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.