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Careers Café

Branch out your career path by sitting on a board

Sitting on a board can help develop your ability to handle situations of accountability without authority.


When I worked with staff at the University of Waterloo, the clients I met with who transitioned from non-managerial roles to managerial ones often had something in common – and it wasn’t a love of management books. It was experience on a non-profit board of governors.

Maybe a managerial role sounds like a nightmare to you, given the longer hours, accountability for work that isn’t your own, and the knowledge that the buck stops with you. Even if your career aspirations include actively avoiding management, contributing to a board may offer you useful experiences.

One useful experience is getting paid, which can happen if you join a corporate board. While joining a corporate board early in your career isn’t impossible, it’s less likely than being accepted to a non-profit board.

The clients I worked with most frequently recognized that their board work developed their ability to handle situations of accountability without authority. They had to work closely with peers to agree on a common course of action, sometimes persuading colleagues to let go of ideas that had been very dear to them. And they had to do it all in a way that would preserve their working relationships.

Beyond that, of course, is the chance to make an impact in an area that matters to you. This has been one of the most meaningful reasons for being on a board for me. I love my job, but a job can’t provide everything. Even though I’ve witnessed the change in clients when they’ve found additional ways to live according to their values, it was still surprising to me just how energizing I’ve found it to take on anti-poverty work through a board.

So, if you want to join a board, how do you go about it? Start with organizations whose work you believe in; it’ll be more satisfying work for you, and you’ll be able to present a more compelling case for why you want to work with them. Don’t wait for posted vacancies; instead, contact the board and ask about their selection process.

The composition of the board plays a large role in determining who they’d like to add to the mix. It’s best not to make assumptions about what a board needs. Alyssa Lai, one of the authors of Next Generation Governance report, notes that you needn’t always be an expert. She joined an environmental sustainability board as a non-expert – a role the board sought to fill. The board I’m on is looking for people with communications strategy knowledge – something that will change once the board fills that role.

Also, don’t assume that being on a board requires grey hair. Boards think about succession planning, and may actively partner with programs to bring in young board members, seek out young members through their network, or be waiting for people early in their career to apply.

There’s no point in adding activity to your life for the sake of adding activity, though. What are you hoping the experience will bring you? Does the responsibility and potential for a positive impact excite you? Is the time commitment manageable for you? If so, dig into some more questions that will give insight into the board, and help you determine whether it could open up some interesting branches in your career path.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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