Are Government and Not for Profit Board roles a useful step in building your board portfolio?
For the most part the answer is a resounding YES...but there are some additional things to consider.
Firstly do NOT view either Government or NFP boards just as potential ‘training grounds’. There might well be some lessons in governance, risk, finance and the like that you pick up but you need to go into these boards thinking ‘What can I do for this board?’...not ‘What can this board do for me?’ (with a nod to JFK).
Government organisations are often responsible for State or Federal matters and for 10s of millions of dollars of taxpayer’s funds. NFPs are dealing with hard won dollars in a sector that is going through significant structural change. Neither sector can afford for you to just ‘turn up’ because it helps you build your portfolio...in fact no sector can.
Secondly do not take on an NFP or a Government board role unless you have a personal bond or strong alignment with the specific cause. The expectation is often that you are open to doing a lot more than just being well prepared for board meetings. If you don’t have some form of personal alignment, the board’s agenda will soon become uninteresting and you will either resort to doing the minimum, do more but resent it or resign from the board.
Thirdly take the opportunity to attend a board meeting before formally accepting an invitation to join the board. This might be harder to do with a Government board but should be achievable with an NFP Board...if not let the warning bells ring. A number of Chairs found themselves signing up to NFP boards, where they had a strong alignment to the purpose, but found the way the board interacted with each other and/or the politics to be unworkable.
Fourthly you might feel a pro-bono board role will be easy to pick up. Surely there are not that many people interested in investing their time for no financial recompense? I can tell you first hand that an awful lot of people are looking to make a contribution and have very impressive executive backgrounds to bring to bear. You will not just ’swan’ into a Government or NFP board role. You need to do your homework, bring your ‘A’ game and expect serious competition.
Finally the larger NFPs and Government Boards tend to be more useful in building your board skills. Smaller NFPs, for instance, can tend to see you as unpaid executives ...nothing wrong with that, but it does not allow you to develop the recommended ‘Noses in, fingers out’ (NIFO) modus operandi of good boards.
On a final note
The Chairs I spoke with, by a large margin, felt Government and NFP Boards were valuable contributors to building your board expertise and, in time, your portfolio. As with all boards, there are a number of things to consider before ‘jumping in’.
To build your portfolio apply the 4 Ps:
Pragmatic, Planned, Persistent and Professional.
Graham has been a Fellow of the Institute of Company Directors for over 20 years and leads the Board Practice at Watermark Search International.
A series of articles that look at some of the myths surrounding the building of a board portfolio and also provides some practical tips, from current Chairs, on how you might build your portfolio.
In case you missed it, read the first article in the series.