Preparing and Positioning Yourself for a Corporate Board Role: Top Ten Tips
This article was first published on the Diversified Search Group website. To access the full article, click here
by Sonya Olds Som
As an executive search consultant, I am regularly asked for advice on how to go about preparing and positioning oneself for public company board service, particularly by women and people of color. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Black executives who aspire to corporate board service alongside executives who are already on corporate boards. I am sharing an edited version of that talk here.
1. Learn your ABCs: Assess, Be patient and Consult
ASSESS: Evaluate whether you really want to be a corporate board director – and why. What is it you hope to gain from the experience? Is this the right time to pursue board service? Are these realistic ambitions given your current career level? For example, if you are a mid-level professional, you will need to accept this is likely something to aim for further along in your career.
What kind of board will be right for you, both professionally and personally? Spend time researching the responsibilities of the role and assessing the pros and cons.
The time commitment, potential conflicts of interest, and personal/professional reputational risks can be significant. The scheduling of board meetings around your other commitments – years in advance – can be very challenging, especially if the company is not located near you. Failure to attend meetings can have consequences both for yourself, reputationally, and for the company. (S.E.C. rules require disclosing whether directors have attended at least 75% of all meetings annually; failure to do so could result in a “no” vote from institutional investors such as ISS and Glass Lewis.)
There can be a lot of reading materials, especially for a public company. The tax responsibility from corporate board service can be significant. Frankly, if you just want to serve on a corporate board for the money, there might be other, better ways for you to gain (greater) compensation.
Consider your passions and values and where you think you can add genuine value: What are your “superpowers?” It might be better to wait on pursuing board service entirely or to consider the board of a smaller organization, a nonprofit or private company board, rather than serving on a public company board that is not a good cultural fit for you.
BE PATIENT: Getting on the right board can take several years. There’s no formal application process where you see a job posting and apply. Even with the increased push for all kinds of board diversity, prior corporate director experience is generally still preferred, especially for larger, well-known, and/or public companies. If you are not a CEO, CFO, Business Unit Head – someone with P&L experience, very familiar with understanding financial reports, or who can serve on specific committees where there is a current or upcoming need, like the audit committee – you will likely find that this kind of previous director experience is still generally preferred.
But, increasingly, other skillsets (legal, risk, compliance, government affairs, human resources, DEI, ESG – particularly climate expertise – and cybersecurity) are valued in potential corporate directors, especially when paired with the desire to bring more talent from underrepresented groups onto the board. Be patient, positive, and persistent.
CONSULT: Talk to the important people in your life – personally and professionally. The commitments of corporate board service impact your partner and family; you will need their support.
Make sure you understand your company’s board service policy and what precedent there is in your organization for serving on outside boards. Ensure you have the support of your CEO and board (you don’t want them to hear about your pursuit of an outside board role from someone else).
Your CEO and board can be your greatest allies in this process if they are in your corner. Judge the timing of these conversations carefully, though. If you are relatively new to your organization and/or it is going through a challenging time, or if your own performance might currently be in question, this might not be the best time to talk about pursuing outside board service.
Once you’ve had these important conversations, spend as much time as you can speaking in confidence to trusted connections with corporate board experience about the pros and cons of corporate board service.
2. Start spreading the news
Tell your network that you are interested in being considered for a corporate board. Start with those with whom you have the closest relationships and share mutual trust and respect, who already have corporate board experience. Endorsements from existing board members – who may be asked for recommendations for potential candidates or may suggest someone for a role they cannot take up themselves – will greatly help your case. Don’t assume that people will somehow just know you’d be interested or remember to suggest you for opportunities. No blast messages, though: have real conversations.
Executive search firms can be very useful, although they are often working to a set of parameters provided by the current board. A board can be thought of like a team of superheroes such as The Avengers seeking a member whose superpowers complement existing skills or fill gaps left by departing members. Search firms often work backward from the board’s initial wishlist of “superpowers,” while helping to guide the process of prioritizing items on that wishlist and expanding the candidate pool.
CHROs, General Counsels, Corporate Secretaries, and other aspiring corporate board directors who have not historically been the most sought-after candidates for board positions are increasingly leveraging “day job” roles that bring them into the boardroom of their own companies to help position themselves for outside boards. These roles may even be responsible for spearheading searches for new directors for their own companies – providing them with great access to search firms and other director candidates who can be instrumental in helping them prepare and position themselves for their own corporate board service.
3. Get your house in order
Make sure you have an up-to-date resume and a board bio. Board bios are not assembled like resumes, so you may wish to seek specialist advice on preparing one.
Even if you are very selective about your social media use, create a well-fleshed out profile and a strong network (500+ connections) on LinkedIn and regularly engage in strategic activity on the site (making / sharing / commenting on posts). Modern recruiters LIVE on LinkedIn and many of your other professional and personal connections may be prompted to think of you for a board opportunity because of your social media presence. If you don’t have the time to prepare these materials or keep your profile up to date, consider investing in a service to assist you.
Ask trusted advisors (especially those who have recently joined boards themselves) for referrals for such services. Do your own vetting to determine which is right for you. Some professional service providers, such as executive search firms, can be particularly useful in helping you objectively assess and describe your selling points. In my experience, women and people of color especially tend to underestimate the value of their skills and experiences.
Regardless of whether you use a professional service, you should ask at least one trusted advisor (again, especially one with recent corporate board experience) to review your materials. If they are willing to let you see their own resume and board bio, so much the better.