Chart Your Course to Land Your First Board Seat

Getting your first board seat requires a well thought-out strategy

Last week, I addressed a group of aspiring corporate directors for an organization called Ascend, which endeavors to increase the number of Asian-Americans sitting on corporate boards. The topic at hand was how to secure your first board seat.

I’m frequently asked about this challenge, and my first piece of advice is always the same: manage your expectations. The cadence and recruiting process for board directors differs from typical executive recruiting, often with longer timelines and somewhat opportunistic appointments.

However, with that caveat out of the way, I firmly believe that potential directors can do a lot to improve their likelihood of success. To break into the boardroom, you need a well-thought-out “campaign.”

Map out your campaign

Achieving increased board diversity is not a supply-side problem but rather a demand-side process challenge. While old-school board recruiting methodologies still exist, there are plenty of companies looking to diversify their boards, which is why you need to construct a proactive strategy. To get you started, here are five important questions to ask yourself.

1. What skills do I have to serve on a board, and what skills do I need?

First and foremost, think about your professional experience. What unique skills or key expertise do you possess that would be valuable to an organization? The distinction between skills and experience is important. Boards may be open to your specific skill set, even if the context in which you acquired that experience is less applicable.

For women and minorities, this attention to specific skills is a positive mindset shift in board recruiting. In the past, the focus has been on finding directors with prior board experience or those who are sitting or former CEOs. Today, more and more boards are thinking about how to address the challenges presented by this disruptive and transformative era. In fact, 30% of boards in 2014 were looking for directors who bring new skills to the table; that percentage is even higher today, especially if your skill set includes digital, data, or cybersecurity. For the same reason, boards might balance accepting a younger candidate with less operational experience because of the social media, digital, or “next-gen” insights he or she can bring.

To further guide your thought process, consider the following:

  • Perhaps you have HR experience and, as a result, acquired expertise in dealing with complex compensation matters. Many boards are looking for additional support in this area.
  • As an M&A expert, you could be a crucial board addition to a company operating in an industry undergoing a high level of consolidation.
  • As a former CIO, you come well-equipped with the skills that companies facing digital disruption need.
  • Lived and worked abroad? You may offer valuable insights to a company that is in a high-growth expansion stage.
  • Or maybe you have sector or vertical experience — for example, in financial services — that would make you attractive to a Fintech startup.

The point is that context is important, and you should selectively develop your list of target companies. By first identifying your primary skill set(s), it’s much easier to map them to companies at the right age-and-stage and pinpoint opportunities where there’s a need for the specific skills you bring.

In terms of skills worth acquiring, there are many ways to familiarize yourself with key corporate governance matters and financial reporting acumen, both of which are valued prerequisites for aspiring directors.

2. What is my value proposition?

A key dimension of your preparation is to clearly define and articulate your value proposition. When my friend Gerri Elliott shared her eight steps to landing a board seat, she emphasized the articulation of your value proposition because it’s the best way to “help your network help you.” Your value proposition includes not only the skills identified above but also the different elements of your background and network, as well as your personal brand.

Too many people overlook this last point: your personal brand is how you market yourself to the world, primarily through your digital footprint, and it should appropriately reflect your value proposition. Ask yourself: are you considered a thought leader in the areas where you would add value as a director? Once you start thinking along this line, it becomes easier to identify what you might need to do to make your value proposition more apparent and gain further recognition.

Another key nuance in developing your value proposition is to not define it in “operating” terms. You’re not interviewing for the next big operational role where the decision rests largely on the results you can generate. Rather, your director role is about asking the right questions and supporting management to make the best decisions possible, not to prove you could do the job yourself. It’s often said that the worst board director is an “operator who is not done operating,” so make sure your framing is correct.

If, as an operator, you’ve been in front of the board of your own company, that’s great experience that should also be reflected in your board bio, as it means you know what to expect, where the level the dialogue should be, and what the mindset of a board is in general.

3. What relationships do I have, and what relationships do I need, to get on a board?

This is the most important question of all because most board searches begin by asking current board members for recommendations. Therefore, it is crucial to be on the radar of as many people involved in answering that question as possible.

In short, your network is the most strategic and valuable asset in your arsenal. Conduct an audit of your network. Look for the people you know who currently serve on boards, as well as those who are part of the broader board ecosystem. For example, what CEOs do you know? Perhaps you have strong relationships with influential CFOs, heads of HR, or General Counsels?

