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ET Project \ Podcasts

ET-098: Decoding Board Membership: Insider Tips and Strategies

With Mr. Callum Laing

ET-098: A conversation with Callum Laing

and your host Wayne Brown on April 23, 2024

Episode notes: A conversation with Callum Laing

Hello and welcome to the ET Project. I’m your host, Wayne Brown, and as usual, we’re delighted to be delivering this podcast for executive talent all over the world whom we’re affectionately referring to as Team ET.

Today we’re in Singapore to catch up with an award-winning serial entrepreneur who loves talking about the intersection of small business and investing.

Our guest is Mr. Callum Laing, a New Zealand-born Cambridge-educated professional who understands how to establish and grow business enterprises on a global basis. Callum is an experienced public presenter who speaks at events around the globe. He’s regularly featured on broadcast and in print media.

Here is an extract from our conversation as we start to get into it…

Because of that day job, I ended up sitting on a lot of boards and starting a lot of boards and advising a lot of boards and hiring a lot of directors and firing a few directors. And learning quite a lot about sort of what goes on and, quite frankly, how dysfunctional many boards are and some of the ways that that can be changed. And I guess kind of why it’s such an exclusive group and so hard to break into. And yet, because it’s such an exclusive group and so hard to break into, they’re missing out on a huge pool of talent. So about 18 months ago, I started a company to help, originally women and minorities, but kind of extend that to all first timers because somewhere in the world, everyone’s a minority. And showing them how they could leverage my ideas to get their first board seats. That’s been incredibly successful. But I’ve also learned a lot from our clients. I’ve done that, seen what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and then basically took all of those ideas and put it into a book, which I sent you and you very kindly read…

Today’s Guest: CALLUM LAING

Having taken multiple companies public, closed nearly 100 M&A transactions, and personally helped scores of individuals to get board seats, he’s now launching his fourth book, Boardroom Blueprint: Boost Your Career with a Board Seat in 60 Days.

You’ll hear us go into detail about this great book, and at the end Callum provides an incredible offer and a challenge to our listeners, so you’ll want to stay attentive.

If you’re looking to get yourself a board seat, join us on this exciting conversation and we’ll explore both sport and business. It’s a transformative discussion with Mr. Callum Laing that has the potential to reshape your thinking and your actions around advisory boards, public-listed companies, and the journey to creating your first board seat.

Final words from Callum:

So to get your first advisory role, you got to make new connections, use a bit of knowledge to have the conversation. And to your point earlier about being skeptical about how easy it is, I would guarantee that if you said right now I want to sit on the board of one of the companies of somebody listening to this podcast, that someone will reach out to you and say, I’d love to have you on my board of advisors. And then you can bring four or five other people along with you ’cause you’re incredibly well connected yourself. So that is how easy it is. So then you know how to add value. And then the last piece is leverage. And leverage is either both for yourself.

We view every board seat as a stepping stone to the next board seat. So it doesn’t matter if your first board seat is with a very small company or a struggling company or a company that goes bust. It really doesn’t matter. It’s just a stepping stone to the next level. But also, leverage can be about, can you take that company and turn it into something bigger? Can you leverage that into something bigger? Because ultimately, your compensation is determined by the market cap of the company…

0:00:02.9 Wayne Brown: Hello, I’m your host Wayne Brown, and welcome to the ET Project. We’re delighted to be delivering this podcast for executive talent all over the world, whom we’re affectionately referring to as Team ET. Today we’re in Singapore to catch up with an award-winning serial entrepreneur who loves talking about the intersection of small business and investing.

0:00:22.5 WB: Our guest is Mr. Callum Laing, a New Zealand-born Cambridge-educated professional who understands how to establish and grow business enterprises on a global basis. Callum is an experienced public presenter who speaks at events around the globe. He’s regularly featured on broadcast and in print media.

0:00:41.9 WB: Having taken multiple companies public, closed nearly 100 M&A transactions, and personally helped scores of individuals to get board seats, he’s now launching his fourth book, Boardroom Blueprint: Boost Your Career with a Board Seat in 60 Days. You’ll hear us go into detail about this great book, and at the end Callum provides an incredible offer and a challenge to our listeners, so you’ll want to stay attentive.

0:01:07.0 WB: If you’re looking to get yourself a board seat, join us on this exciting conversation and we’ll explore both sport and business. It’s a transformative discussion with Mr. Callum Laing that has the potential to reshape your thinking and your actions around advisory boards, public-listed companies, and the journey to creating your first board seat.

0:01:32.6 Speaker 2: Welcome to the ET Project, a podcast for those executive talents determined to release their true potential and create an impact. Join our veteran coach and mentor, Wayne Brown, as we unpack an exciting future together.

