Enter any corporate board room across the country, and you’ll be confronted with a similar scene: Men. Lots of them, the overwhelmingly majority of them white.
And if you do see a woman or two — females held under 18 percent of board seats at the companies that went public this year — it’s very likely that this is not their first rodeo as a director. Almost a quarter of the women serving as board members at major companies serve on three or more boards, according to a report last year.
“Boards want people who’ve been there, done that,” said Alexander Lowry, host of “Boardroom Bound,” a podcast for newbie directors. “They want people with C-suite experience who know how to guide an organization.”
The good news is that more women are getting appointed to boards than ever before: 42 percent of new board seats at Russell 3000 companies went to women last year, according to the nonprofit Women Corporate Directors. And, former eBay president Lorrie Norrington — who serves on the boards of Colgate Palmolive, Autodesk and HubSpot, among others — recently said that board positions are finally becoming more available to younger people, saying that many organizations are looking to “get somebody that’s an up-and-comer.”
Obviously, breaking into the corporate board scene as a first-timer female is no easy business, but there are ways to set yourself up for a better crack at it while we wait for more institutionalized regulations — like California’s law banning all-male boards — to help make board rooms more gender equal. Here are some of the ways to get the experience corporate boards look for:
Get friendly with fundraising and financials. “Seek out voluntary or trustee positions within charities close to your heart as this can provide an excellent training ground for your first corporate board level gig,” said Zaid Gulraiz, a senior researcher with executive recruiter Berwick Partners. And, whether it’s at your own firm or another organization or even your side hustle, make sure you understand how a P&L works and can do a proper assessment of an organization’s financial position. “Build financial or audit skills to fill a gap in committees on the board,” said Lisa Walker, a managing partner at executive search firm DHR International, adding that these are typically challenging roles to fill.
Promote yourself as a thought leader. Specific expertise in your market segment is key, and you have it, you’re just not showing it off. It’s time to lean into your personal brand! Examples could be posting a Medium piece related to your field, participating in mentorship programs, doing trade association talks and penning op-eds on a relevant subject. “Boards look for depth of expertise in a functional area relevant to their business,” Walker said.
Network, network, network. “Breaking through the barriers to entry at the board level can be difficult,” said Melissa Flanagan, COO for chemical manufacturer Prince International Corporation. “The best way to mitigate this, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is to build your professional network. Every meeting, every business trip, every day at the office is a chance to network and build up your circle.” Flanagan said that’s how she scored her board position at the Association of Supply Chain Management. And, of course, there’s LinkedIn — do not be shy about it. Message someone in a company you admire about something they did that impressed you. Ask them if they have time for a cup of coffee. There are also networking organizations exclusively for women like Chief that are definitely worth checking out.
Spread the word. Make sure everyone in your network knows you’re looking to be a corporate director and ask them to spread the news. “You might be the best candidate, but if no one knows you want a seat at the board table, then you probably won’t be thought of, so you need to share your desire,” said “Boardroom Bound” host Lowry.
Contact executive search firms. There are executive search firms — as well as nonprofits — who specialize in placing women in corporate director roles. Check out Ellig Group, Spencer Stuart and the Forté Foundation, for starters. If you know anyone at recruiting firms, tap those contacts for advice and introductions. And, reach out to the HR division of your company and let them know you’re looking for a directorship — they might have connections to offer up.
Educate yourself. Former eBay president Norrington suggests taking a certification course from the National Association of Corporate Directors or Harvard Business School. The nonprofit Women Corporate Directors also has a program called Board Next for executives looking for their first board opportunity. Speaking at a conference recently, Norrington stressed the importance of developing a strong understanding of the role that boards play in a company and the legal obligations of a director. And, those courses are terrific for developing your network, too. Be warned: The programs are pricey and selective with applicants.
Write and rewrite (and rewrite) your board bio. You’ll need to put together a “board bio,” which essentially highlights the greatest hits of your career while focusing in on what makes you uniquely qualified to serve on a board, whether it’s accounting experience that positions you well for the audit committee or human resources work that would benefit the compensation committee. Remember, boards are looking for proven operators to join their team and your experience in that respect should shine through in your board bio. It’s also very important to angle your bio for the specific company you’re approaching, according to Norrington. She suggests having both a short bio (a half-page or so) and a long bio (one page) as companies vary in their preferences. It’s important to note that a board bio is not the same as a resume — it’s your story, not a list of positions you’ve held. Read what The Boardlist has to say on the subject. If you can spend the money, it might be worth getting a consultant to help you out.
Make sure you’re targeting an organization you like. Board work is hard work — you might have anywhere from 150 to 800 pages to read to prep for a board meeting — and you should feel passionately about both the company you want to be a director for and its CEO. Norrington said a good litmus test is whether you’d want to have dinner with the chief exec or see them on a Saturday. “If your spidey sense tells you that this is not a person you want to spend a lot of time with, don’t do it,” she said. Former board members are usually the best sources for intel on a board’s dynamics, so reach out to them on LinkedIn and set up a Zoom.
Start with a nonprofit or a startup. Board seats at small-to-medium nonprofits and startups are easier to get. If you’re lucky, you can specify the function you want to serve so it aligns with whatever committee you’re aiming to join as a corporate director. Tracy Warren, co-founder and CEO of medtech company Astarte Medical, started out as a board observer at a startup. “An observer role allowed me to learn the role of directors without the liability and responsibility,” Warren said.
With additional reporting by Boss Betty staff. This is an update to an article that first ran in July 2019.
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