Additionally, think about who you know in venture capital, private equity, and at investment banks. Are you networked with outside lawyers or partners at audit firms? And, of course, connect with recruiters. We are even seeing activists playing a role in director nominations, so ask yourself who in that arena aligns with your skills and value proposition.

Scan your network for any and all of the above and inform them of your desire to pursue board service.

4. How am I spending my time?

Like all campaigns, navigating your way to the boardroom is a journey. Unfortunately, that also means it is a time-consuming process.

When I was first looking for a board seat, I did an analysis of how I was spending my time. What I discovered was that I devoted a great deal of my “extracurricular time” to attending women’s events and Irish events — hardly optimal for targeting the board ecosystem. Once I realized the disconnect, I became judicious about the type of events I attended. By focusing on those closely related to the board world, I was able to actively reach into my network and learn as much as I could about what it would take to become a good director.

5. What current board members have a similar profile?

A final key piece of advice: after you’ve identified your skills, honed your value proposition, and activated your network, try to identify people already sitting on boards who have a similar background and skill set to your own.

Likely, these people are regularly approached about board opportunities. If they are already “overboarded,” then they are in a great position to recommend you. But you must be on their radar in order to have any chance of getting your name passed along, so don’t be shy about making contact!

Evaluate the opportunities ahead

As tempting as it may be to accept any opportunity that comes your way, I strongly encourage candidates to be thoughtful and patient about their first board selection. When evaluating opportunities, it serves you well to pause and consider the following:

  • Deciding to join a board is a long-term decision that brings with it high levels of personal and professional liability. It’s important to do your due diligence on the company, sector, and the board and management team before committing.
  • This board becomes a part of your board identity and your board brand. As such, it may affect the types of opportunities you are presented with in the future. For example, if you aspire to sit on a Fortune 500 board, think long and hard before accepting a position on the private board of a small company, as many F500 companies don’t consider the former to be an extrapolation for the latter.
  • Make sure you are passionate about the company and industry. Being a conscientious and effective board director is no longer a part-time gig. It’s your business to know about sector trends, the competitive landscape, and how customers feel about the company’s products and services. You are going to spend a great deal of time studying and reading about this organization, so you need to ensure it’s something you’ll genuinely enjoy.
  • If public board service is your objective, then there’s a limit to the number of boards upon which you can sit to remain in line with recommended best practices by the governance-watch bodies. Choose wisely.

And then there’s the more extensive and subjective due diligence where only you can decide if the situation is right for you.

  • Cultural fit is supremely important. Is the culture full of people who are collaborative, collegial, constructive, critical thinkers, and great communicators? Look for these five C’s on the board, within the management team, and at the company in general.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with the dynamic amongst the board directors and between the board and management team. As much as we would like everything to trend “up and to the right,” the fact of the matter is: there will be turbulence, and one-day you will find yourself in the foxhole with these directors, so ensure they are people with the skills, experience, culture, and commitment to shepherd and govern the company during those times.
  • As a practical matter, consider the time commitment and the travel required. You only have so much capacity.
  • Speaking of capacity, industry also matters. For example, financial institutions are subject to strident regulatory environments that can carry a far greater workload with more extensive committee duties than other sectors. Do you have the bandwidth to match the requirements?
  • The age-and-stage of a company can also affect the degree to which the board is involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. Does this opportunity match your expectations for your first board position?

All on board

The tools and questions above are designed to help you formulate your own unique boardroom campaign. As with so many decisions, the only person who can truly determine your fate is you. But whatever you do, make sure you continue to seek out and speak to directors. The more you know about the opportunities and challenges that board work represents, the better prepared you will be to land that first seat as a director.

Board service is a great privilege with work that is highly rewarding and engaging. Whether you see it as a way to further enhance your capabilities as an operator, or as a whole new chapter professionally, the opportunity will undoubtedly bring as much value to you, as you to it.

Dr. Anita Sands is an independent board director, international public speaker and creator of the #wisdomcards series. She writes and comments regularly on issues relating to boards, technology, and diversity & inclusion. Find out more about her at www.dranitasands.com or follow her @dranitasands. All comments personal.

Board Director, Advisor, Writer, Speaker & General Disruptor

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