Director Stories

First Board

We need more women on boards. Having women on boards has proven to improve the performance of the companies they serve. So why is it so hard to be a woman and get on your first board?

It took me much longer to get on my first board than I anticipated. I worked for a Fortune 100 company, ran a global function and had what you’d consider to be a fairly successful track record. My collaboration skills are strong and I’d driven more than a few significant transformations during my tenure. I am an active supporter and mentor of women and enjoy developing talent.

Yet, what I found was that getting that first board is hard. Now, maybe it shouldn’t be, but it was. Boards are sometimes hesitant to be the one that gives you your first shot. Having board experience is an important criteria that the nominating committee assesses. They also value a C-suite title. It’s a known entity and conveys a degree of responsibility and visibility to the way things work in your business. Fair points, but if only C-Suite women with board experience are going to be chosen for boards, that’s a pretty shallow pool. Don’t get me started on that broader topic….

So, how do you get your first board?

Be serious about it. Take it on like you’re looking for a job, because you are.

Talk to people. Get to know board recruiters, find out what boards would find appealing about your experience and translate that into what value you can offer the board you want to be on. Talk to people you know on boards and tell them you want to be on a board. Networking is one of the most important things you can do because many of the board nominations are by personal referral.

Set goals, and be flexible. You may want to be in a specific in industry or geography, or size of business. Don’t limit the aperture too narrowly, particularly for your first board.

How did I get on my first board? I wanted to get back to the industry I had a passion for in undergraduate and graduate school – healthcare. My career experience was in technology including positions in engineering, sales and marketing. So, to get on a board in healthcare was going to be tough – I had no specific healthcare experience, I wasn’t a C-Suite executive and I was planning to retire.

I stepped up my networking game. I pushed myself to make time to meet with people that were on boards, get their advice. I developed a close group of mentors and cheerleaders (including our very own Gerri Elliott) that I trusted and knew would advocate for me. I identified six people that would be strong references should I get to be considered, ideally people already on boards. Being on a board is a long term commitment and the chemistry of the board and the management team matters. The hiring board wants to know how you will show up in their meetings – are you a strategic thinker, can you listen well. Will you be able to ask the right questions to guide the right action without getting into the operational weeds.

My first board wasn’t in the healthcare industry, but rather in retail because of a connection I made with a former CEO of a luxury retailer I had worked with and had done good work for. He had a friend, a retail CEO who was looking to refresh his board and recommended me. I met with that CEO and the other board members and was invited to join their board. I’m loving the experience and feel I’m making a difference with my experience in technology, marketing and driving transformation in a global environment. And I’ve actually gotten on a second board, in healthcare.

So, don’t give up. Make the time. Understand what you have to offer and network, network, network. We do need more women on boards and there’s no reason why that can’t be you.

My First Public Board Opportunity

My first public board opportunity came from networking. I had helped out someone who had reached out to me in the industry. He had asked me for some coaching and to headline a conference he was staging. He was trying to promote women’s development, and I like to help those who help others. So, in return, several months later, he introduced me to a few other female executives, one of whom was a CEO. We hit it off, and about a year or so later, she had an opening on her board and asked me to join. She wanted someone with my background, and she knew I needed my first board assignment. So, I would say that positive networking and people generously helping others were two themes in my board search. I guess it is karma at work!

Of course, this was after I was already “in the market”, formally, with search firms and other influencers for a couple of years. And being already known by the search firms helped, because when I came time to have a reference check, I was a known commodity. So, you never really know where the opportunities will come from.

Preparing For Board Service: One Woman’s Story

Every company will increase its focus on establishing a diverse board in the coming years. Gender diversity is one of the most visible types of board diversity, and it’s been proven many times over that there is no shortage of qualified women. While board candidates can do little to “prepare”, they can certainly take steps to ensure they’re ready when that golden board opportunity comes along.

In this episode, Evette White, board member with Delta Dental of Tennessee, discusses her journey to the corporate boardroom:

“Preparation for board service does come from a career of leadership and accountabilities. You can’t really teach that…” said White. Yet, she explains how the Corporate Board Academy (a Nashville board preparation program supported by CABLEWomen Corporate Directors, and EY) introduced her, along with several other highly qualified women, to the nuances of board interviews, director responsibilities, and corporate board dynamics.

“We were all very accomplished business people, and this put us all in a vulnerable situation,” said White. “We’re used to mentoring, and we were setting ourselves up to be mentored.”

In this episode, White talks about the preparation required to land her first board seat and outlines several best practices for other women and diverse candidates who are looking to do the same.

While a corporate board seat is certainly a higher accountability, responsibility, and liability than a volunteer board seat, those volunteer board seats—in all those years that you participate and/or lead them throughout your career—are valuable in understanding the structure and the roles that the organization plays (i.e., CEO, chairman, director).

— Evette White, Board Member, Delta Dental of Tennessee

With a slow rate of board turnover and age limits rising, qualified board candidates can’t afford to waste a valuable board interview opportunity. We hope that other metropolitan areas will take note of the program that the Corporate Board Academy has developed and continue or emulate at a local scale.

Source: Boardroom Resources LLC.