How to start your board career at any age

Is joining a board on your bucket list? Find out how these La Trobe alumni launched their board careers through rewarding roles at purpose-driven organisations.

‘How else can I use my skills?’ As the current pandemic plays out, it’s a question many of us are asking. Whether you’re new to the workforce or you’ve had a 30-year career, finding fresh ways to apply your knowledge and talents is key to professional and personal growth.

Joining a board is an alluring answer. But where do you find your first board opportunity?

To demystify the process, we checked in with La Trobe alumni aged in their 20s, 30s and 40s who’ve all recently launched their board careers. Here, they share their motivations, reflections and advice to help you kickstart your search.

Finding your first board opportunity

Joining a board early in her career was important to alumna Sarah Ramantanis (Bachelor of Media & Communications, 2018). She was passionate about ensuring a youth voice in strategy, leadership and decision-making and was keen to develop her executive leadership experience early on.

La Trobe alumna Sarah Ramantanis

In her early 20s, Sarah became a board director at the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC), Australia’s national youth peak body. The organisation represents young Australians to government, providing youth-informed policy advice and supporting policy makers to consult with young people.

Sarah found the role by mixing networking with searches on job websites.

“Board and governance roles are usually promoted through websites like Seek or Ethical Jobs, or through organisations’ social media pages. I followed organisations I was passionate about and connected to people who worked there, too. I had to be very persistent and make sure I was communicating with the right people,” she says.

Alumnus Reggie George (Bachelor of Commerce, 2011) used a similar approach. He joined the board of Urban Camp, an organisation that provides a base for regional kids to explore city life, as a non-executive director at age 30.

“I went through online applications, but I also networked with people. I had to network to understand the best platform and who’d be the best person to speak to,” Reggie says.

For Anaab Rooble (Bachelor of Commerce, 2014; Master of Management in Human Resources, 2018), the chance to become a board director at Women with Disabilities Victoria came through an information session held by the organisation.

“At the session, I learned that a number of board positions would be vacant at the upcoming Annual General Meeting (AGM). The presenter encouraged interested members to apply at the AGM, so I did. To my delight, I was elected as director and treasurer.”

Getting the timing right

Timing is important to landing your first board role. As organisations usually only have an AGM every twelve months, picking the right moment is key, explains Sarah.

“I had to make sure I was on people’s radar around the time of the organisation’s AGM, and that they had time to listen to my pitch and learn about me,” she says.

On the other hand, the best timing can sometimes coincide with a crisis.

“You also need to be ready if the organisation is in a dire situation, where they need someone like you straight away.”

Pitching your value proposition

Whenever your board opportunity presents itself, to seize it you’ll need a clear sense of the unique value you can bring.

“It’s always important to analyse what you can offer and what differentiates you from the other board directors. You definitely need to consider, ‘What can I give to this board, with who I am?’” says Sarah.

Once you know your value, be prepared to communicate it effectively. Board directors are busy people – by doing the thinking for them, you show that you respect their full schedules.

“Practise getting your message across in a succinct way. When you deal with high-level people, they simply don’t have much time. If you think you can add value to their board, then you need to communicate it in a very pitch-ful way. You need to really know yourself and be quite direct with that,” she says.

When Sarah saw the board role, she knew it aligned with both her passion and the skills she’d developed along the course of her career. And through her pitch, she made sure the organisation understood it, too.

“At the time, AYAC were looking for a person with quite a specific skillset and I knew that I had those skills, as well as the drive to be a board director. So, I put my hat in the ring for it.”

Reflecting on your ‘why’

Certainly, being a board director is a serious commitment. You’re responsible for corporate governance, meeting shareholder expectations, behaving ethically and obeying laws, regulations and codes of conduct – all while ensuring excellent business performance.

To make sure you’re prepared for the responsibility, you need to pause for some self-reflection. Reggie suggests taking a moment to ask yourself why you’re chasing a board position in the first place.

“You have to self-evaluate and assess your commitment, maturity and desire. Ask yourself, ‘What is my end goal? Is it to make me look good on paper and tell others I’m on a board?’ Because if that’s the case, my advice is that it’s not for you,” he says.

Above all, make sure your motivation is genuine. As Sarah says, other board directors are savvy; they’ll know if your heart’s not in it.

“In the interview stages, or when you’re giving a pitch at the AGM, people really can see if your vision will align with the organisation and whether your passion is there for that specific role. If you have those two things, you’ll likely be successful. And if you don’t, maybe this isn’t the right opportunity for you,” she says.

Balancing passion and professional growth

Sarah, Reggie and Anaab all chose non-profit boards for their first directorship. While most for-profit companies require substantial experience and technical expertise for their paid board roles, volunteer roles on non-profit boards can act as a stepping-stone.

Not only do non-profit board roles allow you to build your capability as a director, but they also offer another distinct benefit: through them, you can make a difference.

“In the not-for-profit sector, every organisation is trying to do something good, and they each have a different ‘how’ and ‘why’. They all have a unique problem they’re trying to solve, and you should care deeply about solving that problem, too,” says Sarah.

When Reggie was elected to the board of Urban Camp, for example, he was excited to be working for a cause he was passionate about: giving kids from regional areas a taste of urban life. But being on a non-profit board has served his professional goals, too.

“I work in audit and risk, and I’m often preparing reports at the committee level, which are then taken to the board level. I wanted to understand what happens next – what level of reporting is expected, what volume and relevancy of information is presented, and what discussions are had,” he says.

Joining a board in her 40s has likewise had both personal and professional impacts for Anaab.

