Harry O’Neill is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ financial services practice, based in Hong Kong. He is also a key member of the firm’s CEO & board practice.
How do I become a corporate board member?
I’m a Hong Kong-based executive in a large trading company with ambitions of becoming a corporate board member one day, either at my current company or other well-known institutions. Without going into too much detail on my current role, I have expertise in certain financial areas and strategic growth. How can I prepare to make such a move one day? What specific skills might I need and what sort of people should I know? I also read that one good launchpad to corporate board membership is non-profit boards. Is this true?
To get a seat on a corporate board, you need to have a very structured plan. First, you should do an honest assessment of your experience, and decide what kind of companies you can help the most.
Your finance experience could be a good starting point. Heidrick & Struggles’ Board Monitor research shows that 47 per cent of newly appointed non-executive director roles at Fortune 500 companies in 2014 were filled by former CEOs and 20 per cent by ex-CFOs. Solid finance experience is a critical requirement on every board, so your executive career experience will prove very useful.
At this point, it would be helpful to seek out experience on boards, targeting industries related to your experience and knowledge. Non-profit, start-up and private company boards all serve as great launching pads for corporate board service.
Research potential boards to ensure you are joining one with a good reputation and a composition with which you are comfortable. It is also important that you are able to fully commit to the amount of work you will be required to do. This board experience can form a critical foundation for your future selection on other boards.
Expanding your network and increasing your visibility is vital. Working for a large Hong Kong trading company should give you the chance to network with directors from listed companies. Try to raise your profile with such directors, and especially chairs or nominating committee members – this can help you establish yourself as someone with serious credentials. You could also ask your network for advice on how best to be appointed to a board.
Another option to consider is obtaining professional qualifications by completing board education courses, such as the Financial Times Non-Executive Director Diploma or courses from the Australian Institute of Company Directors. You could also become a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Directors, which may help you prepare for a board role and widen your networking base.
Joining a board is a big, long-term decision, with a lot of personal and professional liability. Don’t just take the first thing that comes along – you should evaluate boards as much as they evaluate you. Do your due diligence, find out which companies have excellent governance rankings, and make inquiries within your network to ensure you end up on a reputable board.
If invitations are not flowing your way, get out there and make it happen. Somewhere out there is a board – or boards – that need you.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as How do I become a corporate board member?