Hope To Serve On A Corporate Board? Focus On Your ‘Why’ And ‘For Whom’

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After a long tenure at AT&T, this CEO thought carefully about her transition to board service. Here's what she learned.

Since very early on in my career, thanks to an enlightening conversation with a wise headhunter, I’ve viewed corporate careers in the form of trimesters. And for those entering or amid their metaphorical third trimester, there’s a lot to consider.

I say this because I was in this position not too long ago and have watched and coached countless colleagues through the same transition. Like me, these leaders knew they wanted to keep contributing, but weren’t sure that what they were currently doing was what they wanted to continue doing.

The third trimester sounds like the beginning of the end to many. But in reality, it could mean another 20 or even 30 years of a productive and impactful life. I’ve always had an aversion to the word retirement. Not only is it so very tired, but it’s filled with biases, many of which presume the person is old, done and over. I don’t view this new phase as retiring, but rather rewiring. Rewiring is all about revitalizing what you do, as well as how and when you do it, while building off the success of what you’ve already accomplished. And a desired role for many in “rewirement” is service as a corporate board member.

This point in time also requires being introspective enough to answer two pivotal questions: Why? And for whom?

I’ll share my personal example: My long tenure at AT&T as our business transformed over numerous decades taught me many things, including the kind of work that brings me joy through growth: I find complexity and challenges at scale a unique leadership opportunity to contribute across key constituents of people, from communities to partners to shareholders to employees and more. I’ve often said that I’m a context kind of leader, and connecting the dots—whether strategically, operationally or tactically, whether internally and/or externally—is something I enjoy doing. And because I love contributing, especially at the intersection of innovation and inclusion, I knew that not having the ability to do this in my rewirement would leave a void.

When it came time to leave AT&T, I vetted numerous opportunities to augment my board portfolio and found that my experiences were applicable to numerous diverse industries. The vetting process involved serious thought and a continuous reframing of what, who and why was most important in this potential work.

For those in the final trimester of their corporate careers, this introspection can be intimidating. Most of us have seemingly spent our professional lifetime developing an identity formed by our name, a comma and the title at the organization that follows.

One of the hardest parts about this transition is that many of us have spent decades absorbed in our professional pursuits, so much so the comma has all but disappeared. At times, in various settings, our title even precedes our name. Our personal and professional identities have fused to become one. The thought of giving that up can be scary. And the thought of having to reinvent yourself in a way that focuses on an unknown future versus the past and present can be even scarier.

You don’t have to choose between the past and the future. Embracing this third trimester means calibrating your level of desired engagement in what means the most to you and getting ready to focus on where you feel you’ll have the greatest impact. It’s partly why so many executives and managers end up consulting— they no longer want to be the doer, but instead want to help with the strategic thinking and path forward at a higher level. This can be a major reason for the allure of the corporate board.

So many people in this position lean into the first thing offered to them or take on an immediate role similar to their previous corporate career. Perhaps a strategic advisor to a company in a related industry, or as an operating partner in a private equity firm that has portfolio companies in related industries. There’s nothing wrong with those choices. But like any transition, the move out of your third trimester should be one that is a result of some soul searching and time for reflection. An opportunity to be vulnerable and deeply consider what really matters to you in life.

If that means considering board assignments at companies that are in only high-interest industries, or headquartered in only certain geographies, that’s your choice. If you’re passionate about certain nonprofits and community imperatives, board service could be an option there—or some other type of greater involvement. If your why and for whom comes down to spending more time with family and loved ones, then embrace that choice and move forward.

The transition from a corporate career is a golden opportunity. It’s a chance to explore motivations, enduring interests, continued growth and joyful purpose – considerations that, for nearly everyone, will no doubt have changed since their careers, or first trimesters, began.

Prioritize embracing your why, choosing your for whom and living your life on purpose—your purpose.

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