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5 Critical Mistakes Young People Make when Looking for a Board Role

By Paul Smith | PaulSmith, Board, Career Management, Interviews |
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Becoming a board director at a young age can be a tremendous boost to your career and the impact you want to make on the world around you. However, without the right preparation you can often make it much harder than it need be. Here are five of the most critical mistakes we see young people make when trying to get their first (or next) role.

1) Having the wrong mindset

The average age of directors in Australia is about 60 and traditional thinking is that you only start your board career once you’ve had a successful (and long) executive career. This information could be enough to put off any would-be young director, unless you dig a little deeper.

But, there is a growing number of “young” (aged 20-45) directors on the boards of non-profits, start-ups, private and publicly listed companies, although not that many in the largest ASX listed companies….yet.

Don’t believe the hype. The traditions of board recruitment are changing fast as boards recognise that diversity is crucial to future success. Younger directors bring different perspectives on an ever-changing world, are digitally savvy and are of course representative of what is now the largest part of the workforce and soon to be the largest investor base as they inherit assets worth trillions.

We all had to start somewhere and you are never too young to start a board career. A large number of our Alumni have secured fantastic board roles in the months following our Kickstarter Program, especially those that were surprised to learn they had what it takes.

2) Having the wrong mindset

Am I repeating myself? Yes, but this time it’s not a lack of confidence but an abundance of over-confidence that is the critical mistake.

One thing that you’ll discover as an aspiring young director is getting a board role is not easy. Whilst being a director is hard work and a serious commitment (although many are not as committed as they should be), getting a coveted board role can be even harder, unless you put in the effort. Once you get there you certainly won’t want to live up to the stereotype that young people today are lazy and entitled, will you?

You need to work on your profile and your relationships, you have to get out talking to people in your network and beyond. You’ll probably have to apply for a few and you might get rejected depending on the “seniority” of the appointment. However, just like anything in life, the more effort you put in the more you’re likely to get out of it.

It’s flattering to be offered a board role at a relative young age but also easy to be swept away in your ego. Do your due diligence. 

3) Not having clarity and focus

Do you know which type of boards you want to be on and why? Do you know what makes you stand out from a crowded market of candidates? Do you know how toavoid being part of a crowded market? Do you have a high quality resume and LinkedIn profile? Are there people willing to vouch for how awesome you are?

If you want to become a director at a young age, you have to sell yourself. But in order to sell yourself effectively, everything about you must shout credibility, contribution and value. The more focussed you are on what you want and what you have to offer, the more powerfully you can communicate this in a way which is attractive to boards. One of our youngest graduates Parrys Raines was recently appointed to the Future Business Council board and their chair, Alison Rowe, told us that she was impressed from the very start by how Parrys knew exactly what her unique value proposition (UVP) was and how this would fit with their organisation. Parrys is now on a seriously well-credentialed board at the tender age of 21!

4) Not developing a supportive network

It’s not just boards that are attracted to powerfully communicated purpose, values and value, your own network (comprising friends, family, colleagues, peers etc.) can be tremendously valuable if they know who you are, why you do what you do and what you could contribute in the boardroom.

But, unless you are out making the effort and armed with your UVP, your network are not going to know. Get out there, talk, meet, share and not just those that you know - some of the most successful graduates of our Kickstarter Program have met people they didn’t know because those were the people identified as future mentors or sponsors.

5) Not doing your due diligence

You’ve put in the effort and managed to score a great role as a director. Congratulations! Do you know what to expect when you walk into the boardroom for the first time? Do you know your fellow directors, their roles and responsibilities? Do you know what your chair expects of you? Are you going to get confused by procedure and jargon? Does the board have director’s insurance or a Code of Conduct?

It’s flattering to be offered a board role at a relative young age but easy to be swept away in your ego. Not every board is right for you. Remember, it’s unlikely you’ll be doing this for a living at this point so make sure you only say yes to the boards that fit your values. Make sure the boardroom is not a toxic mess of politics and hidden agendas unless, having done the work on you, that’s exactly the type of place you think you’ll thrive. It takes all sorts.

Also, don’t waste your first few meetings learning the ropes. You don’t have to be the best, but it’s better to be prepared so your fellow directors give you the respect you deserve from day one.

Paul Smith, co-founder and CEO of Future Directors Institute, helps empower and connect the next generation of board directors. He is Chair of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia and a director of several start-ups. To learn more about the Future Directors Institute and how they are helping hundreds of next generation leaders make an impact in the boardroom, visit www.futuredirectors.com.au

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