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"Eighty per cent of success is showing up."

That quote, often attributed to Woody Allen, gets bounced around a lot as a meme on social applications like LinkedIn or Twitter but I never paid it much thought until last New Year's Eve, when a casual conversation about theatre turned into a board role for me.

Over drinks, I shared my thoughts on long-gone theatre productions, not realizing that the gentleman I sat beside was assembling his own theatre company. After the clock struck midnight, he asked whether I would consider a board role.

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Granted, the role is not glamorous and I'm not even compensated but it allows me to step outside my comfort zone, learn about a new industry, meet new people and indulge my love of theatre, despite having no artistic skills. It's a win-win scenario.

Also, the experience I glean may one day land me a more lucrative and coveted board opportunity. In theatre terms, this may be my first act.

I'm not alone. According to Audrey Wubbenhorst, vice-president of the Canadian Board Diversity Council, joining a not-for-profit board acts as an important first step on one's board journey. She recounted that early in her career, a mentor encouraged her to sit on a board to develop her leadership skills, so she joined the board of a women's shelter, eventually becoming its chairwoman.

"It was great experience in developing strategic thinking, while positively contributing to an issue I cared about. When I reflect on my résumé, I consider my board experience to be some of the most meaningful experience I've had," said Ms. Wubbenhorst, who now serves on the board of Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC) and the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network.

Board experience won through a stint at a not-for-profit, coupled with courses about governance for board directors gives candidates the resources to apply for more complex board roles, she explained. The experience and skills developed on a not-for-profit board include reviewing complex financial statements and projections, problem solving, and leading committees and board meetings. It also allows for networking outside of one's industry, which can open the door to new opportunities.

"You may be in financial services but are interested in health care. Serving on the board of a health-care agency gives you a new purview and perhaps a 'foot in the door' as you prepare for a career change, Ms. Wubbenhorst said.

Serving on a not-for-profit board can also open doors to segments of the population trying to break into traditional Corporate Canada, such as new Canadians.

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Odette Uy, who boasts 25 years in senior executive roles in the Philippines and other parts of Asia, said she became interested in a board role in Canada this spring, after completing the global professional masters of law program at the University of Toronto, with an emphasis on Canadian corporate governance.

The program was an important way for her to interact with the business community in Canada, a market she struggled to penetrate since she continues to spend the bulk of her time managing family investments, including a portfolio companies in the United States, Spain and the Philippines. While she does not currently sit on any Canadian boards, Ms. Uy is a director in seven family-led companies in the United States and the Philippines. Over the years, she has served as a director in 10 others.

"I recognize that getting a board role will be quite a challenge for me, absent the proverbial 'Canadian experience' and a solid network in the local business community. The struggle is admittedly more pronounced among us immigrants who are basically starting over in Canada," Ms Uy said.

"Many newcomers have much to contribute to Canadian boards in terms of their business experience and deep understanding of a board's role and responsibilities," Ms. Uy continued. She hopes that others new to Canada, like her, persevere. One way to get some Canadian experience, she said, is through a not-for-profit opportunity.

"The dynamics may be different, but the fundamentals of governance remain the same," she observed.

Looking for a not-for-profit board role is just one of many tactics foreign professionals can take on while relaunching their careers in a new environment. Ms. Uy also suggested actively cultivating a business network, embracing volunteer opportunities and participating in community events.

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"I strongly recommend that newcomers take training courses on board directorships at their earliest [convenience], as new opportunities may emerge from Canada's heightened focus on diversity, notably gender and ethnicity," she said.

In other words, luck favours those who try – or according to Woody Allen, showing up gets you more than halfway to your career destination. So fight that instinct to stay home and binge watch Netflix and instead turn up at that next cocktail party, sporting or cultural event. You never know whom you might sit beside.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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