0:01:47.4 WB: Hello. Welcome again, Team ET. This week we’re again going to have a very interesting discussion as we look at how you can become a board member, and we’re speaking with the real role, right? We’re not talking about what you probably hear me and my coaching colleagues occasionally talk about when we mention establishing our own personal board of directors, although I do see some correlations. We’ll probably touch on that, but no, today we’re actually speaking with Mr. Callum Laing and discussing ways that you can get yourself on the board of a company, be that private or a publicly listed one, and we’re going to delve into the reasons why we might want to do this and some of the steps that you can take immediately to make what perhaps sounds like an impossible dream become more of a reality. So, Callum, welcome to the ET Project.

0:02:48.9 Callum Laing: Yeah, thanks, Wayne. I’m looking forward to it.

0:02:49.7 WB: You’ve written a great book. It’s your fourth book, actually, if I’m correct, and it releases this month in April. So, it’s called Boardroom Blueprint: Boost Your Career with a Board Seat in 60 Days, and it’s essentially what we’re going to be focusing our conversation on today. However, before we do that, we were talking a little bit about your background before we hit record, but I wonder if we could get some of your history, where you hail from, and any of the key milestones that you can recall, at least, during your career that perhaps led you to where you are today.

0:03:35.6 CL: Yeah, for sure. So, look, Kiwi originally, but grew up mainly in the UK, and then I’ve been in Asia for the past 22, 23 years, and I’ve been an entrepreneur since the late ’90s. So I set up my first company. It was a recruitment company at the height of the dot-com boom, selling IP engineers into telco businesses around Europe, which was incredibly profitable and of course, at the ripe old age of 23, I thought I was a genius and very clever for doing that. And then the bubble burst and turned out I wasn’t nearly as clever as I thought I was. But at that point, I was kind of broken, having been through the entrepreneurial journey.

0:04:22.1 CL: I couldn’t really go back. And so, I’ve just been an entrepreneur ever since, and then in the last 10 years, really focused on helping small businesses to access the capital markets. So you’ve kind of got trillions of dollars of money sloshing around in capital markets and other commodities and things. And then you’ve got half the world’s economy, which is locked up in small business. So 50% of global GDP is in small businesses. And there’s no financial product to allow that money to connect with the small businesses, which seems like a bit of an oversight.

0:05:05.4 CL: And so, what we’ve been trying to do is solve that problem by bringing together groups of small businesses, but leaving the founders in control and putting them under a public list co. So the companies come in, the founder keeps running the business. So it’s their brand, it’s their hiring and firing, it’s their culture. But when they try and when they go for projects, they win much bigger contracts because they’re part of a global PLC, and they can give stock options to their staff. So you level the playing field with the bigger companies. And it gives investors exposure to, it’s basically almost like a mini ETF of small private companies.

0:05:42.0 WB: Sure.

0:05:44.0 CL: So, that’s kind of the day job. But because of that day job, I ended up sitting on a lot of boards and starting a lot of boards and advising a lot of boards and hiring a lot of directors and firing a few directors. And learning quite a lot about sort of what goes on and, quite frankly, how dysfunctional many boards are and some of the ways that that can be changed. And I guess kind of why it’s such an exclusive group and so hard to break into. And yet, because it’s such an exclusive group and so hard to break into, they’re missing out on a huge pool of talent. So about 18 months ago, I started a company to help, originally women and minorities, but kind of extend that to all first timers because somewhere in the world, everyone’s a minority.

0:06:42.7 CL: And showing them how they could leverage my ideas to get their first board seats. That’s been incredibly successful. But I’ve also learned a lot from our clients. I’ve done that, seen what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and then basically took all of those ideas and put it into a book, which I sent you and you very kindly read.

0:07:07.7 WB: Thanks for sharing that. It’s a really interesting career and there’s so many avenues we can go down to talk about that. At the beginning, I heard you mention you’re a Kiwi. I knew that, of course. And I’m an Aussie. So for those that don’t know.

0:07:23.0 CL: I don’t hold it against you.

0:07:26.2 WB: Yeah, yeah Kiwis and Aussies have this wonderful relationship, a great rivalry, if you like, between Australia and New Zealand. I’ve lived there six years myself, so I do understand a little bit about the culture. And therefore, I’ve got to go out on a limb. And I’m guessing you follow the rugby.

0:07:47.7 CL: It’s not a big limb to go out on. Yes, yes, yes, I do. And I’m old enough to remember the glory days when the New Zealand and Australia rivalry was fairly evenly matched. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been for a while.

0:08:05.3 WB: That’s a while ago. Yeah, yeah.

0:08:07.6 CL: Yeah, exactly.

0:08:07.7 WB: You need to call on my distant memory here and my age for that. Unfortunate result last year, I guess, in the World Cup, in your mind, and also for Australia, somewhat of a disaster losing to Fiji, not to mention others.

0:08:20.1 CL: But at least to everyone, didn’t it?

0:08:22.1 WB: Yes, just about. Yeah, just about.

0:08:24.8 CL: Yeah, very disappointing.

