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Positioning yourself to become a new Gulf board director

Illustration of a business woman standing at a crossroads

So you read our article about the 14 ways a board seat will help your career and you want to elevate your career with a board role. The next step is preparing yourself for that first board position. Here, I’ve gathered up some questions we frequently get asked at Aurora50 when it comes to board-readiness, along with my thoughts on the process, from profit and loss (P&L) responsibility to your personal brand, the board CV and getting early exposure to the boardroom.

How to get board-ready

  1. What is a good age to join a board? And would you say it’s age or experience that matters
  2. How will I know when I’m ready for a board role? How many years of experience should I have?
  3. How do I, as a would-be director, learn to “demystify” the boardroom?
  4. Do I need to be an expert in something to join a board? What is the most useful expertise to a board
  5. What are the most important qualities of a board member?
  6. How do I fill in the gaps in my knowledge and skills to get a board position?
  7. How do I improve my financial and strategic skills to become a board director?
  8. How important is my social media presence and my online brand generally?
  9. How do I find board positions? They tend not to be transparently advertised!
  10. How do I make it known I’m looking for a board role and who do I tell?
  11. What needs to be on my board CV? How is it different from a normal executive CV?
  12. My board application was rejected. How do I deal with that?
  13. Boards don’t meet very often: how do I hit the ground running as a new board member?

What is a good age to join a board? And would you say it’s age or experience that matters?

Typically board directors are older – the average age of an S&P 500 independent director is 63, according to PWC – a figure that has risen, not dropped, despite directors saying age is the most necessary element of board diversity That is changing in the Gulf region, as people here tend to be given responsibility much earlier in their careers. And being younger and female will definitely give you the diversity edge.

But I think it’s experience that matters – and, more so, that the right people know that you have that experience.

How will I know when I’m ready for a board role? How many years of experience should I have?

I think there are three things to consider. First, Aurora50 research has identified 10-15 years of experience in a senior leadership or executive role before you look to take on a board role.

Second, it is helpful that you have had profit and loss (P&L) responsibility of significant size. If you don’t understand the numbers and you’ve never known the inner workings of a business then, despite your technical expertise, it will be very difficult for you to add value to a board. Equally, you may not yet understand financial statements (you can get trained up on that) – but if you’re not comfortable with numbers, it’s just not going to work.

Finally, get familiar with the fiduciary requirements of a board director.

How do I, as a would-be director, learn to ‘demystify’ the boardroom?

The board is there to exercise control and de-risk all areas of the business, by ensuring the company has enough resources. You’ll hear the phrase ‘nose in, hands off’ when it comes to board members: you’re setting direction, not steering the ship.

The best thing we can recommend is that you ask to observe some of your company’s board meetings internally (not to be appointed!), so you can see how it functions and what happens in the room. You have more access to learn from your own employer so the earlier you can do this in your career, the better. What we’re seeing is that people who understand the board world are then able to work on their own skills and relay that message to the right people.

Most boards have a rolling calendar, which you could ask to see: they will focus on a specific area at a time and do deep dives. Authority is then delegated to committees. An audit committee is standard, but we are now seeing more technology and innovation committees too, as that area becomes more important to business.

Do I need to be an expert in something to join a board? What is the most useful expertise to a board?

There are two routes in – you’re either going to come through a CEO role where you’ve been responsible for the P&L or you’re going to come in as an ‘expert’. If you’ve done a digital transformation for a logistics business, you could support a business with delivery services or a supply chain that needs digitising. If you’re an HR professional, Covid has highlighted that we’ve not had enough HR leaders in the boardroom – and now we’re seeing how important mental health is, for companies to perform well. Boards could also be looking for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) experience – not just from a financial perspective, but M&A implementation.

What are the most important qualities of a board member?

The most important thing, I would say, is integrity. And being an independent thinker. It’s a big area, so I’ve listed out 10.

  1. Integrity and honesty. As a director, your role is to serve. You are there to look after the best interests of your stakeholders and shareholders.
  2. Intellectual curiosity and independent thought. You will need to keep pace with your peers and spot highly complex opportunities or risks. Directors need to create an environment of rigorous decision-making: you have to be an independent thinker to support this process.
  3. Capacity to build relationships quickly. You won’t have a lot of time with each other.
  4. Good judgement. You will often need to make decisions without all the information you might like.
  5. Presence and gravitas. Being smart is not enough. You need to share your professional opinions, to be self-assured, to have confidence in your experience and abilities, and to share your thoughts in a credible, clear manner.
  6. Communication skills. To be understood clearly, you need to use the appropriate language with the right level of assertiveness.  The real art of being a good director is the ability to communicate effectively and influence others.
  7. A high level of emotional intelligence (EI). Boardrooms can be highly charged. You need to keep your emotions in check and use this skill thoughtfully.
  8. The task at hand requires commitment and diligence.
  9. Genuine interest. Passion for the subject will make it easier to stay up-to-date and to add value.
  10. A forward-looking mindset. You need to inspire others to consider areas for growth, beyond that which exists today.

