April 11th, 2024

One of my favorite things about my work at Athena is leading our Modern Board Readiness Course. I get the privilege of meeting so many accomplished women who are focused on applying the skills, wisdom, and experience they have gained through years of working and living, to helping other organizations solve complex challenges and grow into the future. That drive represents what I call the “connective tissue” that runs through all Athena members – a desire to realize our individual and collective impact.

The women in the course are like so many of our members; they come to us with a destination in mind; it may be serving on a board, moving up to even higher senior ranks in their executive careers, starting a solo venture or launching a new business. While it can look slightly different for each person, one thing connects us … a need for fulfillment and a desire to live a life of meaning and purpose. The Japanese have a word for this: ikigai. It means “reason for being.” This is obviously important from an existential perspective…why am I here? But it equally applies to any significant thing we want.

Sometimes we get so head’s down moving through our to-do list, or so focused on achieving, that the goal can start to feel like the destination. We lose sight of that last and most critical piece: fulfillment. The real reason we want the thing is not about the goal itself, it’s about how the goal makes us feel. My longtime coach Sonia Miller says “everything we are chasing is ultimately about a feeling.” Identify that feeling and you’ll be closer to understanding what you are really looking for. Take, for example, a common ‘why’ behind much of what we do professionally: financial reward. There is nothing wrong with this as a motivator, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of making money for its own sake and rather tap into the deeper ‘why’ beneath. For instance, having money makes us feel safe and secure, it enables us to do things that provide joy or entertainment. It can make it easier to spend time with loved ones, especially if they are far away, and enables us to support the people and causes we care about, which brings its own kind of fulfillment.

One of the first things I ask the women in the board course to consider is their ‘why’ behind becoming a director. For many, they have not stopped to deeply consider this question, oftentimes because no one has ever asked them. The surface ‘why’ is usually some version of “because board service feels like the next step in my career.” Look a layer deeper and you will find all kinds of reasons why board service can be a fulfilling part of a professional portfolio. There is the matter of compensation, sure. Many (but not all) board roles come with financial rewards—although if you are looking to become wealthy, there are much easier and more direct roads to take. Here are a few other benefits of board service and how they might resonate with your ‘why’:

  1. I want to grow my professional network. Serving on boards connects you with a new crop of leaders across industries, companies, and functions, who you may not meet otherwise. This is especially true if you’ve been in an operating role at a company for a while. If you are savvy, you have likely built relationships within your firm, and those can be invaluable in navigating the terrain of your current organization. Though, many folks find that when it’s time to make a transition—either to another company or to a new professional chapter—the lack of a broader network can make it harder to make the leap. Board service helps to broaden your view of what’s possible and gives you the contacts that can enrich your life and expand your opportunities.
  2. I want to be a better operator in my current role. When you serve on a board, you get to see how another company is structured, how it operates, and how it tackles thorny issues like risk, strategy, culture, competition, innovation, and disruption. Because board service necessitates wearing a bigger hat and bringing the full spectrum of your business acumen to bear, you learn to think more expansively and look at business challenges holistically rather than just from your vertical or part of the world. All of these things make you a better business partner not just to the board, but to those who you work with on a daily basis.
  3. I want to continue to learn and grow. Board service offers the opportunity to learn a new industry, tackle new challenges, and uncover new ways to solve old problems. It forces you to stay current with advancements in business, industry, and technology – everything from how AI is impacting business to what social and demographic shifts may mean for consumer behavior or workplace culture. The most effective board members I know approach the role with a dose of humility and a learner’s mindset. They have learned to ask good questions and get just as much out of board service as they give. This kind of lifelong learning keeps us current, agile, engaged, and relevant. It can pay dividends well beyond the time you spend around the board table.
  4. I want to be of service/make an impact/leave a legacy. Maybe the work of a particular organization aligns with some of your most deeply held values, or is focused on an issue you care deeply about, or you resonate with the company mission and culture. You might get fulfillment from the opportunity to serve as a mentor and advisor to a new generation of leaders. This is especially true if you are bringing diversity to the board and other senior leaders can see in you models they don’t always see within the ranks of their company. In all of these cases, you are looking to make an impact and leave the organization and its stakeholders, better for having been there.

And while I am talking about these examples of knowing your ‘why’ in the context of serving on boards, they are all potential benefits of other personal and professional moves from taking a bigger job, to switching industries or fields, to building a business, to leaning into philanthropy, investing or volunteer work.

The bottom line: spend some time exploring your own deeper ‘why’ behind the goals you have, and how you want to spend the most precious resource you have: your time. Understand how you want to feel, what fulfillment looks like to you, and what you want to impact—whether that’s in your own life, in your community, or in the world more broadly. Not only will this provide more solid footing to create the life and career of your dreams, it will make you more ready to seize the moment when opportunity comes knocking.



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