Insights to Action: Joining Private, Crown, or Corporate Boards

Tom Bursey headshot

Tom Bursey, Directors College Chartered Directors (C.Dir.) Alumni & Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Council of Canadian Academies




Explaining how established Directors on volunteer Boards can position themselves to join Private, Crown, or Corporate Boards. The transition from volunteer Boards to paid Boards can often be an enigma: a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation, referred to as the “Code-Cracking Challenge”.  This article addresses this challenge by providing a synthesis of sage advice from established Corporate Directors and Consultants involved in the Corporate Director selection process.




The question that arises for many aspiring corporate directors is: how do I get there? A helpful starting point is Claire Braund’s article, “How to get a boardroom position: practical tips for success”, published on The Guardian website in August 2013. I have amalgamated Braund’s tips with my own to provide you with a top ten list of Insights to Action.

Why are you interested in sitting on a Corporate Board?

1) Consider your motivation for being a Board member. Do you believe Board service can be professionally and personally rewarding, and that Boards need executives who are both experienced and dedicated? Do you have the capacity to fully commit to serving on a corporate Board? Does this fit into your plans for the longer term, such as to remain engaged in the final stages of your professional life?

What would you bring to the corporate Board / can you make a contribution?

2) Consider what value you add to a Board by matching your skillset to the needs identified by the Board.

3) Define your ideal Board opportunity by considering the industries or economic sectors and types of organizations (big, medium, or small business) you understand and are most interested in and best suited to, by reflecting on the skills and experiences you possess that would be of value to the company. Be realistic with your corporate Board targets based on your sector expertise and personal interest. If your experience is unlikely to get you invited to a large blue chip company, consider mid‑sized companies, private companies, or crown corporations.

How will you increase your share of opportunities to sit on a corporate Board?

4) Demonstrate your value by having a good Board-ready CV, consisting of two pages of governance experience and skills you bring, including key words around competence (wisdom and good judgement), sectoral knowledge and areas of speciality/expertise. Above all, know what value you bring to a Board and be able to state it clearly to compare favourably with other candidates.

5) Have a professional pitch: your two-page Board CV should contain a summary and a colloquial (conversational) version of your summary, which is your pitch.

6) Be prepared to do your succinct pitch (which Braund refers to as “the ask”) with influential people who can help you; do not waste their time with idle chat. You must be top of mind when there is a need, so show your courage and your determination by making yourself known to members of the nominations committee, the Chair and the CEO. Stand out from your peers and show your genuine interest. Most often, the deciding factor will be name recognition by a director on the Board who knows you or has worked with you before.

7) Consider the people who know you. Make a list of those people and what they know about you: each connection must count. Ask yourself how many people really know of your Board aspiration, and let others know you are interested in serving on a corporate Board.

Three additional “How” tips not included in Braund’s article

8) Consider having a virtual group of handpicked advisors, between three to five people, who will give you honest feedback about Board opportunities you are pursuing, including whether or not you should pursue higher ambitions.

9) Develop good references to help decision makers evaluate intangible qualities such as your character, skills as a collaborator and communicator, and your commitment to serve).

10) Cultivate relationships with search consultants who do this work so that they know you and your sector expertise. Executive Search Firms for a first corporate Board seat may be helpful for medium to large organizations, whereas small organizations usually find prospective members through word-of-mouth. As Julie Hembrock Daum of Spencer Stuart writes:

“Corporate Board recruiting generally takes place in confidence. Corporate Boards don’t announce when they are looking for directors and don’t publicly seek nominations. The nomination committee runs the selection process, usually in collaboration with the CEO. Before considering candidates, Boards first review their near- and long-term strategies, and determine what knowledge and skills will help them achieve the company goals. They perform a gap analysis based on the skills of the existing Board and on which of those skills they might lose with upcoming retirements.”


In conclusion, aspiring corporate directors should start with a focus on competence. In the July 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Joining Boards: It’s Not Just Who You Know that Matters”, authors Groysberg and Bell explain that no one can say for sure how to get on a corporate Board, but many people point to two routes: the first is to break into the ‘right’ network and the second is to seek a progression of Board seats that begin with non-for-profit Boards. However, their global research suggests that more Boards are beginning to implement objective processes to select members based on the combination of skills and attributes the Board needs to be effective. Their research also indicates that the strongest skills or areas of expertise the corporate directors bring to their Board are: industry knowledge, strategy, and financial auditing. Research also indicated that there are skills and areas of expertise insufficiently represented on many Boards: technology, HR-talent management, and international expertise. They conclude by saying networks aren’t going away and aspiring corporate directors should assess the skills they need to get on a Board, but more importantly they should look at what skills Boards already possess and what skills Boards need.

