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One of the more common questions I am asked is how to get started in governance.
We each have our own pathway in and motivations for being there.
For many, it starts with a not-for-profit; it might be serving on your local kindergarten, then on to your school board, as your child progresses. Perhaps it is about supporting a hobby you are passionate about and the body through which you participate.
My advice is the same regardless of how you entered governance or where you are on your journey.
Rather than thinking solely about the career progression you seek, with a role on this board or aspirations to be chairperson of that entity, instead devote some of your thinking and planning to what type of director you want to be.
This will be answered by thinking about your values and what you observe from your colleagues around the table.
We each bring a different approach to a meeting. What styles do you observe and like? And conversely, what are the behaviours that you see as unproductive and challenging to management?
Take some time to reflect on how you see others prepare for a meeting, the types of questions and how they are asked, the follow-up that occurs or midcycle interactions, and how they are undertaken.
These all contribute to a director’s personal style, and reflection will help you consider what strengths you want to develop and what traits you would happily leave behind.
Other matters that contribute to style include a commitment to lifelong learning.
As a director, you come with a specific skill set that the organisation needs.
There will undoubtedly be continued upskilling in your core competency, but what about your commitment to understanding contemporary governance issues, for example environmental or cyber security, slavery in supply chains or changing work patterns post pandemic?
While professional organisations like the Institute of Directors offer formal training both online and classroom style, directors can easily supplement this every day with the wide variety of content that is accessible.
Daily news in the traditional form, social media, industry articles, podcasts, subscription services —whatever it is, make a conscious decision to read and listen widely.
Having done so, debate and discuss what you read with others.
Choose people older than you, younger than you, those from different backgrounds and cultures to you.
Finding interesting and diverse people can help challenge your thinking and broaden your perspective.
This is all part of preparation in addition to the diligent reading of the board pack before a meeting (it is always obvious when you are not truly engaged in the business or have skimmed materials at best).
Having done so, enter the meeting from a place of respect, and remind yourself that the management sitting at the table with you will be spending 40+ hours a week in the business and will know the day-to-day machinations in a way that you as a director (unless you did the job previously) probably never can.
The four pillars of governance are clear about holding management to account, but this is never at the expense of respectful engagement. Governance can and should be a team sport.
If you share that view, it equally applies to your fellow colleagues. You come together once a month and are only as strong as your collective effort.
Think about how new directors are welcomed, how you ensure no-one is left behind, how you constructively debate the arguments not the person, and how you reflect on your collective performance after each meeting.
These are the types of things which contribute to a healthy board culture.
Formal board evaluations will also provide a useful opportunity to consider collective performance, but a personal evaluation is not included, don’t shy away from asking the chairperson for feedback on your contribution and areas for development.
These conversations can help you develop a learning programme or be the start of a rich mentorship. They can also open up the opportunity for introductions across the chairperson’s network in your area of interest and expertise.
A career in governance can be highly rewarding so take the time to invest in yourself and as you head into your next board meeting, do so knowing what type of director you aspire to be and what your plan is to get there.
- Trish Oakley is chairwoman of the Otago Southland branch of the Institute of Directors (IOD). IOD is the professional body for directors and is at the heart of New Zealand’s governance community.