How do I get a seat on a board before turning 40?

Welcome on board: the chances of an early call-up are stronger than ever.
Welcome on board: the chances of an early call-up are stronger than ever. Photo: iStock

Are you a high flyer in your 20s or 30s? Looking to add a board appointment or two to your CV now, rather than waiting another 20 years?

Seats at the big table have traditionally been the preserve of older men – and a growing number of women – who've earned their stripes in decades on the corporate battlefield. Opportunities for up-and-comers to join them can be sparse.

So how do you swing it while you're still on the right side of 40?

NDA Law founder Andrea Michaels.
NDA Law founder Andrea Michaels. Photo: lawyersweekly.com.au

Develop some in-demand expertise and start networking early, recommends 41-year old NDA Law founder Andrea Michaels, who was tapped on the shoulder by the local subsidiary of an international mining company, shortly before her significant birthday rolled around.

Take the high road

The appointment came a year after she was invited to join the board of Camp Gallipoli, a charity that organises commemorative events aimed at instilling the ANZAC spirit in younger generations.

With the new economy upon us ... anything is possible.

Virginia Mansell

Such gigs are a common stepping stone to a corporate board role, Michaels says: "People usually go on the board of a Not-For-Profit first and cut their teeth that way."

While a strong background in law or finance stands young boardroom aspirants in good stead, they should also work on developing broader commercial acumen and the ability to stay focused on the big picture, Michaels advises.

"A good director has a good business brain and a good strategic brain – you're not there for the operational day-to-day and you don't get into the nitty-gritty," she says.

Talk yourself up

Board positions are not often advertised, so letting your established network of contacts know you're open to opportunities is important once you've educated yourself about the responsibilities and feel ready to step up, Michaels says.

"Find something you're really interested in – make it known you're interested in these sorts of positions."

The average age of ASX 200 directors was 58 in 2011, according to Australian Institute of Company Directors' research. Male directors aged under 40 comprised just 2.4 per cent of this cohort, and female directors aged under 40 were unrepresented.

But in 2016, a board position before 40 may be more achievable than many young high fliers realise, says executive coach Virginia Mansell.

"With the new economy upon us and the inspiration of the new Prime Minister on innovation – anything is possible," she says.

"What is important is building diversity of thinking – creativity, openness, sharing of ideas and information, and decision-making."

Tech? Check. But there's more

But while digital disruption is changing the way companies in all sectors operate, technology skills alone won't steer young executives into a boardroom seat unless they're coupled with serious business savvy.

"Knowing how technology will disrupt your business - thinking through the business challenges and opportunities - is more important, as there are plenty of technology and IT technical people to access," Mansell says.

Before you start angling for the gig, it's important to be clear about why you want it, careers coach Edwin Trevor-Roberts advises.

"Is it for the challenge, the learning, the prestige or to make a meaningful difference?" he asks.

"Being crystal clear on your career purpose is a prerequisite for securing the position – guaranteed it will be asked in the selection process."

Developing a "clear and compelling skillset to offer the board" is vital. Generalists need not apply.

"A technical skillset such as finance, law, human resources or IT is the most common way to attract a board's attention," Trevor-Roberts says.

"Extensive experience isn't. Remember that you are competing against a wave of baby boomers who all have more experience than a person under 40 does. Applied contemporary knowledge is the most effective."

Do it your own way

Don't feel like spending 15 years or more scrambling over career milestones and pressing the corporate flesh?

Start a successful business and a board position can be yours decades ahead of your peers, Big Review TV founder Brandon Evertz discovered.

Launched from his bedroom four years ago with the help of a $500 loan from his father, Evertz's online TV channel for promotional clips and reviews went public by way of a reverse takeover in 2014.

At 22, he's the youngest founder and board director of an ASX-listed company.

Having a spot at his own top table has taught him the importance of a mantra also favoured by celebrity businessman Richard Branson: "Listen more than you talk."

"Don't assume you know everything – everyone brings different skills," Evertz says. "The more you listen, the more you learn.

"You've got to enjoy what you do and love it – the [sector] or company whose board you wish to serve on."