“I wanted to contribute by bringing my lived experience of disability to a board, as well as my intersectionality – as a person of colour, a Muslim woman, a mother and an African migrant. Organisational change relies on individuals to speak up, highlight inequality and challenge the status quo. So as a board director, I’m interested in standing up for communities who are often underrepresented,” Anaab says.

“At the same time, I’m also an experienced human resources, diversity and inclusion practitioner, with skills in people, finance, project and business management. I thought, ‘Why not share my experience with an organisation that aligns with my values: systematically advocating for women with disabilities?’”

How much experience do you need?

While non-profit and for-profit boards may not always demand the same levels of leadership experience for new directors, you’ll still need some technical expertise. Ultimately, you need to be a capable subject matter expert in an area that’s a value-add for the organisation.

The skills and knowledge you offer should complement the other board directors’ know-how, to enhance group decision-making and problem-solving. As the Australian Institute of Company Directors writes: “A board comprised of diverse individuals brings a variety of life experiences, capabilities and strengths to the boardroom. There is greater diversity of thought and a broader range of insights, perspectives and views in relation to issues affecting the organisation.”

Of course, there’s no strict metric around technical expertise, or how long it takes to develop it. Only you can know when you’re ready for the boardroom. As Sarah puts it:

“You need enough experience that you understand the organisation and what your vision is to help that organisation propel. Whether that takes two years to develop, or two days, you need to make sure you can answer those two questions.”

The question of character

Alongside technical ability, the attitudes you bring to a board are important, too. For one, being on a board demands you show respect for people whose opinions and outlook are different from yours. You’ll need to be comfortable cooperating, sharing opposing ideas and embracing different perspectives.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have some relevant experience. But being on a board is also about sharing knowledge and collaborating with other board members,” says Anaab.

“Since becoming a board member, I’ve learnt the importance of collaboration and valuing others’ viewpoints. I’ve become more passionate about building diversity in the workplace, and I enjoy learning from others and achieving goals together.”

Having curiosity about the world and a love of learning helps, too. For instance, do you have an inquiring mind? Are you ready to continually ask questions and challenge the status quo? And are you prepared to continually have your point of view contested?

“You have to be an insatiable learner. And you’ve got to be prepared to challenge and be challenged, so you can manage disagreements and reach a necessary common point of view. Everyone has different ideas, so you have to continually compromise and consolidate to agree,” Reggie says.

Being able to call on different mental attitudes is another essential character trait. This might mean putting your personal objectives aside and adopting a visionary mindset for the organisation. Or it might mean moving between a ‘doer’ and an ‘observer’ mindset. Reggie explains:

“When you go onto a board as a subject matter expert, you tend to be relied upon a lot. That’s not necessarily because the other board members aren’t capable, but rather that they look to you. To combat that, try to exercise independence: let the other board members know you’re happy to recommend ‘X,Y and Z’, but that you’re not going be responsible for doing it."

"In my case, I might recommend that the organisation builds a risk profile, but I don’t offer to build that risk profile for them. That’s the difference between doing the work and playing a consultative role.”

Five best things about being on a board

Naturally, being on your first board will be a challenge. But Sarah, Reggie and Anaab are adamant the benefits are worth it. To sum up, here are their five best-kept secrets of board life:

1. You’ll build a valuable network of mentors

As a board member, you’re united with other directors by your commitment to the organisation you represent. Their wisdom and guidance is yours to soak up.

“Being on a board gives you the opportunity to network and gain insight on various issues facing your organisation, and other organisations as well. A lot of board members are well-accomplished in their life and careers. Being able to absorb the way they think and act, especially at a young age, is something that’s definitely not to be taken for granted,” says Reggie.

2. You’ll develop transferable leadership skills

Looking to be a leader, but not yet the boss? Being on a board can help you hone your skills.

“A board role can give you the confidence to be innovative and to operate at a higher professional level. It also gives you a strategic lens to apply across organisations, so when you change jobs, you can quickly adapt,” says Sarah.

If you're starting out in your career, access to leadership skills is even more beneficial. Entry-level jobs rarely include leadership training. And as a junior staff member, you’re likely to have fewer opportunities to make decisions than someone in a more senior position.

“As a young person, developing your leadership skills and experience early on through a board role is invaluable,” says Sarah.

3. You’ll influence the direction and culture of an organisation

When you’re a board director, you’ll be presented with all manner of proposals, strategies and organisational restructures. It’s up to you and your fellow directors to choose the right course of action, then influence management to implement it.

“Board directors set the ‘tone at the top’. They play an important role in shaping the culture of the organisation, making informed decisions and selecting the best possible course for the organisation to meet its goals. It’s a great feeling!” says Anaab.

“Always remember to have a questioning mind, to seek clarification and to request further information if you need it. And never support a decision if you haven’t had sufficient time to consider it!”

4. You’ll see the impact of your commitment

Whether you’re attending board and subcommittee meetings, doing desktop research or perusing board papers, joining a board will keep you busy. But seeing the result of your board duties will prove your hard work worthwhile.

“In my board role, I get to see the output: I see kids coming to the camp with smiles on their faces, they’re safe, they’re enjoying it, and that’s the best part. I’m motivated and inspired by the kids to do this work for them,” says Reggie.

5. There’s no age limit

Provided you’re at least 18 years old, you can launch your board career any time. Research has found that the age of board directors doesn’t have any significant effect on an organisation’s performance, and that there are equal merits to having both older and younger directors on boards.

So, if the idea of joining a board appeals to you, why not take Reggie’s advice?

“Start your board career as early as possible! There’s a lot you can give – whether you’re 18 or 35, it makes no difference. You have something to contribute, and there’s a change you can make.”