Community service, board membership: what career value?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If you're worried that today's young professionals do nothing more constructive after work than play squash and polish their BMWs, you might want to meet Nick Baker. A mid-level manager at Data General Corporation here, he has been involved in community service in nearby Shrewsbury, where he lives, in a number of ways: as a member of his town meeting, as a special police officer, as a civil defense worker, as adviser to an Explorer Scout post, and as a member and officer of Rotary Club.

He also serves as liaison between Data General, of which he is a 10-year veteran, and his alma mater, Worcester Polytechnical Institute, helping to encourage the best and the brightest young graduates to sign on with the company.

All this activity has had, he feels, ``a positive effect'' on his career. ``But my involvement has been not so much part of a strategy as the result of a desire to be involved.''

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For some rising young executives and managers, service in community organizations and on their boards, and on the boards of small companies, is part of a career strategy, a way to help them climb the ladder at their own companies.

Is it a sound strategy?

A very guarded ``yes'' is the answer from observers of the art of corporate board practice.

Beware the Catch-22 of the board room, though. It is hard to use board membership to ``make it,'' because you don't generally get asked to be on a board, particularly the board of a major company, until you have ``made it'' already.

Still, board service can help you broaden your horizons, enlarge your circle of contacts, and generally enhance your prestige and visibility. And you don't have to serve on a Fortune 1,000 board to get those benefits. Indeed, service on the board of a not-for-profit organization can teach you many of the same lessons you might learn on a corporate board.

Moreover, not-for-profit boards have, from a career strategy point of view, a big advantage over corporate boards: You don't have to wait to get noticed. You can take the initiative. You probably won't be able simply to volunteer to serve on the board, but you can get involved in committee work and generally work your way up through the ranks. Most organizations will be glad to have you.

In the corporate world, by contrast, ``Those who pursue directorships are the last to obtain them,'' says John M. Nash, president of the National Association of Corporate Directors in Washington.

And meanwhile it is well to remember that serving on a board does mean serving, and that whatever career enhancement comes from it comes most naturally as a side effect, rather than the main goal of your involvement.

Mr. Baker finds that volunteer organizations are the true test of management skills. Leaders in a volunteer group have to be able to motivate people without the enticement of salary and the reinforcement of corporate hierarchy. ``If I'm trying to get someone to do something at Rotary, the guy isn't going to do it because he's afraid of me because I'm the boss.''

Baker identifies a good manager as one who not only gets people to do things, but gets them to want to do things, to ``sign up for the goal,'' to use his phrase.

On the other hand, he says, ``My experience in industry has probably been more valuable to the civic arena than vice versa.'' As a manager, he has had to deal with budget matters, with setting up ``task teams,'' and so on. ``The reverse is that those organizations let me practice those skills with much less threat to my livelihood. If I try something and it doesn't work, the worst case is that I might lose my Rotary Club membership.''

The kind of experience Baker is getting is the kind that Mr. Nash at the National Association of Corporate Directors describes as ``very beneficial'' for someone who wants to gain experience to carry over to the corporate world.

``There's going to be a huge shortage of directors in five to 10 years,'' Nash predicts. Board membership is getting to be a tougher job, for a number of reasons. The population of executives in the 50- to 65-year-old group, prime candidates for board slots, will be rather small in the years ahead -- these were the depression babies. The Securities and Exchange Commission is tightening up on directors who don't show up for meetings. Corporations are seeking board members still active in the working world, not retirees; and companies are less interested in having directors serve indefinitely. Thousands of new companies are launched every year, even though lots get swallowed up in mergers or fail to survive.

And over the last few years, increased accountability is being demanded of corporate directors. ``Before the spotlight was turned on corporate governance four or five years ago, there were lots of multiple directorships,'' Nash says. A single executive -- typically a chief executive officer -- would sit on four or five boards. Now, he says, there is somewhat less concern about getting corporate superstars on the board and more of a desire simply for someone ``who can give the time, make the commitment, do his homework.''

Certain kinds of professional expertise tend to be particularly in demand by corporations looking to fill board slots -- notably financial and accounting experience (active employees of Big Eight firms are not allowed to sit on boards, however). Companies that deal with federal and state government may seek former government officials for their boards. Anyone with experience raising money -- through stock offerings or in the venture-capital market -- is likely to be sought after. Demand for other specialties will vary according to industry.

Consulting for a company may be a first step to board membership, suggests Richard H. Wachholz Jr., vice-president at Gilbert Tweed Associates Inc., an executive search firm in Burlington, Mass.

Small companies are not necessarily the place to start as a board member if you're only a mid-level manager yourself, albeit at a large company. ``Comparing big companies with small ones is like comparing apples and oranges,'' says Nash. ``The type of person a small company wants is someone who's done it all, who's been CEO of a company and knows all the problems.'' He notes that the ``whiz kids'' at Apple Computer have brought in older executives to help run the company.

Are there any drawbacks to board membership? Well, having been a director of a company that went bust is probably not going to be the highlight of your r'esum'e. ``If a company fails,'' says Mr. Wachholz, ``the question is, When did you find out there were problems? What did you do to counteract the problems? Not that the board has total responsibility. But were you part of the problem, or part of the solution?''

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