0:08:27.3 WB: I guess, I’m not unexpected, but the All Blacks got in the final again, only to go down yet again to South Africa. They’re turning out to be the nemesis over the last few World Cups. Well, not the last few, but there’s been a few where you went down to South Africa. When you’re as grey as me, you have the opportunity to witness a huge amount of talent go through the game. I’m not quite as old to talk about Colin Mead, although I sort of was born around his era. So there was Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones. You had the wingers, Kirwan, and then later Lomu, and probably more recently, Dan Carter. But I read somewhere that you have a personal all-time favourite, who very notably is missing on my list. Who’s that?

0:09:22.2 CL: So, yeah, and I talk about it in the book, about Richie McCaw, who was the captain of the All Blacks. And during an unprecedented win rate where the All Blacks really dominated. And, yeah, I mean, the man was a freak of nature. Nobody should be able to do that many games without being seriously injured. But I also found that there’s a very good book, whether you like rugby or whether you like the Kiwis or not, there’s a very good book called Legacy, which is about the culture that the All Blacks had built around them. And there’s a lot of very sensible ideas about building a high performance environment. And it’s something that I’ve always focused on, is trying to put myself in high performance environments, because ultimately kind of what I learned very early on is as an individual, you kind of have days when you’re up and raring to go and you have other days where all motivation is gone.

0:10:40.5 CL: But if you belong to a high performance environment, it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling on the inside. When you get into that environment, you have to perform. And I think the All Blacks have created such an incredibly strong culture that around this idea of legacy and leaving the shirt in a better place to which you got it. And they borrowed some ideas from some Australian teams as well. They have a no dickheads policy, which they openly admit they took from one of the Aussie teams, which is basically that no player, however good they are, is bigger than the team. And the team always comes first. And So, yeah, I applied a lot of the kind of learnings from not just the All Blacks, but elite sporting events. I think there’s a lot of parallels. And ultimately, a board should be that high performing environment.

0:11:41.1 CL: You should be and part of the appeal of sitting on a board is to be around people that are thinking at a much higher strategic level to have those connections and just to challenge yourself to constantly be better and deliver and deliver on something that’s much, much bigger than yourself. So that was kind of the connections.

0:12:03.9 WB: And that’s a great segue into the company. It’s called Veblen. What does the name mean? I know it has a reason behind why you’ve called it Veblen.

0:12:21.2 CL: Yeah, so Thorsten Veblen was an economist in the US. He had a few controversial ideas, but one of his most famous is kind of in general theories of economy. If you want to sell more of something, you push the price down so it can appeal to a wider audience. And yet luxury goods have the reverse effect. The more you charge for a Bugatti or Louis Vuitton bag, the more valuable that becomes. And actually what you see in the world of business is that the highest credibility you can have is sitting on the board of one of the biggest companies. And you become incredibly valuable because of that. So, yeah, the idea was really to help people to get their first board seat, so they get on that rung of that ladder and ultimately build up and increase their value through. On Instagram, they use Lambos and nice watches, but on LinkedIn, you can use board seats to achieve the same result.

0:13:32.6 WB: Before we get off what Veblen does, what your organization does, how do people, if they’re interested in maybe joining the program or joining the community, what do they need to do? Is there any qualification or is there any way that they need to apply in particular?

0:13:52.1 CL: So I think one of the things I learned very early on in my board journey was I kept meeting all of these people that and there’s a lot of pressure on companies to bring people in that are very experienced to sit on the board. The old grey hairs, well, my hair fell out before it turned grey, but what the stock markets were demanding, what investors were demanding for the last century has been we want people on the board with 10 to 20 years board experience. And what that meant was you ended up with a relatively small pool of people sitting on a lot of boards who didn’t really care about the companies that they were serving on because the companies needed them more than they needed the companies. And so they were being very well paid.

0:14:39.1 CL: But the companies were basically ticking a box by having these people on the boards. What I discovered was I would much rather have somebody on a board that lacked experience, but had genuine curiosity and enthusiasm and energy to learn. And that to me is far more valuable because those are the people that are actually going to go out and fix problems and bring in investors and bring in as opposed to the person that has the immaculate CV, but does nothing because basically they’re semi retired and don’t care.

0:15:15.5 CL: And so, yeah, in terms of people that are right for our program, it’s people that are likely overlooked, likely frustrated, know that they’re capable of doing more. We have a lot of small business owners that you can make a great impact as a small business owner, but sitting on the board of a big company gives you a chance to have a much bigger impact. And just a lot of employees that I think a lot of our members are kind of in their late 30s, 40s, early 50s. They’re in decent companies, decent job, but they’ve kind of realized that sticking their head down and waiting for 20 years and hoping someone taps them on the shoulder for a board seat isn’t the most appealing route. And if they can fast track it, then that’s what they want to do. So it’s a really good way, like starting to look outside of your organization, sit on the board of somebody else.

