By Karen Loon, BoardAgender Committee Member
Getting your first board role is not easy.
It’s like getting a new job in a completely different field of work and another industry when you haven’t worked in it before.
It requires an identity transition – and being open to experimenting, pivoting, learning and trying it again. That’s not easy – and can be uncomfortable. You need to deal with new people, learn new skills, and new ways of doing things.
Moreover, it’s not as straightforward as hoping your CV will sell itself, and then once getting the role, applying those the skills you have learnt at work in your management role and using them in the board room. Some think it’s like starting an entirely new career.
Gaining that first board role is as much about art as about science. Being on a board is like joining a sporting team – limited places, each of you all have different skills to bring, yet you all need to work closely together. Even if you are the best athlete, you may fail if you can’t find a way to work amicable relationships with the other team members.
Recently, Piyush Gupta, Group CEO of DBS, Member of the Council for Board Diversity and a male ally, spoke at a session with United Women Singapore. On the topics of board diversity and getting more women on Singapore’s boards, he was asked what his advice is for aspiring directors.
Here are three tips he shared.
Find a mentor who’s going to sponsor you.
Piyush advises aspiring directors to find a mentor who’s going to sponsor them.
He noted that in most countries like Singapore, the board selection process is still very informal.
“If you look at the number of companies [which] hire search firms to do management search[es], and compare them with the number of companies that are hiring search firms to do board search, you’ll find a vast difference,” he said.
“This is reality. We need to try and change that.”
“But while that happens, finding a mentor who makes your case and finding a mentor who actually offers your name up for consideration, I think that’s really helpful.”
So, my first tip is, if you’re a senior executive, if you think you have board qualifications, find a mentor,” he recommended.
“Find somebody who’s a chairman or NC Chairman whom you know is well plugged in, and so on. Make clear this is what I like to do; this is what I think I can bring to the party, and find somebody who can be a mentor or sponsor for you.“
Start early – Take a board position early on in your career.
His second tip is to take board positions early on in your career, starting perhaps with those on NGOs, civil society groups, and statutory bodies.
“Once you have a couple of those in your CV, for-profit and listed boards are more willing to look at you,” he said.
From his personal experience, Piyush observed that it is sometimes difficult to persuade even the most enlightened corporate boards to take a leap of faith and appoint somebody with zero board experience.
Piyush encourages aspiring directors to take small steps early in their careers and get some board experience.
Build your personal brand
A practical challenge for many people is, in addition to personal networking, how do you get yourself noticed? For instance, is using LinkedIn helpful?
Piyush emphasised the importance of everyone building their own brand, both at work and outside of work.
“For me, I’m a big believer in helping individual employees build their own brand. If you build your own brand, you not only create confidence in yourself, you have a reflected glory in the organisation.”
He believes that leaders must encourage their people to build their own brand, and to demonstrate how you think.
“I encourage all of my people. I put them out on external boards, I encourage them to publish, I encourage them to go on LinkedIn.”
“If the employer is not helping you, I think it is incumbent on you to try to do that. Get on to panels, get on to public speaking forums, post on LinkedIn. Because finally people reflect on your body of work. They want to see how you think your LinkedIn can reflect that. They want to see whether you can sit and talk and if you get on a few panels, people notice you.”
“All of these things are extremely important. At the end of the day like everything in life, for board positions, you’ve got to market yourself,” he added.
Piyush believes that promoting yourself and being responsible for shaping your own career and growth is incumbent on every individual.
Highlighting that getting board roles or career promotions are about demand and supply, he encourages all aspiring leaders (not just women) to “think about the four Ps of marketing: what is the product, what is the place, how do I position it [and] how do I promote it.”
“You got to do that with yourself as well.”
He urges employees to proactively let people more senior than them know about the types of roles that they would like in the future.