If you are reading this blog, then you are very likely involved in IT in some way. Most likely you are involved somewhere in the software development lifecycle as a Developer, Tester, BA, Admin or Manager. There are many traditional ways to develop your skills from reading technical journals through to attending training courses. However, I’d like to suggest an alternative that you may not have considered – volunteering your time.
My own story about professional development through volunteering began when I was looking for an outlet to put something back into the community. I had been working as a systems testing consultant for some time, both for my own business and for other people. In my professional capacity, I had found myself sometimes reporting to a Board of Management and wondering about the enigmatic entity that is “The Company Board”. Who were these people, what was their agenda (no pun intended) and what were their goals and motivations? It helps to know your audience. I wanted to be able to understand what drives a Board and why. I wanted to be able to anticipate what types of questions they were likely to ask.
A networking event at which Boards and Directorship was one of the topics of discussion opened my eyes to the possibility of joining a Company Board. During the questions at the end of the session someone asked how people went about becoming Company Directors without starting their own firm or rising through the ranks of executives. One of the possible routes discussed was volunteering. Many Not-for-Profit (NFP) organisations have volunteer Boards and this is one way that it is possible to gain entry level experience as they are sometimes willing to give someone with desirable skills the opportunity to serve on their Board despite having no previous Board-specific experience.
My interest was piqued and I took away with me this possibility and considered what skills I had that a Board of Management might be looking for. In my case most obviously I had IT-related skills and knowledge. But thinking more broadly I identified financial management and marketing skills from building my own business, and strategic, critical thinking and risk management skills from my time as a consultant.
With this in mind I looked for opportunities. A local NFP Board The Epilepsy Association of SA & NT was advertising on a volunteering website for potential Board Members. I applied and interviewed with the Chair and Vice Chair, met their CEO and took the grand tour. After some reference checking I was invited to do a small project with them and attend a few of their Board’s meetings as a guest. Once a good cultural fit had been established, the project completed, and my own due diligence had been performed, I was invited to join their Board. I was pleased to accept the invitation and became a full member of their Board of Management.
Four years later I find myself spending many hours a year working with my Board. Company Directorship entails legal responsibilities. There is significant time required for preparing for and attending meetings, working on projects, serving on sub-committees, supporting events, and undertaking related training. But there is no doubt that I have learned a tremendous amount about Company Boards, how they operate from the inside, and the role they play within an organisation.
Additionally I have gained enormous insight into the NFP sector, a sector which according to The Office for the Not-for-Profit Sector contributes around 43 billion a year to Australia’s economy. This makes it a bigger contributor than Agriculture, Tourism or the Communications Industry! I have also gained valuable hands-on experience, learned new skills and stretched my existing ones. I have expanded my personal network, worked with a remarkable set of people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and skill sets, found new mentors and had my life enriched in many ways.
While I recognise this may be an extreme example and you may not wish to make the commitment of joining an NFP Board, I would encourage you to think outside of the box. Please consider whether there are volunteer or pro-bono opportunities which might contribute to your professional development and/or long term career aspirations. As a bonus you will be provided with the satisfaction of being able to return something to the community in exchange for the many good things you have received in the course of your life.
- Liz Renton – Senior Consultant (Revolution IT)