0:16:14.4 CL: It’s a great way to indicate to everyone in your organization that you’re way bigger and more valuable than they had initially understood. So, yeah, it’s basically attitudinal is what we’re looking for. But yeah, anyone that thinks this might be something of interest, check us out on LinkedIn or YouTube or just go to veblendirectors.com. There’s normally my latest webinar down the bottom of that, which kind of goes through the whole process.

0:16:44.7 WB: Okay, great. Well, let’s jump into the book. It’s your latest book, Boardroom and Blueprints. Congratulations, by the way. Really interesting as well as insightful. I’m 46 years in my corporate career, 40 years in my entrepreneurial career, and I learned so much myself. To be honest, becoming a board member was something that I had thought about early in my career and never pursued. So you’ve rekindled the flame a little bit, I have to say. So we might be talking more afterwards. But if we look at the book and the structure of the book, you broke it into three parts, which is essentially the method that you use as well. Each part, you introduce a new part of the method. And the whole premise is about getting that first board seat and then subsequent seats thereafter. At the beginning of each part, you share, I guess it’s a mantra, you call it a mantra. The first one is get comfortable with being uncomfortable, which I like. But I wonder if you could explain a little bit more about the meaning behind that.

0:17:53.6 CL: I think it’s, and actually it’s something that, again, Richie McCaw talks about in his biography, was that when, and it’s a fairly famous story for him, it just it wasn’t enough for him just to be an All Black, which, as you know, in New Zealand is basically god-like status. But he wanted to then be the greatest All Black. What he realized very early on in his rugby career was nothing good happens when you’re comfortable. You need to get comfortable getting up before dawn and running through the snow. And you need to get comfortable having someone pile drive you into the ground and then immediately getting straight back up and pretending it didn’t hurt. And I don’t think you need to go quite as far as he did, playing with broken bones in his foot and broken ribs and all the other things that he did. I don’t think any of that’s healthy.

0:18:54.1 CL: But I think that that mantra, if you are ambitious, you kind of know this anyway, is when somebody invites you to speak at an event or somebody offers you the chance to put your hand up in a leadership position, you don’t know all the answers and therefore you’re going to suffer imposter syndrome, you’re going to be out of your depth. And the easy thing is just saying no. And what I noticed very early on in this kind of journey was when we were looking for potential board members and we wanted people that we knew, like and trusted. So I would sort of pick a few and say, Hey, look, we’ve got a board seat, would you be interested? And what I found was there were some people that said, Wow, that sounds amazing, but I haven’t got any experience, so I better say no. And you had other people that said, Wow, that sounds amazing I haven’t got any experience. That’s awesome.

0:19:53.9 CL: And yeah, you kind of really, to get ahead, you just need to be the person that says, Okay, I don’t know all the answers, but I’m going to put my hand up. And it may be bumpy and it may be uncomfortable, but that’s how you learn and that’s how you progress. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. The start of the book is very much focused on you, the individual, because ultimately that’s where it all starts. It’s your attitude, your desire to take on those challenges. ‘Cause if you are not willing to do that, then the rest is kind of irrelevant.

0:20:30.9 WB: As I said, there’s three parts. Each part is called great people, great company, great investors. In this first part you introduced the overall process, and there’s a big number of things that really resonated with me, but one of the areas that I liked is that you introduce a number of people that have used the approach to great effect. I’m wondering, is there one or more that really jump out to you in your mind at the moment as we’re talking that is worth sharing as an example?

0:21:06.9 CL: One of the most inspiring things for me about being part of this community is you’re kind of seeing these stories every single day. And I think the challenge is always recency bias. So the stories I heard yesterday are that strike me as the most amazing ones. But yeah, I mean we’ve got… So I’m trying to remember what the story in the book. One of the most interesting stories in the book is about an American retired entrepreneur called Dr. Keith Cantor, who watched one of my webinars and he reached out to me and said, look, what you’re doing sounds wonderful. I’d love to join, but I’m probably too old. What’s interesting about that is having brought kind of 150 people into the program, everyone that I talk to has a reason that they think it won’t work for them. I’m too old, I’m too young, I’m the wrong gender, I’m the wrong race, haven’t got enough experience.

0:22:11.7 CL: So everyone’s got something. And yet none of those things have proven to be true. It all comes down to attitudinal. What Keith did was he joined the program in I think June of last year, in July. So within weeks of joining, he was offered a chair of a private company and within two more months he was sitting on the boards of two other private companies. So three private companies entitled that. Now Keith is, like I said, he’d been a successful entrepreneur, he was well connected, but he also thinks in terms of how do I add more value? And this is really kind of, you’ll see that theme all the way through the book is it is all about how do you add value? And so one of the things he did was he started blogging on LinkedIn every week talking about what he was doing and trying to share his knowledge with more people so that they could do this.

