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Community service, board membership: what career value?

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 1985

Southborough, Mass.

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.

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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.''

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.