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Joining a board can be an attractive way of giving back, helping an organization we have a connection to and can also further your skills, perhaps even preparing you for some day joining a major corporate board.

But a first step is recognizing the work will require a different approach. You may thrive being at the centre of the action in your current job, making quick decisions, driving your team and department.

Boards are not like that.

“Most boards meet only at scheduled intervals and their role is not about day-to-day management as part of a team, but about governance, working in collaboration with board colleagues. Some people find this less fulfilling than they expected; others relish the opportunity to step into a completely different role,” Kathryn Bishop and Gillian Camm, who have both served on a variety of boards, write in Board Talk.

Some boards of voluntary groups without staff, of course, can take a more hands-on approach. But most don’t. The authors note that if you have had a long career you certainly have experience to offer but must ask whether you want to take on this different kind of role.

They stress the importance of having conversations with other members of the board – and indeed, boards from other organizations – to determine the reality of what is required. Will you be independent or are you being appointed by a specific stakeholder you must represent? Are you meant to be decorative or can you truly contribute your knowledge? Dig deeply to find out the time commitment; it will usually be greater than what is initially stated in the approach made to you or a job description for the role. If you are joining a board in a sector unfamiliar to you – say a public-sector board, while you are working in the private sector – expect that the processes and culture will be quite different.

They suggest considering the balance of risk and reward. You want to help, and it’s easy to get carried away with dreams of the positive impact you might have. “If something goes wrong, the board will be held accountable – as well as you,” they warn.

A problem arising in the organization may make it harder for you to be appointed to similar roles in future, if that is your goal, even if it was not under your control. You won’t be spending as much time in the organization as its executives and will have less information to work with. But unless it’s a purely advisory role, you could be held accountable. If the role is voluntary, there may not be compensation but be sure to find out if there is indemnity insurance for the organization’s directors.

They urge you to check out whether the organization is worth joining before agreeing to be on the board. Talk to someone with experience of the organization such as a service user, key supplier or member of the appropriate trade body or association. Perhaps someone in your network serves on the board of a comparable organization. Check the internet for what people are saying about it. Glassdoor may have employee reviews.

This will also prepare you to answer a question you should have and may be asked if you are to be interviewed for the post: What do you have to offer the organization? You also want to be sure you can work with other members of the board. If it’s not part of the interview process, arrange to meet them. “Levels of trust between board members may fluctuate from time to time at critical moments, but if you have any doubts about this at the outset, proceed only with caution,” the authors advise.

It can be thrilling to be asked to join a board. But be sure it’s the right board at the right time.

Quick hits

  • Copywriter Daniel Doan includes these in a collection of 205 action verbs to spice up your resume: Accelerated, advanced, amplified, convinced, decreased, drove, finished, lifted, navigated, pioneered and won.
  • Communications coach Carmine Gallo notes in his e-mail newsletter that when practising, professional golfers might push themselves to make 20 three-foot putts in a row, starting over if they miss one. Because many people get nervous at the start of a presentation, he similarly recommends in a practice session delivering the first 30 to 60 seconds without looking at notes 10 times in a row, starting over if there’s a flub.
  • Executive recruiter Gerald Walsh says in his experience most individuals who accept counteroffers and remain with their current employer discover that things rarely change, ultimately leading them to start job hunting again within a year. Another problem can be that you have put your loyalty in question, which can potentially hinder your chances of receiving training opportunities, promotions and salary raises.
  • Author James Clear says people usually judge you based on where you are at currently, not what you can become eventually. So don’t let one negative comment keep you from trying; use it as fuel.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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