0:23:12.2 CL: And someone from an HR director from an S&P 500 company, so one of the biggest companies in the world, if I said the name, everyone would know it. They reached out to him and they said, Look, we’ve seen your blog. We’d like to talk to you, we’d like to interview you about a board position. Now, it wasn’t the top board, it was a second tier board that they have. And so he did that interview and they offered him $168,000 a year to join their board and he turned them down because he was already making so much money and having so much fun with small private companies that the pain of going and sitting on a PLC board, even for one of the biggest companies in the world, just wasn’t worth it. So yeah, it is incredible. How quickly, so all of that happened within four months. He turned down the offer, I think literally four months to the day of joining the program. So it can happen incredibly quickly.

0:24:10.1 CL: And yeah, it is just, like I say, we kind of get these stories every day. We have a YouTube channel full of members sharing their journeys, and it is that kind of high performing environment because what it does, and I kind of joke about this but it’s a little bit serious, is they’re all outperforming me. Hang on. You’re getting better offers than I’m getting. But when everyone around you is getting offers at board seats and putting together deals and you’re kind like, Wow, yeah, this is just a cool place to be. That’s worrying.

0:24:51.3 WB: Yeah. I have to admit, I do get a bit of a buzz being around highly successful people and people that are really achieving. I’m a league player as much as that may not be a good thing for the rugby players, but one of my coaches used to say, when you’re playing against a team, if the team is above your grade, then you have the opportunity to raise to that level. If the team is below you, you run the risk of dropping to that level. And that stuck with me my whole career as well. And so surrounding yourself with other high performers really resonates. It’s a great right position to be in so.

0:25:39.5 CL: Yeah. I give the story at the end of the book about my rowing career and going from being the best in the boat and spending my whole time trying to fix other people’s problems to being the worst in somebody else’s boat, where I could just focus on getting better and how you achieve so much in such a small period of time when you’re forced to be uncomfortable I get that.

0:26:07.2 WB: And back to the mantra. So get comfortable with being uncomfortable. So there’s a couple of comments you make, I think, towards the beginning, but it sort of resonates throughout the book. You talk about the boardroom, of course, and the members, but you say board members become these almost mystical creatures, if you like, and they have this untold wealth and this wisdom. And yet, in the same breath, you say, there’s a lot of people on boards who shouldn’t be there, and there’s a lot of talented people who aren’t there who should be there. What it got me thinking was, are you suggesting that the selection process is somehow flawed, or what is it that’s creating this imbalance or this disconnect?

0:26:57.0 CL: Yeah. Invariably, it comes down to systems. I think that the reason why board members have this kind of mythical status around them. And I remember as a young entrepreneur, kind of mid-20s, thinking, God, it’d be so cool to sit on a board of a company, like, getting paid for a few hours work and getting to hang and bang with the smartest people. The reason that they kind of come across as mythical creatures is because you can’t find any information. It’s not like you can Google, how do I get a board seat? Or what happens in these board meetings? And when you’re in a corporate environment, every quarter, there’s people running around like headless chickens like, Oh, I’ve got to get ready for the board meeting. I’ve got to get ready for the board meeting. And the board’s flying in today, and so everyone kind of gets very very excited about it.

0:27:51.8 CL: So you assume that the level of discussion in this boardroom must be off the charts and super smart, and they must all be super successful. When you get in there, it’s a little bit underwhelming now, that’s not to say there aren’t some incredibly smart people in there, but the reason why it’s so exclusive and the reason why you end up with people that are not necessarily the best qualified is, and if we take public companies as an example, because that’s the most sort of high profile, is members of the board are under extreme scrutiny. So you’ve got this company, you’ve got 500 or 10,000 staff that are all looking to you for direction.

0:28:42.3 CL: You’ve got thousands, if not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of shareholders that all have an opinion on how you’re doing your job. So board members are under a massive scrutiny. When it comes to hiring people onto the board. If you’ve ever run a small committee, it’s hard enough to try and get consensus in a small group of individuals anyway. You take that into a board situation where you’ve got egos plus massive scrutiny plus massive consequences, it becomes incredibly difficult to navigate that scenario. And so when it comes to adding somebody to the board, directors and directors want to play it safe.

0:29:26.4 CL: And this comes to all decision making, the bigger the board, the more the scrutiny, the more likely directors are to draw down on the side of playing it safe, of not taking unnecessary risks. And so when it comes to hiring, it’s much easier for them to hire someone that looks like them, that sounds like them, that went to the same university, that’s had the same career path, that knows the industry, because they know that they’re not going to be challenged. And that’s easy. The difference. And I talk a lot about the value of diversity, and that’s just theoretically, a board should be there to weigh up all opinions and make the best decision.

