Preparing and Positioning Yourself for a Corporate Board Role: Top Ten Tips

May 28, 2024 Share this article:

Board Seat Top Ten Tips

By Sonya Olds Som, Esq., Global Managing Partner, Legal, Risk, Compliance, and Government Affairs at Diversified Search Group / AltoPartners USA. This article was first posted on LinkedIn Pulse. To view the original article click here.

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 non-profit 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 not a 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 backwards 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.

4. The right associations

Getting involved with the right association(s) can be helpful. If, for example, you lack some of the foundational skills that are sought in most corporate directors (such as corporate governance and financial acumen), and your current role is not going to provide you with that training, the right group(s) can provide you with valuable substantive skills as well as networking opportunities. Your company might have an internal board preparedness or other helpful executive development program or be willing to underwrite your participation in an outside program.

Universities like Stanford and Northwestern offer board readiness programs, as do various search and consulting firms, law firms, and other professional services firms. Increasingly, there are niche organizations specializing in helping specific demographics join boards, such as DirectWomen, which focuses on increasing the number of women lawyers (especially women General Counsels and law firm partners) on corporate boards. Organizations like the Executive Leadership Council and Savoy have programming dedicated to assisting Black executives find board roles, while the Latino Corporate Directors Association does the same for the Latinx executive community.

If you are an executive at a member organization of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), participating is a great way to network and learn more about the working of corporate boards. And, of course, the more exposure you have to your own company’s board (presenting at a board meeting or to a committee, assisting another executive in preparing to make a presentation), in addition to any individual relationships you may have with your company’s board directors, the better.

Consider, too, organizations that have nothing to do with boards directly, such as professional organizations for your function, and personal / social organizations like alumni groups, religious and civic organizations, fraternities / sororities, sports leagues, choirs and bands, etc. These all likely have at least some corporate board members amongst their membership. They also may have subgroups and programs focused on helping their members join boards.

Ask the established corporate board members with whom you consult throughout this process what associations, conferences, and programs they found most worthwhile in helping them prepare and position themselves for their first corporate boards.

5. Practice “attraction marketing”

Attraction marketing is a strategy where customers are attracted to purchase something without being expressly asked or told to do so. Many of the tips in this list focus on intentional actions, but you should also think of yourself as a “product” that you want organizations to “purchase” for their boards – without directly reaching out to board members and CEOs you do not know to ask them to put you on their boards. (Seriously: do not do this).

What does this mean? Simply put, be visibly awesome in front of the right people, in the right places.

Have a terrific LinkedIn profile that shows off your “superpowers.” Don’t have time to write articles, or figure out which panels and interviews to do? Use your service providers – law firms, search firms, consulting firms or other professional service firms that have you as clients (or want to!) – to collaborate on thought leadership or help you network.

Consider engaging in the buddy system – co-authoring articles, collaborating or co-hosting events with others in your network. Don’t feel comfortable self-promoting on LinkedIn? Use the buddy system to ask your connections to post about you and do the same for them.

Ask the established board members with whom you consult what attraction marketing activities have been the most effective for them.

6. It’s a two-way street

Like dating, discussing potentially serving on an organization’s board is a conversation, not an interview – a mutual exploration of whether this relationship would be the best fit for BOTH parties. Not every organization or board’s culture will be right for you. Not every organization’s mission and objectives will align with your own. Don’t to be too picky about inconsequential details, but don’t abandon your core beliefs – and risk losing your soul and damaging your reputation – when with a little patience and perseverance you can be properly aligned.

7. Do non-profit boards help? It depends

Serving on a non-profit board can provide you with management, leadership and organizational experience that you won’t necessarily obtain in your day job. A large, complex non-profit organization (like a foundation) can also provide significant financial management and governance responsibilities and accustom you to the formal operations of a board. This is especially true if there are corporate board members and other executives who work with corporate board executives on the non-profit board. They are more likely to help manage the non-profit board along the same lines as the corporate boards to which they are accustomed.

The relationships you build with corporate directors and executives who work with them on your shared non-profit board will be valuable. The chance to collaborate on committees, programs and initiatives, navigate crises, build mutual respect, and spend time with them in the trenches will make them more likely to effectively endorse you as a prospective director. Public companies are the most likely to require prior public company board experience, so strong support from respected, experienced directors can be very helpful to your cause.

8. Pay It forward

Karma is real. If a particular board opportunity is not right for you, refer someone else. If you are a member of an underrepresented group (or if you wish to be a true ally of underrepresented groups), be intentional about suggesting members of such groups for these opportunities.

And once you have broken into the corporate director club? Never forget what you learned, who and what helped you. Do what you can, when you can, to help others who are at the beginning of their journey.

9. Be patient, positive and persistent

Keep doing these tips (and/or whatever other actions you find work for you in this process) for as long as it takes. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

10. Enjoy the journey

Consider all of the people and organizations you’ll be introduced to, understand better, and have a stronger relationship with, through engaging in this process. Imagine how much better you will be in your main role because of these new connections and experiences; the additional insights you will be able to share.

Yes, it may take more time than you would like to secure the right opportunity. There will likely be disappointing misses before there is a hit. But I believe you can find the right opportunity for you – whatever that might end up looking like. However long it may take. You need to believe this, too. I can’t promise that you’ll definitely succeed (however you define “success”) if you maintain a positive outlook. But I can almost guarantee that you will not succeed if you don’t.

This list is, of course, my own opinion, based on my long search experience and the experiences that have been shared with me by both board candidates and clients. It is not meant to be exhaustive; you will need to create your own bespoke process. But hopefully, the above provides some useful ideas from which to start. Now, go find your own superpowers. Join your superhero team. Avengers, Assemble!

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