To get to the boardroom, you need a career village

For many upcoming executives, the ultimate career goal is a seat at the boardroom table, in one or more compensated board roles. The road to getting there, however, isn’t always clear – and can’t be traversed alone. It will take discipline, time and perseverance to reach that goal, as well as a village of people who can help you make the journey.

Without those ingredients, many young executives will reach a ceiling in their careers, and be unable to expand into new roles. It’s not easy to become part of the board community – which is small, with few vacant positions. Executives must take responsibility for their own success – they cannot rely solely on search firms to find them board positions.

That means intentionally curating and setting up your own career village, made up of coaches, mentors and sponsors who can groom you for your future positions. For many, coaching, mentoring and sponsorship are interchangeable options to choose from. But if you want the best chance of a board position, you’re going to need all three.

Coaches are usually formally trained, and their goal is to help you improve your performance at work. They help you to interrogate thinking patterns that aren’t serving you, to raise your game, and will give you a push when required.

Mentors are experienced and trusted advisers, and usually don’t have a direct interest in your future. They have experience you have yet to gain – and can help you to make decisions and progress along the best path. They don’t gain directly from your career progress, but are there for you to turn to when you need advice, to learn from, and as a sounding board.

Some organisations have formal mentoring programmes, but if yours doesn’t, it’s vital you identify someone who could mentor you, and set up the relationship yourself – even an informal mentor-mentee relationship outside of your organisation is better than missing out on mentorship altogether.

A sponsor is someone who will put you forward for positions and fight in your corner when you aren’t even in the room. They’ll recommend you when opportunities arise. This is the trickiest member of your career village to acquire.

First, you’ll need to excel at your job. And that means you have to be constantly developing, improving and delivering to high standards in whatever your current role is. And then, you’ll have to speak up about your career goals. If people see that you are capable, and have an understanding of where you want to go, they’re more likely to suggest you when opportunities come up.

The bottom line is that if you want to be on a board someday, you need to put yourself out there. You can’t just sit back and hope you’ll be noticed. You have to take ownership and responsibility for your career path, and a large part of that is identifying individuals who can coach, mentor and sponsor you – and then putting in the effort to build those relationships.

This means you need to take ongoing, conscious, intentional actions to map out your career. You need to be three steps ahead of everyone else, continually trying to identify people on your journey who can support and advocate for you. And then you need to put up your hand when opportunity knocks.

In parallel, you should be looking for opportunities to gain board experience: a great way to do this is to join the board of a non-profit or industry association or organisation, and volunteer for a leadership role. In this setting, you will have opportunities to participate in industry initiatives and work or be seen by industry executives who already sit on the boards of large or listed companies – which means you can develop informal mentoring relationships and networks.

Offer your skills. Do the work pro bono and ensure that you – and your contribution – are constantly seen and noticed, beyond the scope of your ordinary work. And then identify others in your profession that you can mentor and take with you. Because when you take that coveted seat on a board one day, you haven’t “arrived”. It’s a journey – and an opportunity to give back in the same way that others have given to you.

On your journey, remember to stay true to who you are. Board roles are about more than just your skills – they’re also about leadership and governance, and any mentor or sponsor will want to have a strong sense of your values before they represent you in any way.

Also, don’t forget to conduct yourself in a way that reflects well on your coaches, mentors and sponsors – your performance reflects directly on them, on their own reputations, something you should never take lightly.

Finally, remember to thank them – without this village of supporters, you’re unlikely to make it all the way.