underestimate how much time it will take, especially early on. “It took much more time than I thought would be required initially to get up to speed — to understand the business, strategies, key issues and opportunities,” one director told us. If you have to travel to meetings, plan on that adding a day or two to the board meeting commitment. You also should allow time for work related to committee assignments and, depending on your expertise, you may be tapped to mentor someone on the executive team, work on issues outside of board meetings or respond to unexpected demands related to a crisis or deal. “It can be hard to budget for that, and it can happen at the worst time. But you can’t shake off your responsibilities at the time when you’re needed most, when there’s an activist or stakeholder issue, a significant transition or a succession planning issue that you have to work through.”
Conversely, don’t immediately take yourself out of the running for a very valuable opportunity. “If I thought too much about the time commitment, there is a chance I would have turned it down, which would have been a terrible thing,” one director told us. Equally do your research; it’s amazing the sorts of businesses that initially might seem not right for you but on further research are really interesting and worth pursuing.
Want more advice about how to thrive and make an impact in your first board position? Read the rest of this comprehensive report "The Five Most Common New Director Questions: Advice for First-Time Board Directors on Getting a Strong Start" by executive search consultants at AESC member firm, Spencer Stuart.