For senior leaders who are contemplating making the commitment to join a board of directors, there are some unique factors to consider. Nevertheless, serving on boards can have many advantages, including helping senior leaders expand their network of contacts and learning about new industries and new ways of doing business. It can also provide some surprising benefits.
First, being on a board exposes you to new industries, new people, new ways of decision-making, new business models, etc.
Second, as big as your corporate job is, with hundreds of customers, partners and employees, there is still a limited number of people you interact with. Joining a board means you’ll be surrounded by other smart, accomplished people, and, for most executives, making new connections is helpful as your job responsibilities expand.
Lastly, as a C-suite executive, you will likely have the opportunity to interact with your company’s board. Although it’s usually the general counsel or the CFO who participate in most board meetings, executives may be called on to make presentations to the full board or its committees. A major benefit of serving on external boards is that it prepares you to work with your own board.
I’ve been an independent director, a board member, and a board advisor with public, private and not-for-profit organizations for more than 15 years. Over this period of time, I’ve worked with a variety of companies and I’ve learned from all of them.
For example, on the board of Phunware (Nasdaq: PHUN), a technology company, I had the chance to work with a visionary founder who also served as the CEO. That was a different experience for me, and I learned a lot about working with founder-leaders. Having mostly served as an executive in large public companies, I was fortunate to learn about going public via a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, as well as working with passionate founders and navigating the world of blockchain and cryptocurrency.
Serving on the board of Golub Corporation (which does business as Price Chopper and Market 32 grocery stores), I’ve learned a lot about family-owned businesses. I’d never had experience with this type of organization, which has its own unique dynamics, but now I have a much greater understanding of the issues involved.
These are two examples from my personal experience but you can imagine so many others. Here’s one: your current employer is a packaged goods company that has been selling through the wholesale channel but is now planning to launch a direct-to-consumer product line. If you’re on the board of a company that has a direct-to-consumer business model, you’d be able to call on your board colleagues for advice on pricing models, partner selection, social media strategies and so on.
And here’s another example: you work for a company that has primarily done business in the U.S. but now it is launching in Europe. If you’re on the board of a company already doing business in Europe, you have a built-in network of colleagues of whom you can ask both strategic and highly tactical questions.
Select the board that’s right for you
If you’re considering joining a corporate board, pick something that fascinates you. You don’t have to be a subject-matter expert. But you do have to be interested in the day-to-day business of the organization.
Another thing to consider is that there’s a lot of information for board members to digest. Unless you’re a CFO and you love reading the 10-Ks and 10-Qs, consider that a lot of your time will be spent consuming financial documents, risk assessments, dashboards, etc. If you’re not riveted by the subject matter, it can be really tedious.
I joined the board of 24 Hour Fitness in January 2021 because I’m passionate about wellness and fitness. I joined the Golub Corporation board in 2018 because, in my 25 years at PepsiCo, I spent a lot of time thinking about everything related to consumer packaged goods and consumer shopping habits.
But if I were asked about joining the board of an industrial chemical company, I’m not sure I would have the same level of excitement. This is not to say that you should stay in your comfort zone, but remember that board work is very time-consuming and you’ll be more engaged if you’re truly interested in the business.
If you’re still working in the corporate world and looking to join the board of a for-profit business, there are several factors to take into account.
The most important one may be the time commitment and the predictability of that time commitment. Some public company boards are fairly stable. They meet four times per year, the committee meetings are scheduled far in advance and, overall, things run like clockwork. But that’s not always the case.
For someone who’s in a C-suite role, predictability may be really important to you because you’ve already got many responsibilities and a very tight schedule. When I was EVP, Chief Global Brand & Product Officer at Keurig Green Mountain, we had our own board meetings, prep for board meetings, operating reviews, earnings calls, prep for earnings calls and so on. I had just two days a month that were discretionary, so it would have been difficult for me to join an outside board with an unpredictable schedule and a lot of pop-up meetings at that point in my career. While I think board service is critically important for senior executives, I believe their first loyalty must be to their primary employer.
Get experience with a not-for-profit
One way to gain experience is to start off serving on a not-for-profit board. The first board of directors I joined was the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) in 2004 when I was a vice president at PepsiCo.
I absolutely believe that board service has enhanced my career, and I’m glad I made the decision to join a not-for-profit board while I was an operating executive. It was – and continues to be – a positive and fulfilling experience.
Possibly the most surprising thing I learned, which has stuck with me over the years, is the value of executive presence. Early on in my service with MMRF, I realized there are two kinds of people who serve on boards. There are the kind who do the minimum required pre-work and show up to meetings two to four times a year but it’s a “check-the-box” exercise for them.
There are other people, though, who lean in. One of the MMRF board members was the No. 3 person at a Fortune 50 company. He showed up, put his phone away, participated fully, asked great questions, provided constructive input and generally gave his all. I learned a lot about executive presence from watching the way this gentleman behaved, which was really valuable at that point in my career. I was fortunate to have wonderful leadership training at PepsiCo but this real life role model was powerful, not to mention memorable.