10 Strategies To Prepare Yourself For Board Membership

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Mar. 17 2017, Published 3:30 a.m. ET

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If one of your career goals is to serve on a board of directors, good for you! Board service is an exceptional opportunity to contribute your strengths to a worthy cause. It will allow you to grow personally and professionally, collaborate with smart, visionary people, and make a positive impact on a business or nonprofit.

I know many talented, experienced women who aspire to serve on boards, but many of them don’t know what steps they should take to get there. While it’s true that women have faced a variety of barriers to board service, this trend is changing. If you’re smart, motivated, and willing to work at it one day at a time, you can make progress toward joining a board.

Think of these 10 personal development strategies as ways to improve your leadership skills, relationships, and effectiveness in your current role. Together, these attributes will prepare you well for board service.

1. Know and articulate your strengths. The best leaders are self-aware. They focus on building from their strengths so that results add up sooner, instead of obsessing about what they are not good at. (That’s what team building and delegation are for!) There are dozens of assessments that can help you better understand, appreciate, and articulate your strengths. My favorite is Strengthsfinder, because it’s research based and efficient: you can do the assessment online and receive a highly beneficial report  today. Over 11 million people have taken this assessment, and for good reason. I took the assessment 25 years into a very successful career, and I wish I’d done it sooner.

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2. Ask more questions. I’ve served on boards for over 20 years, and I’ve observed that one of the most valuable traits a board member can offer is curiosity. It takes effort and experience to ask good questions; when you do, you’ll discover ways to add more value and build better relationships. There’s a reason it’s said that “the future belongs to the curious.” Have a look at these 20 questions to get you started.

3. Step out of your comfort zone to build better relationships. One of the most critical factors for board success is chemistry among board members. Every board on which I’ve served has included a wide variety of people with different skill sets, strengths, points of view, and interests. This diversity makes a board stronger. Spend time with other smart people who are different from you. There are a variety of ways to build a wide circle of relationships. Some are as simple as asking a colleague to get a cup of coffee with you.

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4. Invest in your communication skills. As Dale Carnegie noted, 15% of success is due to professional knowledge, and 85% is due to “the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people.” You communicate in dozens of formats every day: in one-on-one discussions, via email, in small gatherings around a conference table, and  while speaking at conferences to large audiences. You can improve your communications with books and training like Fierce Communications, attend a conference like SCORRE, or listen to a podcast like the TED Radio Hour. I’ve also written a brief ebook on this topic, called The Seven Secrets of Highly Effective Communicators.

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5. Cultivate skills in at least one of the top 10 trends changing the conversations in board rooms. This includes cybersecurity, competing for talent, and building stronger customer relationships and support. Listen to experts to stay current on top trends for directors.

6. Assess your core functional skills and expertise. These are technical capabilities you can bring to a board. According to Harvard Business Review, you should “assess yourself not only as a sector expert but also as an executive with special competences and map those attributes against the market’s needs. What are your special skills – digital marketing know-how you learned in fast-moving consumer goods? Or perhaps expertise in managing clinical trials you learned in biopharma? Or is it your knowledge of how to work with regulators in highly regulated industries?”

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6. Start serving on a board that is accessible to you now. Often, there are opportunities that align with your interests and skills on the boards of local nonprofits, startups, or private companies. Be wise in your due diligence; the process itself will give you insights for future board service.

7. Take more risks. I’ve served on boards in a range of sectors,, and I noticed years ago that every other member took substantial risks to distinguish themselves. Some were entrepreneurs who started a successful business or nonprofit (or both, which was one of my paths to board service). Another served as general counsel for a high-growth nonprofit, and another worked in the C-suite of an innovative company. There is no one path to success or board service, but research shows that not taking risks is risky, because it will hold you back.

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8. Build and nurture vibrant networks. The main objective here is to contribute value in your business and personal relationships, rather than simply looking for what you can get for yourself. In the best network, you would have a variety of relationships. Those with whom you work closely every day – perhaps colleagues, customers, or partners – are as important as the  acquaintances with whom you stay in touch over many years. These relationships often add up in surprising, mutually beneficial ways.

9. Seek out a variety of mentors. Ideally, you will have mentors who appreciate your achievements and are motivated to make introductions and sponsor your growth. It takes effort and wisdom to develop these relationships. The best mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial, where both the mentee and the mentor bring value to each other.

10. Renew your mind and motivation with the ideas of great thinkers. Too often, high achievers are so immersed in the demands of their work that they don’t believe they have time to focus on what inspires them. But there are many ways to gain inspiration – anytime and anywhere. I personally enjoy listening to top podcasts on leadership, like The CEO ShowOffice Hours, or Entreleadership. You can also discover the latest ideas on innovation via Audible during your morning commute. My favorite of the moment is Strengths Based Leadership.

When you invest in these personal development habits, you will grow as a leader and build valuable skills that will move you closer to board service.

This piece originally appeared on Women 2.0.

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