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Want to join a board? You’ll need to be able to think in these three ways

Lots of people want to join boards. Who wouldn’t? To be a member of the board of directors of a reputable organization bestows great esteem, does it not? It’s an impressive line in your resumé, an eye-catching feather in your cap. Of course you want that.

Wait, do you really? Being a board director is not the sinecure it might once have been. In the modern corporate era, it is a position with onerous legal responsibility. You have to be willing to carry the rock of accountability on your back—and to suffer great reputational damage if things go south under your watch. I know many directors who have sorely regretted joining boards. So please don’t go rushing in where angels might fear to tread.

You’re still up for it, you say? You get the point about responsibility, and you still want to be considered? Then I have something else that might give you pause, and that’s the main question this Sunday. Are you up for the job of being a board director? Do you have what it takes?

Given the long procession of, shall we say, less-than-talented directors that human history has inflicted on the world, you might find that a strange question. Let’s not beat around the bush; we have seen all sorts of people sit on boards. Those who have been placed there for their sycophancy and willingness to do whatever anchor shareholders demand; those who have celebrity but no availability, and will look good in photos; and those who are there to sell their own wares to the business from their seat of privilege.

But those are the outliers, the exceptions. We have also had many board members of genuine substance, judgement, and decision-making acuity. I happen to know many of them in this part of the world. They are wise people who have stewarded good organisations in good ways. As a reader of this column, I trust that is the group of folks that you wish to join. If so, let me give you some pointers to help prepare you.

Being a board director is no ordinary role. It requires you to think in very specific ways. It is probably unlike anything you have ever done before, no matter how great your accomplishments. This is not a hands-on, operational role. You might sit at the top table in the hallowed boardroom, but you don’t actually do anything. You guide, counsel, and monitor the actual doers.

The Harvard Business Review recently highlighted the intelligences needed by board members. Based on my own experience of boards, I offer the following summary. To excel in a non-executive, corporate board position, you must be able to think different. In three specific ways.

First you must be able to think financial. There’s no getting around it; it’s always about the numbers. Organizations exist to get results; those results are expressed in numbers: revenues and costs, cash and profits, value-adds and impacts. You must be able to understand all those numbers; you must know what causes them to happen. This doesn’t mean you must be an accountant or a highfalutin financial analyst, please note; you just have to be able to grasp and debate things that are expressed in numbers.

Next, you need to demonstrate that you can think strategic. Boards are canvases where the big picture is debated; they are not the battlefields where granular detail is fought over. You have to be someone who can anticipate trends; understand competitive positioning; create a powerful narrative; and inspire others to act. Petty pedantry is not appreciated in the boardroom; but a broader understanding of history, and of the causes of distinctive success, are celebrated.

Lastly, you must show up with the ability to think relationships. At this level, excellence is not really about the money or the physical assets of the institution; it’s about the intricate, intangible web of relationships that lend true distinction. Which relationships must you grapple with? Primarily, special bonds with customers, delivered through special bonds with employees. On top of that, relationships with a multitude of stakeholders: governments, regulators, suppliers, partners, communities. Your ability to have unique insights about deepening all those relationships will place you in good standing in the boardroom.

On that final point, there is another set of relationships that really matters in the that room: that between the directors themselves. Remember, you are present as one of a team of talents. No matter how great your personal prowess, you don’t call the shots. You negotiate, coax, and cajole your peers towards a consensual position. Not everyone can pull that off; but those who can with grace and empathy are really valuable.

There you go: three ways of thinking to prepare you to join a board. Get busy in how to get better on all three. Teach yourself, but also learn from the luminaries who have gone before you. Then you can make a real difference to the world’s decision-making.

(Sunday Nation, 30 October 2022)

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