0:30:09.6 CL: If all the opinions sound the same, then by definition, you can’t get to the best decision. And so I talk a lot about diversity, but if you understand that there’s been all these efforts and a lot of it misguided, but there’s been a lot of efforts to try and improve diversity on boards and very little has changed. Boards are still kind of the same sort of beam. In fact, there was a great story I heard about an Australian company that had five, it’s an engineering company, I think it was in Melbourne, had five engineers on the board, and they were under a lot of pressure to bring in diversity. So they brought a woman onto the board who had gone to the same university as them, had gone through the same companies as them, as an engineer, and they were like, look, we’ve got diversity. No, that’s just you in a skirt.

0:31:03.3 CL: But the reason why boards push back on this is, to their mind, diversity means disruption. And even if, in their heart of hearts, they know that this is the right thing, if you get a decision wrong at that level, it’s incredibly expensive. If you hire a frontline customer service staff and they don’t work out, you fire them the next day. It’s no big deal. That’s the price of doing business. If you hire a board member and they turn out to be rubbish, or they turn out to be disruptive, which is even worse, you’ve got two choices. One is you suck it up and they ruin every board meeting for the next few years.

0:31:40.1 CL: Which delays everything and causes all sorts of problems. Or two, you fire them, which basically announces to the public markets that you’re incompetent and you’ve just hired, you’ve made a bad hire. And so it’s much easier to either not hire someone you don’t know or to hire somebody that you know isn’t going to cause any problems. And so you basically end up with lowering the intellectual pool at board level rather than increasing it. So a lot of the structure of the book is about how do you de-risk it for people to put you on the board. And that’s kind of the bit that I think everyone that talks about diversity and everyone that talks about everything else, they all kind of assume that it’s not happening because board members are evil or… And it’s not that it’s just the incentives are all misaligned.

0:32:34.1 CL: The risk is too high. And so everything, whether it talks about your very first board seat, board of advisors of a sports club or a young startup, you have to start with de-risking this for the person making the decision. Nothing changes all the way up. It’s, just about de-risking it. So yeah, that’s kind of another underlying theme.

0:33:00.9 WB: That really brings me to what I enjoyed learning so much throughout this book is it’s a journey. And in the book, you outline the steps and… We’re gonna come to the five components eventually, but you give guidance that first you need to advise, then become the apprentice, then you start to achieve. And then finally, you cultivate that awareness around the games that are being played and how you’re sort of able to contribute in that sense. So I wonder if you could speak to those steps, if you like, and just sort of expand a little bit on what you mean by first advise, then apprentice, then achieve, etcetera.

0:33:46.9 CL: Yeah. So first off, hats off to you. You know more about my book than I do. I’m in awe of your level of knowledge. It’s fantastic. So look, I think the first thing to understand is a bit of context. So there’s 330 million companies in the world. Less than 1% of those have an active board. So when you see people that say, I applied for board seats and I never get accepted, you basically have to realize that you’ve got everyone applying for the same tiny number of board seats, and then you’ve got a board that has no interest in taking newcomers into the equation. So one of the first things we do is say, look, never apply for a board seat.

0:34:35.6 CL: Focus on all the companies that don’t have boards where you could add value by creating a board. So create a board seat rather than apply for one. But you can’t just go up to a very successful big company and say, Hey, look, I’ve got no experience, no idea what I’m doing. Can I create a board for you? So you need to kind of start somewhere smaller. And so what we do is we start with this idea of an advisory board and something that as an entrepreneur myself, and I didn’t even have the terminology to call it an advisory board, but I always reached out to mentors and people that were smarter than me, and brought them coffee once a month and asked them questions. And basically, that was my advisory board.

0:35:21.2 CL: And I was very lucky that people were willing to do that. Also, when I then started to raise money for companies, I realized that where as a young entrepreneur, I didn’t have any credibility, but I could leverage off the credibility of people on my advisory board. So I could basically pick a janitor from Microsoft, put them on to my advisory board and then tell people that I had someone from Microsoft on my advisory board. Instantly, I had more credibility than the day before.

0:35:52.1 CL: So what I encourage anyone that’s starting out is to go and find a startup or a small business or your friend’s business or a cafe down the road, and offer to build an advisory board for them. Take all the pressure off you, take all the pressure off the founder, say look, this is a very informal, we’re gonna catch up once a month to discuss your business at a strategic level. Once a month for 12 months. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work. No harm, no foul hasn’t cost you anything. But look, if I can make one connection that transforms your business, or I can make one suggestion that helps you avoid a pitfall, then this will have been worthwhile for you.

0:36:27.8 CL: Now, you’re doing that for free, but you’re actually doing it for credibility. Because as soon as that business owner says, yeah, again, you’ve de-risked it for me, there’s there’s no risk to me of this. It’s just free consulting. As soon as you’ve done that, you update your LinkedIn profile. So now I’m sitting on the board of XYZ company. I guarantee that will be the most interacted post you ever put on LinkedIn. It just it’s amazing the impact it has because people in your network suddenly look at you completely differently. You’ve just been the woman in PR for the last 20 years, or the woman in IT. And now you’re sitting on boards of companies, the fact that actually what you’re doing is just having a coffee with the founder once a month. But it sounds much more impressive to say board member than having a coffee with… And then what happens is everyone gets involved and goes… Oh, that’s really cool. Congratulations. Have you thought about talking to this person that I had no idea you’re interested? Let me put you in touch with this company. So that kind of starts this snowball, which is so important for getting started. So first step is to get started. And even with advice, I actually don’t encourage you to give much advice. I encourage you to let yourself sort of to coach to ask the right questions rather than feel like you have to know all the answers.

