It’s amazing how much the cultural points of ones youth, when seen through the wispy passage of time, make fantastic life lessons to pass on to another generation. Perhaps it’s simply a function of age and sentimentality, but the popular songs, movies and televisions shows of my formative years have taken on a certain almost biblical-like state over time.

While many of my colleagues like to pull down a pithy Star Wars quote from time to time, I’m more a fan of The Karate Kid. Maybe it’s the Eastern Philosophy or maybe it’s just the fact that I closely identify with a pasty-white weedy kid who doesn’t get the girl. Whatever the reason, Mr Miyagi’s slightly opaque quote that: “Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything” is dear to my heart.

That quote, and most of what Mr Miyagi spent teaching the movie’s hero, Daniel, relates to taking time to learn mastery of an art. It’s a theme that utterly goes against the current model of instant gratification, and is the antithesis of an entire modern industry that promises knowledge in a listicle, achievement with only five minutes investment a day and attainment via an app.

I’ve been thinking of this change from slow mastery of a craft to instant achievement of status recently. Not, readers may be surprised to hear, because of the fact that Twitter users can now pay a monthly fee to obtain the coveted tick of verification, but for other reasons.

I’ve spent a bit of time over the past few years mentoring aspiring governors. These individuals all have a desire to take on some corporate governance roles. Maybe they got excited by the generally held (but, sadly no longer valid) view that corporate governors do little more than eat fancy lunches and drink really good French wines. Or maybe their rationale is more genuine and is related to wanting an intellectual challenge, one which allows them to give back to the world.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been struck recently that aspiring directors fall into two distinct camps. Those camps are, fortuitously for my writing here, closely aligned to my personal approach towards developing my own governance career. My perspective is pretty simple. With myself I am utterly impatient, with the world I try to project Monk-like patience. What that means in practice is that anything I need to do myself – be it learning, personal investment or whatever – I will seize every opportunity to do as and when I can.

On the external stuff however, the getting shoulder-tapped, I try to be as patient as possible. The reality is that being chosen to serve on a board is largely a random alignment of various planets – timing, the particular needs of the board, the individuals who currently serve, the stage at which the organization finds itself etc. – in other words, beyond the self-development aspects, there is very little that one can do to actually speed up ones own corporate governance career development. Like catching flies with chopsticks, it takes skill, practice and time (and a healthy dose of serendipity.)

Two recent examples of people I’ve spent time with perfectly illustrate differing approaches. The first individual is a seasoned executive who is looking to gain some governance experience in part to dip their toes into governance but mainly to understand the perspective across the table from management. Said individual is working hard to understand the cadence of board meetings, the dynamics of the board room, and the subtleties of board conversations. There is no ambition beyond skill and knowledge acquisition and any other outcome is a bonus. It strikes me that this exemplar is being impatient with themselves but masterfully patient with an outside world they can do little to change.

Contrast this with another individual. Said individual arrived at a meeting with the list of the 30 companies they aspire to join the board of. Not only this, but they also had a list of the chairs of those boards and a draft introductory email they intended to send to every single one of those chairs to essentially tout for a board position.

Now some might suggest this shows ambition and initiative and, at some level I guess it does. But it also shows a distinct lack of understanding about treading lightly, building genuine relationships and letting time work its magic. It is a perfect example of being impatient with an outside world and will, in my view, drive poor outcomes for this individual.

While the world is awash with individuals who launched their career with a brazen piece of Chutzpah, I’d wager that for every one of those, there are plenty who mistimed their approach and damaged future opportunities. I’d further suggest that these exemplars of “success through heavy handedness” are hugely outnumbered, especially in the governance world, by those who had quietly built their skills, their networks and their board readiness.

Summer is coming and with it fly season. I’m sure there is the odd individual who can pick up a pair of chopsticks and luckily catch a fly first time. But I’d advise a slower and more reasoned approach to things.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He tries to be patient.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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