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An Overlooked Professional Development Opportunity

When clients engage us to conduct a search to fill a critical position in their organization, they have almost always considered internal candidates for the role. Sometimes they just don’t have the internal talent needed for the position or they are specifically seeking an “outsider” – someone who is not from their company and may not even be from their industry. Outsiders are attractive to organizations because they bring a fresh perspective and have a different take on things like corporate culture, strategy and leadership style.

So how can a company try to develop that “outsider” perspective in high potential leaders in their own company? I would like to suggest a very effective, inexpensive strategy that will benefit the executive as well as the reputation of the company. Encourage your up-and-coming leaders to serve as board directors for non-profit organizations in your region.

There are countless non-profit organizations, large and small, working to improve the quality of life in your community. They focus on any number of things – education, child welfare, senior citizens, the arts – the list goes on and on. All of them are hungry for board leadership and need volunteers with business skills to help them achieve their missions while maintaining their margins.

I joined my first non-profit board when I was in my early 30s and about ten years into my career. I have been involved with one board or another ever since. Right now, I serve on four boards with very different missions. The benefits to my development as a professional have been substantial and I feel as though I’ve made meaningful contributions to all of these organizations.

These are some of the skills and benefits you can expect your developing leaders to pick up through a non-profit board assignment:

  • Building Consensus and Influencing Skills – Non-profit boards usually include a wide range of stakeholders with differing agendas, skill sets and sophistication. Someone who can help find common ground between a passionate social worker and a financial auditor, for instance, will probably walk away with some newly sharpened skills in leadership.
  • Life Outside of the Bubble – It’s easy for us to put all of our energy and focus into our work and our families. The problem with this is that it can lead to a narrow set of experiences and stifle opportunities to learn new things. When you try to create a balanced budget for a soup kitchen that just lost 25% of its funding, or lead a search committee to find a new CEO for a museum, you can’t help but learn new things.
  • Expanding Your Network – We all know we should have robust, diverse networks to support our professional and career development, but who has the time? Having to show up at six board meetings a year with a group of committed, engaged volunteers from many different walks of life can’t help but expand your network. You might even enjoy it.
  • Trivia and Tragedy – I find that the people with the best perspective on life and work are often people who have been exposed to enough tragedy in their lives that they understand what really matters. Spend a few years on a non-profit board trying to help homeless people or children with cancer and I bet you will find it easier to maintain composure in the office when all around you have lost theirs because sales are off. The best leaders know what really matters in their organizations and lives and act accordingly.

Someday, when you look back at your life and career, I’m betting that the contributions you made to help a struggling non-profit stay alive will be more important to you than your part in hitting the quarterly earnings targets. And you might reflect on the fact that you got better at the latter after you spent time on the former.

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