0:37:56.0 CL: When you get into, so if you want to carry on up the ladder the next thing we encourage is to join publicly listed companies which is kind of the premiership of business. But again, you can’t just walk in the door and hope to get a board seat. So what you do is you offer to create an apprentice program for the board. So again, you’re de-risking it for the board because if they hired you as a director, they have to pay you. They have to give you a vote. The expectation on you is very, very high that you’re gonna deliver. If you offer to build an apprentice board for them, you can fill it with diversity, you can fill it with different ideas. You’re just gonna sit in their meetings quietly and listen and learn.

0:38:39.3 CL: But you’ve completely de-risked it for the company. You get the experience. So you get to actually sit in on these board meetings, learn what’s going on, see what the actual power dynamic is in boards ’cause it’s not always what it should be or what it appears at first glance. And then we show you a few things that you can do. So you can basically take the jobs that directors hate doing and do those for them. So things like ESG reporting right now is, like governments all around the world want ESG reporting. There is not a single director on any board in any company in the world that is rubbing their hands together going, Ooh, ESG reporting. How exciting is that? So if you can join the apprentices board and say, let me take that burden off your hands, it’s not gonna cost you anything.

0:39:28.4 CL: I’d love to do it. I get the learning. You suddenly become the most valuable person on that board. So at the end of your 12 month term and it can happen much sooner, for them they’ve now built trust with you. You’ve now sat in their board meetings. You haven’t challenged anyone. You haven’t caused any problems. Not only that you’ve overdelivered ’cause their expectations on you are very low, and so you’re actually a logical next step to be hired as a board member. So that’s the apprentice level. And then, and so basically, once you are hired as a board member, that’s the achieve level. That’s where you are now actually delivering it. And a big focus again, is don’t rest on your laurels. The point is not to be a board director and then stop. The point is to be a great board director.

0:40:23.2 CL: And so now it’s how can I sit on multiple boards so that I can share learnings across boards, how I can bring one investor from one company into another company, take the company that… And really that becomes about that kind of self-actualization of taking the company to the next level, and really delivering actual value by understanding the problems and how to solve them. And then, yeah, as you point out, so those are the kind of Three A’s that drive everything we do. And then I talk about the fourth A, which is kind of the step behind, which is actually once you’ve really reached that level what starts to happen is by this point you are turning down way more board opportunities than you take on, because now everybody wants you to sit on the board because you can add so much value.

0:41:18.6 CL: And actually what you realize is that you can actually do more by not sitting on the board anymore, by basically bringing people into represent your interests on the board. And that’s the kind of the last one is this awareness. And it’s kind of the irony of this whole thing is that actually the better you get at sitting on boards, the less you want to sit on board. You’ve kind of now got… You are seeing the game. You’re playing 3D chess, you know how to move the pieces. And that’s kind of the level that you sort of you see Elon Musk and the Richard Branson and stuff. So yes, they sit on their key boards but they also have control of a lot of other companies through connections, and it just wouldn’t make sense to sit on anybody else’s board, they don’t need to.

0:42:12.3 WB: I’m conscious of the time, we only have about 10 minutes left, and I really want to have the opportunity to touch on these five components or central requirements, I guess you’d call them that we need to be addressing and building on as we start to prepare and go on this journey. As you point out, it is not a linear process or it’s not a sequential process. It’s really a loop Or a systemic approach, connections, knowledge profile, value, leverage. Would you mind just touching on those and how they are involved in what we’re trying to achieve?

0:42:45.6 CL: Hats off to you [chuckle] knowing them all already. So yeah, look, it was just the five things I realized that everybody that I looked up to in this space, everybody that was really doing something impressive had nailed these five things. So the first one is connections, like ultimately all of your opportunities are gonna come through your connections is another reason why there’s no point applying for board seats, because most of the time the board seat has already been given to someone else, and then they put the job ad out just to keep HR happy. We go with people we trust and take recommendations from people we trust. So you want to be connecting and you wanna be very deliberate about your connections. It’s gotta be founders of companies, directors, investors are incredibly important to know.

0:43:38.9 CL: But the most important thing is being deliberate about it. The second thing is knowledge, and knowledge, I kinda downplay it a little bit because as I talked about at the beginning, attitude is far more important than knowledge. And the whole idea of diversity is that you have a fresh way of looking at things. However, there’s no point having a fresh way of looking at things if you can’t articulate it in a way that the board, that staff, that shareholders understand. So you need to have the basic knowledge, and you don’t need to be an expert in this. I’m definitely not an expert in things like investor relations or good go governance or those areas, but you just need to have the basics so that you can articulate your ideas in the right format.

