Taking the Leap into a Portfolio Career

Jul 29, 2020

By Jeanette Horan

For many of us who have worked in corporate careers for 35-40 years, the prospect of retirement with no active business engagement can be scary. We are living healthier, longer lives, and many of us are not ready to give up that active engagement simply because we’ve reached a certain age. As the saying goes, “60 is the new 40”! There is still so much to give in terms of sharing our hard-learned lessons, and helping the next generation to succeed.

Even today, as we navigate through this challenging time, there are many wonderful opportunities for people who have retired from their primary career. While plans to travel, and spend more time with friends and family have been put on hold, leaving more time to revive long-neglected hobbies, and pursue volunteer opportunities, many of us are looking for more. In my case, board service is what truly feeds my desire to stay engaged.

As I began to consider retiring from IBM, I knew that when the time came, I would want to stay active in the worlds of business and technology. Fortunately, while still fully employed, the company encouraged me to take on a non-executive director role with a small technology company. The experience taught me much about corporate governance, and understanding the line between being an operating executive, and being a good board member.

The primary role of a board member is fiduciary responsibility. This is not just about auditing the company’s finances. It is also about engaging in discussions of strategy, leadership, values, and deciding how the company will deliver value to its stakeholders, shareholders, customers, and employees.

Today, regardless of industry, every company uses technology in traditional ways (think back office), as well as in new, innovative ways. It is vital that companies know how to use technology to drive value while also maintaining security. To help companies deal with this concern, and provide guidance and oversight, there is a growing demand for board members who possess deep knowledge of technology. My role as the Chief Information Officer for IBM gave me that deep knowledge, providing an ideal platform from which to launch into the “portfolio phase” of my career.

People often ask how they can be selected for a board position at a public company. Board members are selected by the Nominating and Governance Committee of a board. Often, committees begin their search by approaching people who are already known to the executive team or current board members. So, my first piece of advice is to develop your network and raise your profile through speaking engagements, blog posts, and participation in industry associations. Don’t be shy! It’s up to you to let people know that you are interested in joining a board.

Here is a perfect example of how this works. As I was about to retire from IBM, the CEO of a company I had worked with asked what I planned to do with my time. I let him know that I wanted to pursue board memberships. A few months later he contacted me about a position that had opened up on his board. Had I not been clear about my plans, I would have lost a great opportunity!

Nominating and Governance Committees may also use the services of an executive recruiter to identify board candidates. Most of the big names, along with a few boutique companies, have board practices. My two current board roles came through executive recruiters who found me via LinkedIn. So, my second piece of advice is to make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date, and that your summary statement gives more than the “facts and figures” of what you have done. Make sure to provide some color about who you are and what value you will bring to a board. While it is possible to be found by a recruiter you don’t know, it is extremely important to be proactive by building and maintaining relationships with a number of executive recruiters. Even if you are not currently interested in a new role, if a recruiter reaches out to you, always return their calls. When you are ready to seek a new position, they will remember.

My board roles have provided great opportunities to continue to learn about different industries and new technologies. From the development of green lasers in the late 2000’s, to the development of 5G technology today, there is always something new to learn. With apologies to friends who are accountants, I have learned more about IFRS rules than I ever wanted to know, and I am deeply versed in the European Shareholder Rights Directive that is influencing how companies interact with shareholders on matters of compensation policy.

I have been privileged to serve on four corporate boards, to date. One I stepped down from after 10 years – a self-imposed term limit, if you will. One company was sold to private equity and my board role went away. I currently serve on the boards of two European companies – Nokia and Wolters Kluwer — both experiencing profound change, and navigating the unique challenges of how to prepare for and embrace that change.

Life for me, and everyone, is very different than it was five years ago, even five months ago. Though I loved my corporate career and enjoyed some fantastic opportunities, today, as we continue to social distance, I have much more flexibility allowing me to engage more deeply with my local community through volunteer activities, and enjoy time spent, even virtually, with friends and family.  It also affords more time to explore opportunities to serve on boards here in the US. In other words, there is life, and opportunity after your corporate career, and pursuing a portfolio career is a great way to go!

Jeanette Horan is an Eleven Canterbury Executive Expert and sits on the boards of Nokia, and Wolters Kluwer. She was a VP and CIO at IBM, and has served on the boards of Mircrovision, West Corporation, and was on the advisory board at Cybereason. She currently sits on the boards of Nokia, and Wolters Kluwer.

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