How I Got Started Building a Board Career

Emma Wallace
14 min readOct 7, 2022

You don’t have to be a CEO, CFO or investor to start getting board positions. Here’s why I wanted to start getting board experience earlier in my career, how I’ve gone about it and how it has helped me and my career.

A board table surrounded by all white chairs except for one which is yellow

I believe representation matters when it comes to leadership and having diverse role models for future leaders is essential for greater equality

A year ago I decided that I wanted to turn my ambition of having a portfolio career and holding at least one board role into a reality and start building my career in this area but I didn’t really know how to go about it. My family did not have a business background so I did not have much exposure to how businesses are run early in my life. I’m not sure what has been my motivation and trigger but it was only when I started university studying fashion business that I even learnt what a board was, and I have been curious about what boards do and how companies are run ever since. When I then started working I became even more interested in how boards work and started to see the impact they have. In my first jobs I only ever heard the decisions my directors would come back with after a mysterious board meeting. I always wondered, how was that decision made? Who made it? Why did they go with x plan instead of y? And sometimes a decision would seem so at odds with the work that was happening on the ground with customers it would really make you question what information they had that you didn’t.

I believe representation matters when it comes to leadership and having diverse role models for future leaders is essential for greater equality. Unfortunately it’s not been very common for women and and other under-represented groups to have roles and exposure in this space and it holds people back. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. I have been fortunate that my eldest sister is a great example in leadership and has board positions, so it helps I already had a personal contact who could give me some advice, but mostly valuable as someone like me who I could relate to and look up to. The first time I mentioned to a manager that I wanted to get into boards a few years ago when I was in my mid-twenties I am pretty sure he never believed I would do it. I’m very glad I didn’t take their doubts seriously or let it hold me back from trying as now more that ever before there is a strong case and movement for more diverse people to join boards, and it is having a positive impact on businesses and organisations.

Most boards are full of the same people but evidence shows that that leads to problems and that in-fact boards that are more diverse are more profitable. It is also true that getting a board position is hard to achieve and there are many biases to overcome when hiring for board roles. Roles are often given to people within small networks, friends of the company or discretely headhunted and are generally given to people who have been a CEO or CFO. All this does not mean that younger people, women and underrepresented groups should not try do it. If you have the goal to get there, put the work in to understand how it works then there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to achieve it.

I want to share my experience of navigating the path to learn about working on a board and how I have secured my first roles. I have summarised some of the main things I have learned for the steps to getting a first position, beginning to build a career with board work and why it has been so valuable for me at this point in my career and can be for other people like me too.

What are the different types of boards I can join?

A board for a company or organisation can be structured in a few different ways and the title will usually indicate the level of responsibility you can expect.

Non-Executive Director — these are formal roles with fiduciary duty. You have a legal duty to the financial health of the business. Typically these roles ask for 2 days work a month.

Trustee/Governor — an NED position for charity and have the same responsibilities as an NED but not usually paid. A governor is usually the title of a trustee for a school or university. In these roles you usually have a contract for 3 years and expected to be available for 2 days a month.

Board Advisor — this has the most flexibility and the least formality. The leaders of the business can take or leave your advice as they like and as the advisor you don’t have any legal responsibility for the business. Can be paid, equity or voluntary depending on the size and structure of the business. The length of service for these roles starts at 1 year. The time commitment can be a lot more variable depending on how you can help and may only be one meeting a quarter.

Board Committee — in a number of charities there are also committees you can join that are specific in their work (e.g. audit and risk).

If you are looking to dip you toe in the water, the way I have started is to get a board advisory role or committee position and start to build up experience. On the other side it’s also the way charities and companies can test you out too.

Three steps to getting started

1. Learn as much as possible from people who know what they are talking about

Generally a good place to start when starting anything new is to learn as much as possible from people who already have skills and experience in the area you are targeting and who are willing to share their experience. Before diving straight into applying for positions it was important for me to first get to know if I could really see myself in a board role and if it was something I really wanted to do by absorbing as much information as I could. Fortunately there are lot’s of sources around and I’ve detailed a few below. The elements about having a board career that started to stand out for me were descriptions on what makes a good board member. I found that a lot of the principles and qualities I believe in and that I value are also really important in the boardroom. By becoming more aware of the personal characteristics of board leaders and more self reflective about my own strengths, I started to gain some confidence that I could fit in to these types of roles and see how I could position myself into them. These include being strategic, able to hold a balanced perspective, integrity, curiosity, high ethical and moral standards, breaking down complex situations quickly and being risk aware.

