Life as a director has changed greatly for Walid Shukri, who is based in Saudi Arabia and sits on half a dozen boards.
“When I joined the Australian board of Aurecon, I used to have to travel 14 hours to Melbourne for every single meeting. And after three years, it became a big burden. It wasn't easy,” he said at a recent AICD event.
“But now I think virtual board meetings are the way forward. I think they open up a whole new field in terms of joining boards. Since your physical presence is not needed, and you can do this virtually, it opens up the opportunity to join a board, regardless of your geographical location.”
He believes directors can move towards a hybrid model that involves serving boards both face-to-face and virtually.
Today Shukri is vice chairman of the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company, chairman of its UK subsidiary Salic (UK), and a director of the Saudi Electricity Company, the Al Hokair Group and the Middle East Paper Company.
Similarly, the working routine has changed significantly for New Zealand-based director Jane Diplock AO FAICD, whose biggest challenge since travel stopped is navigating international time zones.
“In our part of the world, we used to talk about the tyranny of distance. But now I think that’s been replaced by the tyranny of time zones. Last night I did a Zoom meeting from 1am to 5am and I'll do another one today. These are doable, but it's a challenge.”
Diplock, who was one of three speakers at the recent Finding Global Board Positions event, chairs the Abu Dhabi Global Market Regulatory Committee and sits on the boards of the Singapore Exchange, Singapore Exchange Regulatory Company and the Australian Financial Services Group, as well as chairing the Governance and Nominations Committee of the International Integrated Reporting Council.
Hong Kong based international recruiter David Hui, who is also a director on the Kerry Properties board, warns that international roles are challenging on many levels.
“I would say be prepared to be competitive when you are talking about global boards. There aren’t actually that many roles out there. And when you think [with] a global perspective about how many companies you would actually be willing to serve on a board for, it's probably not as many as you think.
“It's not a walk in the park, and these roles aren't easy to get. They are at the top of the pyramid, so you need to know what your expertise is, you need to have an idea of where you're going to really add value, and why you're going to do it, because everyone else is also competing for that role.
“I give a lot of advice to aspiring directors, especially people who sit on a domestic board and want to go on a global board. They have to think long and hard about why they would want to essentially step up to the global board.”
Hui says choosing the right international board may be driven by personal interests, whether that is a geographical interest or a market-driven interest. However, global boards are more onerous in terms of workload scheduling and logistics, he says. “So going back to basics and knowing why you want to go on the board in the first place is important.”
Hui is partner-in-charge of Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office and also leads the CEO and Board of Directors Practice in Hong Kong.
The three speakers shared their insights on how to go about finding global board positions.
Tips on finding global board positions
- Speak at relevant events
- Join professional groups and network
- Register with recruiters
- Have a core competency or become an expert in your field
- Join local boards that have international subsidiaries and make connections
- Boost your presence on social media
- Build your personal brand
Diplock says speaking at events can be a very positive way to raise your public profile. “These days, it's very important if you are looking to present yourself as someone who is recognisable in a specialist area or whose brand is recognised, to consider speaking at sessions or at events in which you are interested, on topics where you can bring a fresh perspective.
“Some may be international organisations which are not necessarily going to be remunerative, but where you can contribute as a member, and perhaps take a leadership role, so you become expert in that field. That can be useful not only for making a contribution to the organisation, but also because you'll meet other people who are involved in that global purpose or enterprise who may be on other boards and are looking for new participants.”
Diplock says she gained her first listed board role at the Singapore Stock Exchange after speaking at a Women Corporate Directors event in Hong Kong. She was approached by a recruiter as she was completing her term as chair of the International Organisation of Securities Commissions and Chairman of New Zealand Securities Commission.
“So that was about being noticed,” she says, and having the financial and regulatory skill set they were searching for.
It’s all about building your expertise
As a director based in the Middle East, Shukri speaks at both local, regional and international events that relate to his personal expertise in financial accounting and compliance risk. He is also connected to several of the Big Four accounting firms and attends their events, which are valuable for networking.
“I come from a background in financial accounting and have expanded my skill set to corporate governance, risk and compliance.”
He gets invited to speak in locations such as Dubai or London. “I don’t get paid much, maybe just airfares and accommodation,” he says. “But I think by speaking at these events, you are networking with a new group such as other professionals and executives. So you do get noticed. And you become a subject matter expert within your field. Boards and companies are looking for subject matter experts.”
Specialist skills in demand
Technology, including digitisation, and ESG are areas in which specialist skills are in demand by boards, and will be increasingly important in the future, says Diplock. “Getting an understanding of ESG is important. A lot of entities worldwide are looking for individuals that really understand this space. So these are the areas where I would start really building skillsets fit for the future.”
Hui adds, “It’s always good to have a core competency, or something that you're a master or an expert at, because that's obviously an easy way for someone to find you.
“I think it's all about building networks, and this is why it all goes back to basics and what you want to do, why you want to be on a board, how are you going to get noticed? It's a question of being thoughtful about what skills you can bring to people, and then networking in that space.”
In less developed markets in Asia, it may depend on word of mouth recommendations too, he says. Social media is also important. “These days it's so much easier [to connect with people], whether it's on social media such as LinkedIn or some other forum.”
Aspiring international directors must be careful when choosing boards and understand they need to have a working knowledge of differing codes of corporate governance and legal frameworks, in different geographies and jurisdictions, and may need to seek advice before taking on a new role, says Diplock.
As with any board role, they must also undertake their own personal due diligence on a company before joining the board to minimise the chance of reputational issues etc, she adds.
Shukri points out that aspiring global directors also need to understand the different forms of liability involved in different company structures.
“In some jurisdictions, if you join a listed company board, your liability as a director can be unlimited, versus a family business or limited liability company where it's limited. So, you do need to consider this when joining a listed company, where the risks are much higher.
“If you don't perform your fiduciary duties and requirements in accordance with the corporate governance codes of that jurisdiction and if you're negligent, you could go to jail. There's a lot of responsibility involved.”