0:44:29.0 CL: The third one is building your profile. And I think most entrepreneurs have now kind of got their heads around, Okay, I need to have some kind of profile online and build that. A lot of our employees have never had to do this because actually, to be successful in your job, you need a good profile internally. You need to connect with the right people internally, and you need to develop a reputation for doing stuff internally. But if you’re now looking at board seats on different companies, the first thing people are going to do is Google you. And so you need to show up. And for most people, LinkedIn is the first thing that shows up if you google your name. So your LinkedIn profile needs to be up to date.

0:45:11.9 CL: You need to look like you’re, if not a board member, an aspiring board member. You need some regular posts out there about governance, about what’s happening in the markets, which companies are popular or under attack, just so that people see you in the context of somebody that’s thinking about this stuff. Those three are really all about how you get the first or how you get your board seats. So the first two is obviously driven by you. The third is just law of big numbers. If lots and lots of people know that you’re good at your job, then there’s a higher chance that one of those has an opportunity where you could fit into their organization.

0:45:53.8 CL: And then the next two, value and leverage value is really all about. Again, we don’t want to… The goal is not to be a bad board member. There’s enough of those out there already. So you want to join a board and be very clear on how you can immediately add value, whether that’s through partnerships, whether that’s through bringing in investors, helping recruit staff, helping introduce new clients. But the more value you can add, the more valuable you become understanding the problems that all companies face at different levels in their business. And part of this comes… And this is why it’s not a sequential series of steps, ’cause every level that you get to, you kind of revisit all of these.

0:46:42.3 CL: So to get your first advisory role, you got to make new connections, use a bit of knowledge to have the conversation. And to your point earlier about skeptical around how easy it is, I would guarantee that if you said right now I want to sit on the board of one of the companies of somebody listening to this podcast, that someone will reach out to you and say, I’d love to have you on my board of advisors. And then you can bring four or five other people along with you ’cause you’re incredibly well connected yourself. So that is how easy it is. So then you know how to add value. And then the last piece is leverage. And leverage is either both for yourself.

0:47:25.6 CL: We view every board seat as a stepping stone to the next board seat. So it doesn’t matter if your first board seat is with a very small company or a struggling company or a company that goes bust. It really doesn’t matter. It’s just a stepping stone to the next level. But also, leverage can be about, can you take that company and turn it into something bigger? Can you leverage that into something bigger? Because ultimately, your compensation is determined by the market cap of the company. So if you can increase that.

0:47:57.5 CL: So again, going back to Keith Cantor in the book, one of the companies that he joined was a food and beverage business in Switzerland and he joined as a free advisor. And in his first meeting, he said, look, I’m more than happy to give like an hour or two of my time once a month, but for free. There’s a limit to how much I can do for you. If I can help you go from your revenue targets of this to a revenue target of that. Can I have a slice of the company? And can I have a slice of that revenue? And for the founder of this company, they’re like, There’s no way you can do that. So, yeah, absolutely. That would be amazing if you can do that.

0:48:38.6 CL: So Keith inked that deal, picked up the phone to his best friend since school days, who happens to run a huge F&B business in the US, and said, Hey, I’ve found your European distributor and put the deal together. And that deal this year will be worth hundreds of thousands to him, next year, potentially millions. So, yeah, that’s leverage. So those are those five steps. And you basically, it’s like an upward spiral of value. You kind of get better and better at each one, and you’re always building on it. It’s a never ending process.

0:49:18.6 WB: Yeah. We haven’t done it justice. We’ve only scratched the surface. So really, I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in this topic, or who hadn’t been until this topic, get out there get a copy of the book, because it’s a great read. It’s quite a short read, but it’s filled with huge insights, and many of the people that are like me will definitely take it away and will put it to the test.

0:49:47.8 CL: If my team hasn’t already. I’m happy to send a link for your listeners so they can get a free… They can download a free copy. So, yeah I’d rather get into people’s hands than. No need to make Bezos any richer than he already is.

0:50:01.2 WB: Well, that answered the question I had was where you’re going to release it. Obviously Amazon, but very generous. Thank you, thank you for that. We’ll link to your LinkedIn page, YouTube, your websites, et cetera. Callum, great conversation, very insightful. Again, the book is titled Boardroom Blueprint: Boost your Career with a Board Seat in 60 days. That’s what I’m testing. And Callum, thank you. Wonderful to connect, and I look forward to staying in contact.

0:50:35.6 CL: Yeah. Thank you, Wayne. And I think you know the book better than I do. So I’m very impressed with your research.

0:50:43.2 Speaker 2: Thank you for joining us on the ET project, a show for executive talent development. Until next time, check out our site for free videos, ebooks, webinars and blogs at coaching4companies.com.

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