I’ve worked with and written on corporate boards for a couple of decades now, so you’d expect me to view them as a life priority, sort of the way a barber judges world leaders by their haircuts. But the matter of how well potential board duties fit in with the rest of your life responsibilities is an important aspect of boardsmanship, and one that board wannabes give too little attention.
Step back and hit yourself with a big philosophical question—why, specifically, do you want to serve on a board? “I’m at the point in my career when I can think about a board seat” is not enough. What exactly do you hope to accomplish with a board presence? Overall career growth? Added income? Teeing up a post-retirement portfolio? Giving back to business, to the community, to younger companies, and to the people who could benefit from what you’ve learned?
You may want to help shape a fast-growing organization, enjoy the prestige of participating on a board, seek the opportunity to learn a new market, or expand your professional network significantly.
Where would a board seat fit in as part of your overall career advancement plan? Are you seeking the boardroom exposure to build your prospects with your current company or to shop your skills to others? It helps (at least for the moment) to consider yourself in a seller’s market. What would tempt you to accept a board offer? Strong support of the organization’s mission? Interest in its growth prospects? Belief that being affiliated with its board will be a strong résumé booster?
All are of these are legitimate drivers for your boardroom quest, and for most of us the motivators are probably a combination of some or all of them. But be assured that, at a critical moment in your board-wannabe effort, someone will ask you this specific question, so it’s wise to be ready. Weigh and judge these factors for yourself. Write up your own personal list of motivators, and don’t worry at this point if some of them sound vague or self-serving.
Also, enter into your board search with due respect for the legal responsibilities involved. I’ll offer more detail on the workload and effort involved, but serving on a board of directors differs from any other “job” in that it is a legal trust. You don’t just shake hands in the boardroom and update your résumé when elected to a board. You take on a “fiduciary duty” to represent the interests of investors and the enterprise itself. Said duty is very well enforced, as disgruntled shareholders, corporate counsel, and regulators are eager to let you know. Although the greatest fiduciary obligations fall on the directors of publicly traded companies, private firms and nonprofits are no longer safe havens. Devote some time to studying the powers (and dangers) you assume through election to a board.
Finally, a note on the structure of this book. In producing my Boardroom INSIDER publication, a monthly feature is a Q&A column. Often these questions come from attendees at my Boardroom Masterclass programs or in counseling execs on board-readiness. Many questions involve personal onboarding campaigns, and illustrate just how much mystery still surrounds the process. I’ll present a number of these queries throughout this book, starting with what looks like an ideal kickoff question.
Q: Last year I was named divisional president for the subsidiary of a major business-to-business (B2B) marketing company. Going forward in my career, I’d like to develop some outside board-of-director opportunities. I have a strong résumé and some boardroom experience with committees of our company, joint ventures, and a nonprofit council for our industry, but realize that I still have a ways to go. What specific things should I do to make myself more “board-ready” as I proceed?
A: It’s refreshing to find a “board wannabe” who admits that he still needs to add a few arrows to his quiver. A first step, too often overlooked, is to gain more knowledge on the specific duties, liabilities, and demands involved. “It’s a complicated, risky role,” notes Patricia Lenkov, president of Agility Executive Search.
Study up on the legalities and exposures of a board member, particularly for a public company (the top level when it comes to boards). This isn’t just general background research (or an attempt to scare yourself away from the job). It instead makes you smarter on what specifically is being sought, and how you can personally fill a board’s needs.
At some point early in vetting as a board prospect, you’ll need to not just tell about yourself, but be able to ask targeted, intelligent questions on how the company’s board does its job. You’ll make the best impression if you’ve done your governance homework.
Next, what is your boardroom value proposition? This is something hidden away inside your full, professional résumé and should focus your search. “It’s very important to understand what you can bring to the board table, and what your strong suit would be on a board,” says Lenkov.
This is what movie execs pitch as a “high concept”—your short, simple, strongest value delivery. “Are you a marketing guy, M&A, finance?” asks Lenkov. “I see so many fabulous resumes, but often people don’t know where they’ll fit [on the board].” While this boardroom “high concept” handle may seem limiting in your search, it is a reality you can put to advantage by figuring out your strongest board value and then targeting it hard.
To make the boardroom sale, your résumé and references will have to tell a strong story. Yes, you held this or that title at a company that was a major player in the X industry. Now, put meat on those bones. How big was your division, how specifically did you grow revenues from Down There to Up Here, what new products did you roll out, and how hands-on were you? What tough decisions were you active in, and what was your P&L responsibility?
Related to this will be backup from your “soft references.” How well do you work as a team member with other high performers? What will references say about your emotional IQ, and how you work under pressure? Start now to get this narrative together for a “boardability” campaign.
There is plenty of good intelligence for board wannabes here, but I have no illusions about knowing everything on the topic. That’s why I also tap (and am happy to plug) good outside resources for the board hopeful.
Jill Griffin, business consultant, writer, and board member at Luby’s/Fuddruckers Restaurants, recently published the book Earn Your Seat on a Corporate Board.1 This spells out some important steps needed in an effective board campaign, from gauging board-readiness to vetting a potential board offer, and is well worth adding to any board-wannabe library. However, to save you some reading time, I culled a few insights through an interview with the author:
- “Gaining a board seat differs from gaining a new job because you don’t just go out and apply for a board. That means building your personal brand into someone a board will find attractive. It’s not just establishing your expertise, but building visibility and recognition. That’s what’s so valuable with resources like LinkedIn.”
- “The first thing to think about is to really understand your skills. What kind of companies would value you on their board? Work by industry, but look at ‘adjacent’ industries to help deal with noncompete and conflict issues. For example, I know a woman who worked with Continental Airlines. She got a board seat with a helicopter company—her skills put her on their radar screen, but they weren’t a direct competitor.”
- “It’s easier than you think to look up information on public companies. Even smaller companies have public filings, and you can research their annual reports to find out the ages and skills of their current board members. But it’s a meticulous process—this is a long path, and you have to persevere.”
- “When networking, try to find out where company directors are, and that includes online. It’s not hard to put a person’s name in a search box and find out who’s who, and who they serve on a board with.”
- “Yes, nonprofit boards are a good starter, but look carefully at who else is on that nonprofit board. Who’s sitting at that table with you, and can they help sponsor you onto a corporate board? Also [for nonprofits], the closer you can work with the organization’s CEO, the better, and if you can get involved with the financial end of the board, like a finance or audit committee, that’s a power piece for your corporate board search—a real stepping stone.”
Board-Seeker Action Items
- List your top five “boardability” assets you can bring to a board.
- What do you view as the top three specific benefits serving on a board could add to your career?
- What do you view as your three biggest deficits in pursuing a board seat?
- Name the top five companies on your current board “wish list.”
- For these companies, do you know the names of their current board members?