Five tips to position yourself for a board seat — from the chairperson of two boards.
Kristi Honey, Chairperson, Durham College Board of Governors and College Employers Council Board, shares her advice.
By Kristi Honey
As chairperson of two boards, I’m often asked: “How do I get started in governance?”
When I get questions from ambitious women about how to position their profile and professional brand, and see more success in their professional lives, “giving” is often my answer. It pays dividends to give back to the community and those around you, and provides a way to build your professional circle and brand. I suggest people examine their own communities for opportunities first. In today’s virtual age, there are still numerous ways to contribute, while also building your own portfolio.
I had to learn this myself too.
In my 20’s, when I had my own tech startup businesses, I quickly learned the more I gave without expectation, the more meaningful connections, and opportunities I received. When I attended events and met people, I spent time listening and getting to know them, versus waiting for a pause to get in my own elevator speech. By taking an altruist mindset — genuinely concerning myself with the happiness and welfare of others — I noticed that others genuinely wanted to partner on opportunities, work together, and support one another in purposeful ways in return.
By establishing long-term and sincere relationships, I was able to be introduced to new people and grow my network. This led to opportunities to get involved with local groups, such as Girls Inc. of Durham, the Optimist Club of Brooklin, and Whitby Chamber members. By volunteering my time and expertise locally, I developed a reputation for myself. I became known for my bright, positive, and giving nature.
After my first meeting, I shared with a friend, “I want to be the Chair of the Board one day.” She laughed and said, “You’re not an old white man.” It was all she had ever seen.
Through my experience of being recognized and awarded the Durham College Alumni of Distinction award in 2008, I knew that I wanted to be on their board of governors. This would allow me to give back to a local institution that has a tremendous impact on the community and economy where I both live and work.
I applied for the Durham College Board of Governors in 2009 and was invited to an interview. As a busy wife, mother, and entrepreneur, I hadn’t spent the necessary time learning good board governance or understanding governance models, and naturally when these questions were asked, I wasn’t able to answer them fully. That was a learning experience for me — I knew I needed to sharpen my skills in this area, and gain board experience.
Over the next several years, I stayed in touch with the President of Durham College who I had met in 2008. I sent hand-written annual holiday cards and connected when we attended the same events — whether virtually or in person. In 2014, I applied again, and this time I attended the interview fully prepared. I had also pre-established relationships with others on the board and had gained the necessary experience and governance expertise.
By 2015, I was appointed to the board. After my first meeting, I shared with a friend, “I want to be the Chair of the Board one day.” She laughed and said, “You’re not an old white man.” It was all she had ever seen. Four years later, I was nominated and then elected by my fellow peer governors as Vice-Chair and in 2021, I became the Chair of the Board.
Last Fall I was appointed as the Chairperson of the Board for the College Employer Council, the governing body that oversees collective bargaining for the 24 colleges in Ontario, which includes all Ontario College Board Chairs and Presidents. Chairing a board of more than 50 people virtually is a new challenge, and I am taking the same principles of finding ways to connect with and support others, while listening and learning.
Here are my top five tips to help you position yourself to get a seat around today’s boardroom table:
1. Build your profile, establish your brand, keep focus.
- Mindfully and purposefully identify your passion. In today’s world, time is our most valuable commodity — especially while balancing home and career responsibilities. We can’t be passionate about everything. Focus on what lights you up and has meaning to you.
- Ensure your online and in-person persona align. When you post on social media or are asked to participate in speaking engagements, be purposeful and ensure it relates back to your passion, the industry you are targeting, or your key priorities/messages. If you aren’t asked to speak, volunteer! Step out of your comfort zone and ask to be on panels within your community or workplace.
2. Grow your network by supporting others.
- Find ways to help and support others (ask if you need to). Helping others is one of the best ways to establish connections, meet new people, and create a good, reliable reputation for yourself.
- Be intentional by introducing yourself to others and attend virtual or in-person events where there are key attendees you want to meet. In virtual spaces, just as in real life, you don’t need to dominate chat rooms — instead have a meaningful presence, listen actively, and support others (think quality over quantity).
- Identify key contacts by learning who the influencers are on the board(s) you are targeting. If you are able, find out what they are passionate about and use this knowledge when you meet them to engage in conversations of interest to them. If you are able, find and share common interests.
3. Get involved in your community.
- Volunteer your time and expertise, particularly to organizations that align to your passion, and where key influencers will be in attendance.
- Attend local virtual and in-person events and be visible in your own authentic way. You don’t have to be the person that “works the room” to be visible. Meet the people at your table, in break-out virtual rooms, and establish one or two meaningful connections. Find out what others are passionate about and seek ways to help or support them first without any expectation in return.
- Stay connected by mailing personal thank you or holiday cards when you’ve worked with someone in the community, or you’ve received assistance or support from others. If you hear of another’s accomplishments, send a hand-written congratulations card to recognize them. I mail 2-3 hand-written cards weekly to staff, colleagues, community members and sometimes to people I’ve never met who impress me. Pro-tip: keep a list of who and when you send cards and card’s sentiment to ensure you aren’t sending multiple cards to the same person (whoops, I’ve done it!).
4. Invest in your own learning.
- Take courses or self-study good governance, learn the different governance models (for example, working, traditional, hybrid, policy (Carver)), and be ready to answer questions on good governance during board interviews.
- Attend public board meetings and/or read the previous agendas and meeting minutes, particularly if there is a board you’d like to learn more about or apply to.
- Always read the organization’s strategic plan and priorities, annual report, and most recent news articles.
- Engage a recruiter and join a forum or community, such as Women of Influence, Women Get on Board, Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), Competent Boards, or Next Gen Board Leaders.
5. Be a mentor.
- Be a mentor to support and lift others. Offer growth opportunities for those you mentor, introduce them to your contacts, and grow their network.
- Recognize exceptional contributions, celebrate the wins of others, and nominate people for awards — without asking or expecting anything in return.
- By supporting others, your network will also grow, and you will continue to learn (and because it just feels so good to do!).
Recognize it takes time. Be strategic and patient. Don’t give up. Getting on a board is a journey and through giving and purposeful interactions, you will position yourself for success.