Five Steps to Landing a Board Role

career change chief sustainability officer leadership Oct 18, 2023

With ESG insight in high demand across global boards, there's rarely been a better time to consider taking a seat at an organisation's top table. But how should you go about it?

Seeking out a spot on a company’s board of directors is a solid career development move.  

Not only does a seat at the top table grant networking access to some of the most influential names in your industry, but it equips you with a level of knowledge, skills and insight that look invaluable on a resume. It builds your personal brand with more gravitas and offers you a platform to increase your public speaking opportunities.   

For ambitious senior leaders looking to drive scalable change it also provides the opportunity to wield meaningful influence on a company’s agenda, shaping its strategies, policies and priorities.  

And with ESG rapidly climbing up the agenda there is more demand than ever for those with relevant experience in the impact sector to join boards and advise on everything from diversity and inclusion to climate action to governance and holding key executives to account.  

But for all of these reasons it’s also a significant commitment and responsibility, which is why it’s important to consider a few things before beginning your search.    

First - Find The Right Fit 

The first element to consider before diving in is what type of board would suit you best.  

Broadly speaking, there are three types. Larger companies may have a combination of these, while smaller organisations tend to opt for one or blend their different functions to some extent. 

Managing or executive board – These boards run a company’s day-to-day operations and oversee current and future business plans.  

Advisory board – These boards provide advice and recommendations to an organisation’s main board and are often made up of members with expertise in a specific area, such as sustainability.  

Governing board – The main board with the authority to control and lead a company with a focus on big picture decisions and long-term planning. Members are often tasked with providing direction to senior leadership – and holding them to account.  

Across each of these models, there’ll often be a mix of non-exec and executive members 

The former will be senior level professionals brought in from outside the company, selected for their experience and wider knowledge of the industry. For that reason, they’ll also be paid. The latter will already be senior company employees, and invariably include CEOs, CFOs and – more recently – CSOs (Chief Sustainability Officers).  

Second – Decide What Type of Organization 

The next consideration to have in mind is the type of organization for which you’d like to be a board member, as there are some significant differences in the roles at a corporate versus a non-profit.  

Corporate: A board of directors serves - and is accountable to – shareholders. It often tends to be smaller, at around 10-15 members, with paid members expected to attend regular meetings.  

Non-profit: The board serves an organisation’s wider causes and communities, with up to five times more members. This is so workload can be shared more widely to reflect the fact that roles will largely be taken on by volunteers, while corporate board members are compensated for their time. For a similar reason, boards may gather on a less regular or more ad hoc basis as and when needs arise. Bear in mind that many trade associations and industry bodies tend to operate as non-profits, with senior industry figures often populating the board of directors.   

Try using the following questions to help decide what may be the best fit. 

  • Am I looking to take on more responsibility and gain higher level insight at my current company?  
  • Am I looking to flesh out a resume with a broader range of industry experience?  
  • What specialist ESG knowledge do I bring to the role? 
  • Am I better equipped to advise on day-to-day commercial decisions or longer-term strategic goals?  
  • To what extent am I committed to focus solely on ESG rather than a broader set of KPIs? 
  • What time commitment am I able to make?  
  • How important is financial remuneration?  

Expert advice:

Be thoughtful and deliberate about what you are looking for and why.  Is it a passion project or are you looking to bolster your credentials?  What are you trying to accomplish – for yourself and the organization?  - Lisa Raisner, principal at Navigating Washington LLP, President of the board at Center City Business Association and Secretary and Financial Committee Chair at PennFuture 

Of course, even once you’ve spent time carefully considering and researching which type of role and organisation might be the best fit, that isn’t where the journey ends.  

Third – Prove Your Skills 

Although board members with an ESG background are in increasing demand, these roles can still be challenging to secure. There are high expectations around skills, experience and knowledge given the level of influence each board member can have on the future of an organisation. This bar can be particularly high for non-exec members brought in from outside an organisation to provide their specialist insight.  

Some of the skills you’ll need to demonstrate include… 

  • Subject matter expertise: For non-exec roles in particular, board members will be expected to demonstrate specialist insight and industry knowledge.
  • Fundraising: Where an organisation relies on contributions to operate, board members will be expected to participate. That may include soliciting, introducing their network to the organisation and attending industry events.  
  • Financial literacy: You’ll need to be comfortable analysing financial documents, such as balance sheets and income statements, with an ability to interrogate cash flow and ask questions on financial performance. 
  • Strategic thinking: Boards are largely focused on an organisation’s ‘big picture’ plans, requiring a solid grasp of long-term aims and ambitions. 
  • Governance: Board members need to have a strong grasp of corporate governance, i.e., the processes by which an organisation is run. This includes ensuring a strong governance structure is in place, the appointment of directors and auditors and holding senior executives to account where processes haven’t been followed.   

Expert advice:

To get the most out of the experience, lean in.  Get on a committee, speak offline with the executives, speak on behalf of the organization, help raise money, get involved.  This is the only real way to know the organization and you must know them to add significant value. Tim Mohin, Partner and Director at Boston Consulting Group, former CEO at GRI

Fourth – Hit The Ground Running 

Once appointed, members will likely be expected to hit the ground running and so an understanding of how boards work, how they’re structured and what their responsibilities include is also key.  

For that reason, it may be worth investing in a course or certification prior to seeking out a role that equips you with this knowledge.  Many of the leading universities offer courses as part of their executive education. 

A few possibilities include… 

Fifth – Find The Roles Through Networks 

Finally, consider leveraging your network to identify upcoming opportunities and share your details with recruiters that specialise in board appointments (check out this list as a starting point). Smaller non-profits can also be a great option for those seeking their first position as a board member so consider targeting organisations focused on the impact areas you are passionate about shaping change around.  

There are also a number of organisations and networks out there that specialise in helping to train up, advise and / or connect prospective board members.  

Here are just a few to start with:  

Expert advice:

Networking is critical to evaluate the opportunities. Do a deep dive into your strengths and weaknesses to ensure good alignment, do your due diligence on the organization, evaluate current board members to ensure these are people you want to play in the sandbox with. -Sean Ansett, Board Chair at Stake Advisors 

ESG leaders shaping impact beyond their day jobs 

With ESG professionals in high demand across boards globally, there’s rarely been a better time for those with knowledge and experience of the impact sector to take a seat at the top table. 

Not only does such an appointment add a new level of insight and credibility to your resume, but it also creates the opportunity to affect meaningful change from the top with board members critical in crafting the longer-term visions of the world’s biggest corporates and non-profits.  


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