C-level execs: Five things you'll learn by serving on an external board

C-level executives can learn a lot by serving on a board outside of their organizations. Mary Shacklett lists five possible takeaways from this valuable experience.


Once you reach the C-level of an organization, you can expect to interact with the board as an officer of the company. These interactions are as non-verbal as they are verbal and written -- as unofficial as they are official.

The more you know about what being a board member is like, the better you will be able to work with your own board as an officer of your company. This is why I think C-level executives should endeavor to accept a board position in an outside organization (even on a voluntary board) as part of his or her corporate education.

In addition, most C-levels don't have prior board experience before they are appointed to their first executive positions, so they are forced to learn about boards and how they operate on the fly. When this happens, there is the possibility that they will mistake a board "signal" or make an ill-timed speech, which can be very detrimental. The best way to sidestep such pitfalls is to serve on a board before you ever have to face one as an officer.

What you learn from serving on an external board

1: You learn how boards work from the board member's point of view.

Boards, like other social groups, have their pecking orders and their cliques. The politics and decision making among board members tends to circulate between major coalitions of members, with more senior or influential members often driving decisions that other board members (if left on their own) would not support. This tendency to "go with the group" is more evident in volunteer boards, and not as common on for-profit boards where board members are highly compensated and individualized in their own thinking and fields of expertise.

2: You quickly understand that being a board member is more than attending a board meeting once per month or once per quarter.

Most board members are recruited by companies from outside organizations because of the unique expertise they offer. If their skills are in marketing and sales, they might serve as board advisors in the strategic market planning process, and even produce potential customers; if their background is finance, they might chair a board sub-committee on risk and help select the company's audit firm.

3: Board members, especially at for-profit companies, must produce.

Board members are expected to do more than just occupy a chair at the board table -- they are asked to bring in capital investment, business partners, and advantageous real estate opportunities if the company needs to expand facilities.

4: Board members have high expectations.

Board members, especially in for-profit settings, are often experts in what they do. Demands on their time are heavy, so they expect those they deal with to be quick studies, strong thinkers, and accomplished communicators.

5: A lot of board interaction and decision making occurs outside of the board meeting.

Strategies are often discussed and decided on the golf course, at dinners, and in other informal settings.

If you're in the C-suite and serve on a board outside of your company, what have you learned from the experience? If you don't serve on an external board, what's holding you back? Let us know in the discussion.

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By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...