Still Want to Land that Corporate Board Seat? Here’s How.

In one of last month’s blogs, we discussed why a current or retired executive would want to be on a board of directors and why, despite the risk factors, even boards of troubled companies have had minimal problems finding willing candidates. One of our most frequently asked questions 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 might be if you are looking for a C-suite role, simply because board searches are not put out to search nearly as often as C-suite positions.

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 areas such as compliance or executive compensation? Are you a diversity candidate? There are many functional areas or qualifications that boards seek 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 two 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 understand social media. Have a LinkedIn profile complete with picture. Understand and have an account on Facebook, understand Twitter even if you don’t use it, and the importance of being quoted through industry associations, speaking engagements or just writing a blog 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, The University of Chicago and Dartmouth offer combined 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 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.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze

Managing Director