How do I fill in the gaps in my knowledge and skills to get a board position?

Once you understand what’s required of a board director, you can really address the gaps you have. For instance, if you’re a tax expert then you’d often have an enterprise view of the business but not P&L responsibility – so you would understand the risks and liabilities for a business but you wouldn’t have run it.

It’s time to sit with your HR or line manager to see how you can start to position yourself differently for your next career step. This is why it’s so helpful to have executive board experience before looking for an independent role as a non-executive director (NED).

How do I improve my financial and strategic skills to become a board director?

I love this question because boards are all about strategy. Learn to ask strategic questions, not operational ones. Practice observing and reflecting on business outcomes. Ask those driving the strategy how they made the decisions they did. Watch competitors and consider their strategies. Read up on M&A in your industry (not just on your area of expertise), and try to think five, 10, 15 or even 20 years ahead. This is a great article from Harvard Business School on developing strategic thinking skills.

I also reached out to a friend of Aurora50, Adam Boukadida, the chief financial officer for group finance at Etihad Aviation Group, to answer this one. When he took his CFO role last year, he says one of his first actions was to set up a financial leadership team of 12 senior members, half men, half women. All are “potential candidates” for future executive and board positions in the aviation industry, and all now have internationally recognised professional financial certification.

Adam says: “Having a strong grip on finance as well as a mix of technical finance skills is a major advantage for anyone looking to take that next step to a senior leadership role, as strategic decisions are often primarily driven by finance. Being well-versed in accounting, corporate finance and cash management, as well as planning and budgeting, is essential to be effective at the highest level.

“While technical skills are essential, being well-rounded and having the right soft skills is just as important. Clear written and verbal communication skills, as well as strong interpersonal, relationship-building and problem-solving skills, can give a talented professional the edge they need to move forward. Soft skills can often be underestimated, but they are vital, especially when leading an ever-changing, complex business during a time of uncertainty – as the recent 12 months during the pandemic have amply demonstrated.”

How important is my social media presence, and my online brand generally?

Your social media presence isn’t the be-all and end-all. Your brand, though – that’s extremely important. If people don’t know what they’re coming to you for, what you’re the expert in, they’re not going to have you in mind when deciding who should be in the boardroom. To get that first role in your own company, your internal brand is key. Share your successes, for instance on your intranet.

How do I find board positions? They tend not to be transparently advertised

Yes, that’s right. Some board positions are advertised – and more and more are these days. But the best way to get started is to use your own company as a springboard to the board, if you’ll excuse the pun.

How do I make it known I’m looking for a board role, and who do I tell?

Your network, especially senior people within it. They may be board members, or giving names to nominations committees. Put feelers out; ask your connections for advice. How did they get on their first board? What’s it like? Would they recommend it for you? Can they recommend you?

Experience in the boardroom is the one thing that we really see changing women’s opportunities. So the key thing I would recommend is: speak to your manager and tell them you’re interested in getting exposure to boards, to sit in on meetings, get access to other C-suite executives who are preparing for boards or presenting to boards. Get in that room.

What needs to be on my board CV? How is it different from a normal executive CV?

In brief, your board CV should be one page long (your executive CV might be several pages), and should introduce who you are and the value you would bring to the board, plus any board-relevant experience.

This will take a few iterations and you will need to take time to reflect on it. How would you describe yourself? How would your colleagues or clients describe you? What skills and expertise do people know you for? Why not ask them, to get you going?

My board application was rejected. How do I deal with that?

The same way you would with any job rejection. It’s all about fit and sometimes it’s just not right. You might be passionate about the industry and about serving that company and have all the right skills – but you still didn’t gel with the chair or the nominations committee. Persevere, though!

Boards don’t meet very often: how do I hit the ground running as a new board member?

It does take a while for people to start having an impact on a company. If you’re an independent director or NED, it takes longer: you need to learn the business and get to know the CEO. Board directors typically make the most impact in their second appointment (so in years Four to Six). That’s the sweet spot, when they really ‘get’ the business – but they’re not so comfortable that they wouldn’t challenge other board members.

The company secretary is your friend when you need to get up to speed with your new board. Get to know them well – they understand what is expected of you and what materials you need. We go through a full onboarding checklist as part of our Pathway 20 programme.

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