Three Questions All Aspiring Board Directors Should Ask

by Jessica Apfel

If you’re an aspiring company director it’s worth doing some soul searching before you make the leap. Not because it’s not a compelling role, but because many executives go into board positions woefully underprepared.

Understanding what’s expected of you when you sit in the boardroom could be the difference between accusations you’re ‘asleep at the wheel’ or accolades that you’ve overseen an impressive transformation.

We like to ask would-be board directors three questions:

1. Are you ready?
2. What are you famous for?
3. Where are your scars?

By taking a good look at your own skills and experience, you can prepare to step into a role that is vastly different to any executive or leadership role you may have performed before.

Are you ready?

When you sign up to a directorship, you are committing two important things to the organisation: your reputation and your time.

You’ve spent your entire career building a great reputation for what you do. It’s easy to think there’s not much risk when you transition to a board role, but plenty of good people have been caught up in corporate scandals and found their reputation in tatters when the company goes into damage control or the media looks for scapegoats.

Before you step onto the board, you must be mentally prepared and understand your reputation will be inextricably linked to the behaviour of others.

Secondly, you are dedicating your time. Probably more of it than you expect. Most readers will have read APRA’s inquiry into Australia’s largest bank, CBA, which outlined how the ‘light hand on the tiller’ approach directly contributed to widespread complacency and insularity.

The days of swanning around and turning up to eat lamingtons for morning tea are gone.

Here’s a quick rundown of why it will take more time than you think:

  • Preparing a point of view on each agenda item and decision
  • Preparing your questions
  • Attending board meetings and/or committee meetings
  • Mentoring executives
  • Building stakeholder relationships and networking
  • Site visits and study tours
  • Developing yourself to stay abreast of legislation, trends and the economy.

The energy and time you and the board must provide during a crisis is very different to when things are going well. As we saw during Covid19, it’s all hands on deck and can be very intense.

If you’re planning to take on a Director role while you’re still in an executive role, ask yourself: can you really dedicate enough time?

What are you famous for?

Boards are composed of different people who can offer diverse insights and perspectives. Before you join, evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses.

  • What skills and capabilities do you have that will add value?
  • What are the common themes in your career? E.g. restructuring and rebuilding leadership teams, turning around a failing business or growing a business into overseas markets.
  • What would your current chair or chief executive say about you?
  • If you were appointed to an ASX-listed board tomorrow, what message would it send to the market?
  • Have you got the depth of experience and wide ranging perspective that offers penetrating insight?

Knowing what you bring to the table gives you a strong lens through which to approach new and unfamiliar problems.

Where are your scars?

As you’ve no doubt learnt from hiring others, it’s how people deal with mistakes and failures that shows their strength of character and gives them new skills.

When you’re on an board, the things you’ve learnt from your own failures will help you add considerable value.

Events that provide valuable guidance could be:

  • Implementing a strategy that failed and you needed to course correct.
  • Leading a significant negotiation in a high risk business deal or policy implementation that went wrong.
  • A near miss on a safety issue.
  • Making tough people calls that weren’t right, or not making them early enough.
  • Complex customer negotiations.

Having a director who has gone through some of these issues is invaluable for a business when things get tough.

Remember, being a board director is vastly different to any other corporate role you might have had. Advising, planning and delivering effective governance takes time, preparation and skill. So it pays to be prepared.

Jessica Apfel is Associate Partner from Sterling Black, a specialist Board and CEO leadership firm. They provide clear recommendations about Board and CEO leadership; practical CEO succession advice and build the capability of leaders so that your organisation will succeed.