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Exploring governance - why join a board?

Author: David Levenson

Published: 11 May 2023

In his first article looking at the importance of governance and the role of board members, executive coach David Levenson explains that joining a board can boost your confidence and your career prospects, while supporting a more sustainable future for all.

Our lives are affected every day by decisions made by people on boards of directors. Boards lead decision making at the places where we work, the schools our children attend, the hospitals that treat us and the big businesses with which we interact daily.

Setting aside the trailblazers, like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, most people who serve on company or trust boards do so as a vocation. They undertake extraordinary work in the service of businesses, communities and, in some cases, entire regions and countries, and do so by sharing the expertise and experience they have accumulated during their lives and careers.

Having worked on and around boards as an executive director, a non-executive director (NED), a boardroom coach and a governance trainer for more than 30 years, I am often asked two questions by CFOs and senior accountants in practice and in industry:

  • Why should I join a board?
  • What difference can I make by being here? 

These are excellent questions. You are a busy person and board membership requires a serious investment of your valuable time. You want to be certain that it will be time well spent. Here are my top five reasons why joining a board can make a difference to you and enable you to make a difference for other people:

1. Joining a board as a NED is career enhancing

Think of a board role as an accelerated (and elevated) form of work experience. Remember how student internships were an important factor in landing your first role as a graduate? Similarly, getting into the boardroom will boost your executive-level CV.

2. Find an organisation with a mission and values that match yours

We rarely get to do our dream day job. So why not use the opportunity a NED role offers to get involved with a cause that really matters to you. As it will take up a serious amount your time look for a board role that you will enjoy and find fulfilling.

As a bonus, your expertise and enthusiasm for the business’ mission or organisation’s cause will greatly increase your chances of landing the role of your choice.

3. Being in the boardroom will boost your confidence

Time and again, new NEDs have told me the difference joining a board has made to how they perform in their executive and professional roles.

As accountants we are accustomed to working with facts and certainties. Life in the boardroom is also about coping with variables, imagining scenarios, making judgements and influencing sometimes egotistical colleagues who think they know the answers.

However, the effectiveness of the board is measured less by the decisions it makes than the quality of members’ questions and debate in arriving at their conclusions. Understanding how to navigate politics in the boardroom is an invaluable skill to take with you into any future role.

4. Making a difference

Being a board NED is like peering through the keyhole to someone else’s house. You only get a partial view of what is going on inside the organisation. You need to engage your higher-level negotiating and influencing skills to find out what is happening outside the boardroom.

Furthermore, the boardroom isn’t a separate entity with its own homogenous culture. NEDs must adapt how they function in whichever context they are in, be it a listed company, SME or non-profit organisation.

The difference high-performing NEDs can make to an organisation is their ability to bring an alternative perspective to the discussions. Don’t mistake this as meaning you are always being a contrarian, rather it’s the understanding that an alternative view can be what makes the difference between a competent group of directors and a high-performing board.

5. Boards must engage with sustainability and inequality

If nothing else, Coronavirus taught boards that they can no longer batten down the hatches and ignore the outside world.

Any agenda for tackling the next decade’s biggest pan-global challenges would include the following:

  • Securing the planet’s future
  • Eradicating global wealth and health inequalities
  • Eliminating the most blatant human rights abuses
  • Tackling societal imbalances and discrimination

To be sure, some organisations owe their purpose to addressing one or more of these challenges, at least at a local or regional level. But for others, these are issues their boards can no longer afford to ignore with ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) regulations requiring them to disclose their activities for the benefit of communities they serve and societies at large.

Businesses and organisations can no longer opt out from engaging with the next decade’s global agenda. Today there can be no higher motivation to join a board where you can make a real difference to people’s lives. 

Other articles in this series

About the author

David Levenson is an experienced executive coach, career strategy coach and board advisor. He is the managing director of innovative coaching practice Coaching Futures and runs two ICAEW Academy courses: Board Readiness, for anyone thinking of joining or who has recently joined a board, and the High Performing Board Director, aimed at with at least two years’ experience in boardrooms.

More on exploring governance

If you would like to know more about what makes the difference between good and great in the boardroom, David Levenson will be writing a series of articles for ICAEW’s Corporate Governance Community in the coming months. He will introduce his Ten Steps to Become a High Performing Board©, as well as revealing the key competencies needed to be an effective board member.

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