I also found while I was researching how to get into board roles that there is starting to be a real push for greater diversity at this level, many campaigns for demonstrating what the benefits are from diverse boards and lots more support for underrepresented groups. This gave me reassurance and another reason to go for roles now, seeing my difference as another angle on my experience that would add value. Without seeing these campaigns and evidence I initially would have thought I don’t fit in the profile of a board member and would not have applied, but actually there is a good reason now for me to have a seat at the table as I am.

My first source of really good information was Women on Boards (WoB). You do have to pay a small membership for access to most resources but I do think education is worth paying for. WoB has mostly helped me with my CV and identify a new way to look at my skills and experiences, showing how they could be valuable to companies and position myself for advisory roles. The content has been informative, there is a jobs board, networking events and the podcasts are free and have great speakers too.

One of the main benefits that has really helped me is to be part of a supporting network like Women on Boards and a few others that I have joined. The regular networking calls were very daunting at first but they helped me to be able to talk about myself and get feedback and support that I can add value at the board level and find the right place. It was out of my comfort zone but helped me build confidence in the fact that I do have many valuable attributes and experience to add and I deserved to be there.

2. Research roles until you are clear on what boards are looking for and you can narrow down your focus

My next phase was to really get to know what companies and charities are looking for by researching and reading tons of NED roles. This can be quite daunting and a little bit demoralising at times as there are so many jobs and 99% would not be right or relevant for me and my level of experience. However, there would be some that I would start to see that I could be a good fit for and I would learn the types of skills they are looking for to help me craft my board CV.

Over time I found quite a few places to discover roles but there are some platforms that have interesting roles which you have to pay to see. I don’t agree with doing this generally and not at the stage I am at so I would suggest avoiding those platforms unless they can give you lots of other benefits like Women on Boards does. I found that charity platforms were the best for sourcing interesting and relevant roles for me and they are also great for looking for roles as you can build a profile to get the right things coming to you.

Researching all the roles available helped me to narrow down what I am most interested in working on and what I care about most. Figuring this out is especially important as early on you are giving away your time for free and it makes you much more likely to pursue the work if you really care about the impact you and the charity can have. For me, I found that I am particularly interested in neurodiversity, creative industries, sports and sustainability so those are areas I have focused on.

3. Practice practice practice

Having the mindset that it’s ok to fail and that you are trying this to learn from the first few applications helps to bounce back

The final step was to just start applying. At the beginning the first few applications I worked on took me a long time, especially the cover letters. You also need to have a different CV which highlights your board experience first and specific areas you add value as a board member. I found it quite challenging getting the tone right and positioning my experience in the right way but over time I have got better at it and feel less imposter syndrome writing about my experience and value add. It’s worth the time investment and persevering!

It doesn’t feel great to get rejected from applications when you have spent hours writing about how you want to work for a charity or company you are passionate about. Going though the process however, does helps build your resilience and refine how you can do it better for the next application.

I was pleasantly surprised when one of the first charities I applied to wanted to interview me for a committee role as I thought it was a long shot and a bit beyond my experience. I spent a good couple of days preparing for the interview and I was fairly disappointed when I didn’t get it but not surprised. Looking back now it was a big learning curve and I can see why I didn’t get it. I definitely wasn’t confident enough in how I could add value and I didn’t have the right ways of positioning how my skills and background would be a good fit for the role. Having the mindset that it’s ok to fail and that you are trying this to learn from the first few applications helps to bounce back. It took me a few applications but I started to get better and refine my value, perform well at the interviews and explain how I can support the organisation.

I have now figured out a bit of a process to my applications and writing cover letters by highlighting the three top things the roles wants and that match the skills and experience that I can bring. I then add more details on something about me and why I want the role and a sentence to a paragraph on how I address each of the three key priorities.

Resources to get you started…

How boards work : and how they can work better in a chaotic world by Dambisa Moyo

This book was informative at a high level for listed companies and gives a broad view of the function of boards, how boards need to adapt and the perspective someone on a board should have. I have particularly taken note of the five key risk factors boards need to consider which are:

  1. risk of more siloed and protectionist world
  2. massive changes in the investment landscape
  3. new technological developments
  4. the global war for talent
  5. short -termism

This resource is most relevant for insights into established boards but less relatable for me as an example of someone starting to get into boards from an earlier point in their career and not coming from the city. There is still lots of good advice an insights if you are new to beginning a board career. I am definitely taking on her advice about showing your insights and industry knowledge by writing your own articles.

