I’ve wanted to serve on a public board for many years, but the timing was never right. Finally, as I planned to rewire (not retire!), my time for board service had come. I thought that after a long career in leadership at Fortune 500 companies, landing a board seat would be a snap. Since most board seats are filled through personal networks, I figured I would simply tell a handful of my best contacts that I wanted one, and I’d have an opportunity in no time. That just wasn’t the case.
When no seat materialized, I realized that maybe, perhaps, I might not be going about this the right way. I had been invited to join a board early in my career, but had to decline due to a conflict of interest. That experience made it seem deceptively easy. If I could get an invitation without even asking way back then, surely the wiser, more experienced, more connected me could easily get one now if only I asked.
Well, yes and no. You have to ask in the right way. If you’re not in the network of folks who are already serving on public boards, it can be a chicken and egg situation. It’s hard to get traction. You need a plan.
Here’s the eight-step plan I put together that eventually landed me three board seats. I didn’t start out thinking, “I need eight steps.” I tried a lot of things that didn’t work, and hit a lot of dead ends along the way. Here’s what worked for me:
- Define your value proposition and your targets. Help your network help you. Sit down and do an honest assessment of your experience and what kind of companies you can help the most. Be specific.
I’ve been in tech for over 30 years. I built and led industry-specific teams in Asia Pacific and North America for retail, consumer packaged goods, travel and transportation, so I understand those industries well. I have deep operating expertise, and a strong network. That could be my value to a particular set of boards.
Geography was also a consideration. I have family and professional commitments in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, so I wanted to work with companies in those areas.
Being able to say, “I can help a company in these industries, in these cities, in these specific ways,” instead of just saying, “I want a board seat,” made it much easier to put my network to work for me.
- Ask for the support of your leadership team. If you’re still working, you need to ask for the support of the CEO and chairman of the board of your employer.
This is a crucial step. I’ve seen both women and men decide board service is something they want to do, and get pretty far along in the process without having a conversation with their current leadership to determine if there is support for the process.
Permission is one thing; active support is even better. Ask them to endorse you by serving as a reference. That’s hugely powerful. And if they don’t support you, it’s a non-starter – at least for the time being. So, communicate your intentions from the outset.
- Cast a wide net. Once you’ve defined your value proposition and what kind of boards you want to be on, let your network- at-large know.
I went through every one of my 1,100 contacts in Outlook to identify those I wanted to reach out to personally, with an email, phone call or face-to-face meeting.
I sent about 200 emails and talked to dozens of other people, including every recruiter who had every called me over the years. The overwhelming feedback I received was, “Wow. I didn’t know you wanted that. I’d love to help.”
- Get some experience. At some point in this process, someone will ask you, “How much board experience do you have?” Fortunately, I had been presenting to the boards of various companies throughout my career, so even though I’d never served on a public board, I was able to speak to the experience I had interacting with boards over the past 12 years.
If you aspire to board service, take every opportunity you can get to present in front of your current board. Boards operate differently than company leadership, so it’s important to see as many boards in action as you possibly can, both to prepare yourself for the interview process and the actual role.
- Gather your references. You may already have a set of references, but the references you use to get on a public board may be different than the references you use to get your next operating gig. Ideally, you need board references.
If you’ve talked to the CEO and the board and been presenting at board meetings regularly, these will be so much easier to come by. Boards that are interested in you are going to ask your references, “How do you think she’s going to perform in the boardroom? Can she think innovatively, assert an opinion but not be disruptive?” You need references that can speak to that.
- Educate yourself before you start the process. I took board education in preparation for interviews. I went to Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Director’s Consortium and their Director’s College. I took webinars from Deloitte’s Director Series. Duke has a class, UCLA has a class and Northwestern Kellogg School of Management has a class specifically for women directors, which I knew about since I serve on its board.
Boards are all different, and these types of classes give you a much broader picture of board issues than you can get from presenting to your current board. The more education you have, the better you’ll perform in the interview process, so attend a program, or a few.
- Get expert help if you need it. Just as there’s more than one way to land a job, there’s more than one way to land a board seat. There are a few recruiting firms out there that do what I call reverse recruiting. They work proactively to go after a target list of boards which may be right for you. Through my network I found one, James Drury Partners, who were wonderful and helped me through this process.
- Choose wisely. Joining a board is an extremely important, long-term decision. There is a lot of personal and professional liability. Do not just take the first thing that comes along. You need to evaluate boards as much as they need to evaluate you. Find out everything you can about the company. Do some research on the board. Find out who has great governance rankings. Ask around your network and do your due diligence.
Looking back, it comes as no surprise that if you want to serve on a board, you’ve got to have a plan and work it intentionally, much the same way you’d do with any other goal you want to achieve. You might get lucky and have an invitation drop in your lap, but if not, don’t let that stop you. It’s always easier to get lucky if you have a plan.
If you’ve been successful enough in your career to be qualified for a board seat, you probably know how to do this. So, if invitations aren’t flowing your way, get out there and make it happen. Somewhere out there, there’s a board, or boards, that need you.