One of the most frequently asked questions we get is "How do I get on a corporate board if I'm not already on a board?"
1) The Process Is Different than Applying for a Position
A board seat is not a position for which you apply. It is much more like a sorority, fraternity, or even a posh country club: Candidacy is by invitation only. While it is great to visit and make contacts with search firms, they fill only a relatively small percentage of board seats. Why is this? It's expensive. Search firms charge anywhere from $70,000 to $200,000 to complete board searches.
Because someone can work and still serve on a board, it's relatively easy for board members to recruit friends, former colleagues or executives with whom they've done business. A search firm may not be as helpful to you in seeking a board position as it would if you were looking for a C-suite role, simply because board searches are not put out to search nearly as often as executive positions are.
2) Know Thy Strengths
What value could you bring to a board? Determine the industry and type of company where your background would be an asset. Would you meet the requirements to serve on a company's Audit Committee? Do you have a background in a sought-after functional area, such as compliance or executive compensation? Are you a diversity candidate? There are many functional areas or qualifications that boards strive to ensure that they have a well-rounded board.
Prepare an "elevator" speech that articulates what you have to offer. You will also need a different type of resume that highlights your value to a board and includes interactions with your own or other boards.
3) Define Your Brand
What would someone learn about you if they Googled your name? Does your resume reinforce the assets you would bring to a board? (Define your strengths; see number 2 above). Who are you and how have you established yourself? What is your reputation? Have you strived to be the best at what you do?
4) Be Visible
It is not enough that you are good at what you do. Being selected for a board requires both an internal and external effort. This requirement is especially important if you are not currently working. One of the fastest ways to disqualify yourself from a board is not to be "current." Board members today must be up to date with changes in business and technology. To this end, it is critical to becoming versed in social media. Have a LinkedIn profile complete with picture. Have an account with—and understand how to use—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (even if you don't actually use it). Submit articles, blogs or comments to industry association websites and publications. Engage in online dialog with your peers on social media. Publish an article on LinkedIn that delves into your area of expertise.
5) It's All About Contacts and Networking
Landing a board seat is both a numbers game and a contacts game. Let your investment banking, law, bank, public accounting, and consulting firm contacts know of your interest in being on a board and the value you would bring. Now that you are proficient at LinkedIn use it to identify board members of companies whom you can contact. Note if any of the directors are close to retirement. Many individuals have found board positions by making contact with venture capital firms. In addition to search firms, check out top registries such as the National Association of Corporate Directors, Catalyst (for women), and various universities that have board training programs. Stanford, Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and Dartmouth offer corporate governance programs.
6) Start Small and Leverage Those Successes
Be willing to start small. Are there any not-for-profits for which you have a passion? If so, volunteer to be on their board, even at the local level. Are there small companies that are looking for a volunteer board? What about your church, child's school, or trade association? Once you're on an organization's board, fellow board members are often senior executives from public companies with whom you can network. It may take two or three not-for-profit boards before you get the opportunity to join a for-profit board. We know several executives who got their start on public boards by working with emerging growth companies and rode with those companies as they went from a garage operation to a Fortune 1000 company.
Most executives agree that it is harder to land their first board position than it is actually to serve on a board. Look at your contacts and networking as investing for not only one board but future Board positions. Not surprisingly, most search firms who conduct board searches look first to those already serving on public boards.
The Executive Leadership Council: Helps provide opportunities for African American executives.
The Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility: Serves as a resource for Hispanic executives vying for board service.