A good time to be a girl : a guide to thriving at work & living well by Helena Morrissey

This is not directly about getting on to boards although she talks a lot about leadership and putting yourself forward for board roles. It is a motivating read because it feels like someone has got your back and supporting you being you and striving to go for things that are a stretch and believing in yourself to be able to figure it out when you get there. She discusses her career in leadership and her aim to change the system that isn’t fair, especially for women and advising women to not be something other than what we truly are. This book is particularly insightful on gender equality and the value of true diversity in the boardroom. An inspiring story, particularly full of insights from her experience founding the 30% Club which campaigns for women to hold at least 30% of board and executive seats.

The keys to the boardroom : how to get there and how to stay there by Jo Haigh

This book was good for summarising the roles of an NED, giving examples and insights from someone who has achieved a successful career leading companies. It gives very practical and step-by-step advice on the details of how to find and get a board position and the key responsibilities and duties of an NED.

Websites, podcasts and other sources

Nurole — Platform for NED roles where you need to be approved to apply. Also host a podcast worth listening to. Regularly lists trustee, governor and paid roles. I’ve not found any I want yet but it has been good for research, but I also hear it’s very competitive.

Women on Boards — A network, support platform and jobs board. Also has a podcast interviewing women in the boardroom at various stages, usually very established people but some examples of newer board members and younger women.

Reach Volunteering — I have found a few roles here that focus on charity and non-profit. You can create a profile and the most relevant ones get suggested to you so you don’t have to check the website and scroll all the time.

Dynamic Boards — has access to board roles for free, unlike a lot of other platforms. Mix of paid and volunteer.

Gettingonboard.org — has advice for people all about getting on boards, particularly trustee positions.

The top ways my board journey and applications have help my career and me to grow

Network — I’ve been able to build a bigger network in a meaningful way. Just by putting myself out there and talking to people saying what I want has been great, and I was able to find people who could support me. Now that I have gained more experience I can now start to help other people too.

Business leadership skills — If I do go back into a full time role in a bigger business my experience with boards will definitely help me in future leadership roles as I build my governance, strategic and financial skills.

Developing strategic skills — Testing my strategic skills in other sectors and business types has helped me to expand and apply my strategic thinking in new ways and to not only rely on my past experience. You need to keep on top of goings on in the world and industries and how they will affect the future of the business, the customers and people.

Pushing my comfort zone — Taking on this career challenge has helped me with putting myself forward for things that I thought were slightly out of my reach but then achieving them. I have struggled with imposter syndrome and there also aren’t very many board members that are like me or that represent me so that can make you feel like its not right for you. But stretching your comfort zone is where we create growth in our lives and build confidence and I have definitely started to see the positive results of it.

Adding balance to my career — It is really good to have more than one job. I do tend to throw myself fully into a role but having other commitments keeps me balanced and always thinking about my priorities and how I want to keep growing. It keeps me pushing myself, engaged in my own career and life choices, questioning what are my priorities, areas I can grow and develop in and where do I see opportunities.

Learning about myself and my values — Putting yourself forward for these types of roles makes you think beyond just what you skills set for a role is, but also what you are passionate about, where you can add value not only in terms of skills but also perspective. For me that is social justice, environment, fairness for people who are often marginalised and creating opportunities for SMEs.

Last words of wisdom — start before you are ‘ready’

because diversity at the top and in decision making rooms benefits everyone

If I were to give any advice to anyone like me wanting to get their first board experiences, it would be to start before you are ready. I find that I definitely learn and grow the most though practicing to do new things and applying each element I learn about being on a board one step at a time. A year ago I when I started this journey and was feeling like it would be way out of my depth to have multiple roles I would not have expected that I would now have (so far) two advisory board positions, a general advisory role and two mentor positions with start-ups. I have build up these roles slowly and with each one I am continuing to learn so much and develop my skillset and experience in strategy, leadership and finance.

Having started this board experience journey I know I want my board career to be a long one and to keep it going along side other roles and opportunities. My next goal with this work is to get a trustee position to take on more responsibility and build up more governance and financial oversight experience. Then I would like to start getting paid and/or equity advisory roles with commercial businesses and brands.

I hope by sharing my journey to get to this point helps other people to see that getting experience on boards earlier in your career is an achievable goal and motivates more diverse people to become decision makers and leaders in our companies and organisations; because diversity at the top and in decision making rooms benefits everyone.

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Emma Wallace

I’m passionate about sharing my experiences with personal development, entrepreneurship and neurodiversity. You can visit my website at www.work-with-emma.com.