How to choose your first board

By Ruth Medd
Chair Women on Boards

At Women on Boards we are often asked how you might choose your first board. 

Our National Board Recruitment & Appointment Survey, released on 7 February 2020, provides some valuable information to guide you, but here is our take on the results.

What to consider before choosing your first board role.

Before looking at some of the key survey findings, here are some basics to consider before choosing your first board.

  1. Consider your proxy board experience
Even if you have no experience as a director you may have other experience that can demonstrate your ‘board readiness’ Examples of valuable proxy board experience include:
  • reporting to boards
  • being part of a senior management team
  • being part of, or chairing work committees
  • being on a subsidiary board of your employer
  1. Understand potential restrictions

It’s important to understand any restrictions that your employer imposes on your ability to serve on a board.  This is particularly relevant for accountants, lawyers and other professionals where there may be client conflicts. 

In this situation often the practical choice is to serve on a Not for Profit board (NFP) or industry association.  While these are valid appointments to seek, there are other options available if you look hard: 

  • Take a look at the detailed WOB Boardroom Diversity Index, which lists more than 1,600 organisations across multiple sectors (stay tuned for our 2020 BDI results to be released in March). 
  • Target Government boards, private companies or start-ups.

Survey reveals many causes of frustration

Many experienced directors and professionals often advise you to ‘join an NFP to start your board career’ under the assumption that:

  • you will get valuable board experience; and
  • it may lead to other opportunities.

However, our experience shows that serving on an NFP is not necessarily a stepping stone to a board career and can be very challenging./

Our inaugural National Board Recruitment and Appointments Survey (which received more than 700 responses) revealed that there are some endemic issues with NFPs.

The top three areas for dissatisfaction were:

  • insufficient attention to strategic direction,
  • lack of professionalism, and
  • poor governance.

The respondents reported:

The major reasons for dissatisfaction are a lack of board strategy with too much focus on the operational, a lack of both governance and professionalism often driven by the lack of experience of board members, and an inability to use the participant’s skill set with concomitant undervaluing of their contribution.

Additional reasons for dissatisfaction reasons included disorganisation, a lack of commercial focus, a lack of remuneration for the time commitment required, and personality problems both amongst the board members and particularly with an autocratic chair, reflecting the importance of how well individuals get on with others once appointed to a board.

With WOB members likely to sit on at least one NFP board in their career, it’s worth doing your due diligence and opt for an NFP with staff and a strong governance model as your first pick. There are many excellent NFPs from which to choose, however these generally tend to be the larger organisations who often remunerate their directors. If you have a passion for a cause and want to sit on a smaller NFP (often a community body) then go in with your eyes open and consider how you might make improvements.

Key Messages


  1. National Board Recruitment Survey media release.  
  2. Boardroom Diversity Index.