In general, to best position yourself to get on a corporate Board, you need to market the skills that Boards need year after year.

What our graduates say?

“The Directors College experience has been nothing short of exceptional, with immediate benefit within the boards on which I serve. Undoubtedly, this program supports its brand of being the gold standard in board governance effectiveness. Of particular benefit was the opportunity to share the learning experience with colleagues within their various roles at the boardroom table. I have developed an enriched knowledge base from which to draw, as well as an enhanced quality network. Without hesitation, I recommend this program, and congratulate its faculty and staff for its commitment to excellence within its mandate.”

Silvia Martini, Vice-President, Interlink Research Inc.

“I performed a significant amount of research when selecting an option for advanced governance education. All of my research pointed to The Directors College. Being the only university accredited program was important, but more important, was that the faculty has an amazing balance of academic and professional background. No other program offers such a unique and high learning environment – the perfect balance of academia and real examples. The experience is demanding and allows you to generate a vast networks of peers who are dedicated to raising the bar on governance – truly the gold standard.”

Daniel Johnson, B.Comm, C.Dir., Chief Executive Officer, Innovation Credit Union

“The Chartered Director program provided me with a solid foundation in governance which built my confidence to comprehensively serve as a director. The exceptional content and educational process enhanced my curiosity, courage and ability to ask the right questions on crown, non-profit and corporate boards.”

Victor T. Thomas, C.Dir., H.R.C.C.C., Vice Chair, SaskEnergy

“I thought the entire program was very well developed and comprehensive. You never know what to expect when you sign-up for these programs and this exceeded my expectations and was a great learning opportunity.”

James Scongack, C.Dir., Vice-President of Corporate Affairs, Bruce Power LP

“I found the Chartered Director Program to be an excellent forum to understand how strong governance complements effective management. The ability to create and execute an effective strategy is significantly enhanced by a robust process inclusive of board engagement where the right questions are asked and expected outcomes are identified. I truly enjoyed the setting which fostered a strong level of interaction that was supported by quality presentations and material. As CEO of a Shared Service Organization set to deliver benefits to its members, I see the advantage of having a number of our board members participating in this program.”

Tony Di Emanuele, MBA, C.Dir., President and CEO, Mohawk Shared Services

“A strong board needs a combination of industry knowledge and sound judgement. You need people able to challenge one another, but in a productive environment. The Directors College provides skills, perspectives and tactics to drive value as an effective and successful board member. As a graduate of the Chartered Director Program, I found The Directors College an excellent survey of the critical issues and developing trends of today’s corporate environment. I highly recommend The Directors College.”

The Honourable John Manley, P.C., O.C., C.Dir., President & Chief Executive, Canadian Council of Chief Executives and former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

“The changes that impact corporate governance are establishing a pattern of increased accountability for the delivery of long-term value to customers, shareholders, employees and society. Proper corporate governance is now being defined to include knowledge of critical elements such as risk management and the measurement of strategic performance. At the end of the day, each board will be judged on its ability to effectively deliver value, rather than on its structure. The Directors College innovative program fills a unique and important gap in providing knowledge and insight as to how this expectation can be met. CMA Canada is pleased to be a sponsor of this timely initiative.”

Steve Vieweg, C.Dir., CPFA (Hon), FCPA FCMA, CEO, CPA Western School of Business

“As an organization focused on educating corporate secretaries, the CSCS believes in furthering the potential of board members to better contribute to building effective governance structures. Given the key role of directors and corporate secretaries in applying proper boardroom practices, corporations need to ensure that these individuals meet a professional standard. The Directors College curriculum covers all the formal regulatory issues for directors and also addresses the informal skills of building effective and appropriate relationships with senior management. We see significant benefits to this program and CSCS is pleased to endorse it.”

Lynn Beauregard, President, Canadian Society of Corporate Secretaries

The Directors College has developed a director education program which goes well beyond the fundamentals to address the structures and the behavioural components of principle-based governance. I am proud to be associated with the Directors College and I am honoured to lend my name to the College’s graduate award.

Gilbert Bennett, Director and Former Chairman of the Board, Canadian Tire Corporation Limited