Own that Coveted Board Seat

Joining a corporate board is a key to advancement—and leveling the gender playing field. Here’s how to prepare.

Carolyn M. Brown

Shellye Archambeau, former CEO of MetricStream, which provides government, risk, and compliance solutions to corporations, is a member of three corporate boards, including Verizon. She says serving on a board provides “great personal and professional growth.”

At some point in your career, you may want to serve on a corporate board. Archambeau explains that there are two ways people are selected: either they’re tapped by a global executive search firm, such as Boyden or Spencer Stuart, which is hired to compile a list of candidates for consideration, or they’re recommended for a board seat by a sitting board member. In both cases, the person must then be approved by the shareholders.

Being recommended in the first place depends on your desirability as a candidate. Thus, knowing how to prepare for a board position and how to position yourself in the best light possible can go a long way in helping you achieve your goal.

How to prepare

Archambeau has held executive positions at several companies. She knew that she wanted to serve on boards and help other companies, especially entrepreneurs, in the “phase two” plan of her career, so she set out to get board experience while leading MetricStream. “It would help me be a better CEO because I’d see how other companies were run, but I would also have a track record of serving on a board,” she says.

Archambeau says she “proactively treated getting her first board position as if she were looking for a job.” She focused on three steps: trying to identify and meet the relevant people in companies who recruited for boards; conducting research to understand key skills that boards were recruiting for at the time, and matching her abilities to those skills; determining the areas she wanted to stress and articulating how she could add value.

Her efforts were successful. While still at MetricStream, Archambeau was recruited by Spencer Stuart for her first board position, at consumer research company Arbitron, since acquired by Nielsen.

Marilyn Nagel, former chief diversity officer at Cisco and founder of Ready-Aim-Aspire, which helps women attain leadership positions, speaks to groups on “board access.” She recommends starting this work early, as Archambeau did—at least two years before you hope to serve. Ralph Ward, publisher of Boardroom Insider newsletter and editor of The Corporate Board magazine, suggests that during this time you develop a “board résumé,” an appendix to your regular executive résumé that expands upon your regular one by stating the types of skills and accomplishments a board would be looking for.

Ways to position yourself

Nagel is on several corporate advisory boards and is also a partner in Boardwise, an organization that helps women position themselves for board roles. “There are even certifications offered, which are nice qualifications for women to bring to a board,” she says. Companies like WomenCorporateDirectors, LeadWomen, and Watermark also have programs for aspiring board members.

Networking, a staple of getting ahead in business, is just as important when positioning yourself for a corporate board position, Ward advises. “If you volunteer for a board of a nonprofit, then someone on that board may be a major executive at company x and serve on the board of company. They get to know you and see how you work. That gives you a natural opportunity to say, ‘I’m interested in expanding my board opportunities. Here’s what I’m good at. How would I go about doing this?’” he says.

“Now you’ve planted a seed in the person’s mind. Maybe in a month, or six months later, that person’s board is going to be looking for someone, and they want to increase their diversity. The lightbulb goes on and they contact you. Recruiters call executives from time to time about job openings, which also gives you the opportunity to say you’re looking for a board position,” Ward adds.

Donna Hamlin, founder of Boardwise and a member of two corporate boards, has these suggestions for positioning yourself.

1. Distinguish yourself based on what board style of thinking you bring. There are five key styles, and it helps to differentiate yourself based on yours: challenger, creative, advisor expert, unifier, and statesperson. Knowing your style positions you regarding your approach to problem solving and highlights the diversity of thought you bring to the table.

2. Be clear about which committee is best for you or is your preferred and why.

3. When networking, narrow your focus to the highest and best use of your talents: the industry, business size and stage, and strategic plan that are best for your experience.

That coveted P&L experience

Boards usually want candidates with profit and loss experience, but what can you do if you don’t have it? Nagel suggests that you look for a rotation in your company that can provide it. Or, if you achieve a board position with your current experience, try to serve on an audit committee, which will position you to be considered for another board.

“Getting to a level where you’re helping to build a company, division, or product line is important in gaining profit and loss experience, but that’s usually a small part of career planning, so what usually gets you on a board is a by-product of what got you to your current point in your career,” Ward notes. He reiterates that a board résumé can help if you make sure you tell a story: “while at company x, rolled out new profit line,” or “revenue rose from x to y while I led the group,” and statements like that.

You might also join a local or regional chapter of a major national nonprofit or a major “cause-related” association such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association and lobby to get profit and loss experience there. Economic development groups at the local, state, or regional level are valuable as well, he offers.

Nagel has found that boards are becoming less strict today about this experience, however. They’re “starting to recognize that it’s an arbitrary guideline that no longer makes sense,” especially since companies are looking for people who have insight into different areas, she says. For example, usually a person with legal or HR experience doesn’t have profit and loss experience, but if the board is looking for someone with legal or HR experience, is it going to skip someone who’s top-notch in her area because she doesn’t have profit and loss experience? She thinks not.

Legislating board diversity

Legislation passed in California in September 2018 requiring public companies to include women on their board is groundbreaking—and not without controversy. Legal challenges are expected, and opinions vary about the effectiveness and wisdom of trying to legislate board diversity.

Archambeau flat out says she doesn’t like those kinds of laws. What about ethnic and international diversity? she asks. “If I have six board members, do I need to make sure I have one seat for a Hispanic and one for an African American? If I have 10 seats, do I need one for a Native American?” She thinks it’s a slippery slope and prefers to lobby “for shining a spotlight where things aren’t operating the way they should.” Investors are now saying, “Here’s what we expect,” which causes people to act properly, she says.

Ward predicts that the California law is going to have more repercussions than direct influence because, relative to the entire state, only a small number of California companies are out of compliance. However, he says, “it’s going to prod other states to act.” He also has concerns about the law. For example, if your corporation is in California but is chartered in Delaware, what will that mean in terms of compliance?

At the same time, he notes the difficulty women have when networking to obtain a board seat. He’s found they start two steps behind men. “Men tend to choose others who look like them, and too often the board can end up with another ‘pale male,’” he observes.

The path to a board seat involves effort, but achieving the goal can be well worth it. Some board positions pay very well, and can lead to seats on other boards, as happened with Archambeau. Board members have also been tapped for the CEO position at that company when it opens up, or the top position at other companies. DW

Carolyn M. Brown is an award-winning journalist, author, and playwright. She co-authored the career self-help book Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life.

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