It’s time to move beyond the initial go/no-go calls into actual mentoring for your board-wannabe campaign. Although mentoring is important in executive career advancement, it’s even more crucial for the board acolyte. Given how mysterious and subjective board recruiting is, an effective campaign starts by identifying a mentor already among the elect who can guide you on the path.
Q: Last year, I was promoted to a senior VP level in my company. I’ve built a 20-year career with experience in acquisitions, integration of companies, capital funding, and managing joint ventures. Now, I’d like to seek some outside board roles. I’ve followed your advice for “board wannabes,” and gained some good tips. There’s one area that I’m not sure on, though, and I believe it will be important in my effort. I’ve made good use of mentors in my career, and they’re proven valuable. What qualities should I look for in a specific “boardroom mentor,” and how should I make best use of these insights?
A: Chances are, you already know some excellent boardroom mentors in your company and networking circles—now it’s a matter of making the connection. “Mentors will pop up,” says Paul MacDonald, a senior executive director with Robert Half. “It’s a matter of finding the individual who’s been on boards that cover your area of interest.” Start out by reviewing your networks for people who have overall boardroom seasoning, and who have served on boards in differing sectors, bringing a variety of experience.
Lois Zachary, who heads the Leadership Development Services firm, suggests some of the basic qualifiers you’ve already found useful in career mentors—“someone who is in your geographic area and accessible, and may have time to share.” Engage them on their advice regarding boards, such as how candidates are identified, qualities sought, the duties involved, and how to handle yourself in meetings. This is also a good moment to inquire about specific board committee demands.
You’ll find board members, especially those with long vitae in the boardroom, love to spin advice and “how we did it” tales, but pin them down for specific advice you can put to work. Share your background, and ask which skills and achievements make you particularly “boardable.” Furthermore, solicit feedback on the areas of your board vitae that require beefing up.
You’ll want more than one board mentor, and phase two gets you into specifics. What companies and sectors should you target in your boardroom campaign? Your capital funding skill, for example, could be of great value to young venture companies. Make connections with VC firm partners and discuss your board interest with them—not only will they know the sector’s board needs, they could well be seeking just your expertise.
A good mentor for the board seeker is vital, then, but you need to shop wisely for such talent. What should a good mentor do—and not do?
A good mentor . . . clears up boardroom mysteries. “The whole process of how people join boards is murky and mysterious,” says Jill Griffin, author of the recent book Earn Your Seat on a Corporate Board. She was lucky to gain retired U.S. Air Force General Robert Herres as a mentor while he chaired the board of military insurer USAA. “I leaned on him heavily.”
Griffin, who now serves on the board of Luby’s/Fuddruckers, learned from Herres the value of going through the “chain of command” on a board—bringing business first to board committees. Herres also taught Griffin how boards weigh and value the “fit” of a new prospect, and the need to learn how a particular board gauges this subjective (but crucial) quality. A good mentor can not only clarify your uncertainties on how boards function, but tip you to factors you don’t even know enough to ask about.
- A good mentor . . . gives you insight on networking. “One thing I hear from [board] mentees is that they thought their own networks would prove stronger,” says Melissa Henderson, whose Summit Executive Resources firms helps both boards seeking candidates and candidates seeking boards. “They assume that working their networks to get on a board would convert to results more quickly, but instead they just hear ‘I’ll keep you in mind.’” Your boardroom mentor should clue you in on how much effort, serendipity, and chance go into forging the links needed to bring you into a boardroom, and give you a needed reality check. “You may start a conversation today and, eight months later, find yourself on a board.”
- A good mentor . . . brings fresh experience. You might think a graybeard director, who’s served on many boards for years, is the ideal Yoda for guiding your board efforts. Maybe not. The “secret society” aspect of tapping good old boys for boards is shifting to a more open, fast-moving, diverse model. An old-school director may “know the old ways, but not be up to date on what works now,” warns Henderson, and may have forgotten just how hard a slog it can be. The best mentor for younger wannabes is the person just ahead of you in their onboarding efforts, with a few recent board seats, and current “muscle memory” on how to do it (another plus for making your boss an active mentor).
- A good mentor . . . has time (and makes time). “A mentor should be realistic about what they can contribute,” says Henderson. “There’s a lot of coaching and critiquing involved to help you extract what’s best, and that takes time.” Related to this is access. If the best a board mentor can offer is 10 minutes on the phone sometime next week, you need a better mentor. (Note that this also puts a burden on you to respect your mentor’s time, and use every minute wisely.)
Although you’re seeking a personal mentor for your path into the boardroom, smart companies also make use of their own boards’ experience, connections, and business savvy to nurture their rising executives. They draft these seasoned folks in the boardroom to mentor hi-pots in their career development—and that includes boardroom protocol.
Some global corporations, including Deere Inc. and Frontier Communications, either formally or informally assign members of the board to mentor execs on the governance skills they’ll need to lead the corporation down the road. Given the vitae of many board members (current or retired CEOs, C-suite execs, venture firm partners), future leaders can gain first-hand advice that no MBA program (or their own individual mentors) could offer.
Frontier Communications has one of America’s most advanced board mentoring plans. I spoke with Kathleen Abernathy, Frontier’s chief regulatory officer (and an experienced director herself), on what the company has learned in making mentoring from the boardroom work.
- “This started as the brainchild of our CEO, Maggie Wilderotter. She’s been an avid mentor and mentee throughout her career, and in 2006, she proposed to our board that it would be mutually beneficial to assign mentors. It provides a venue for sharing the expertise of the directors’ expertise and knowledge base.”
- How it works. “An executive is assigned to a board member to be mentored, usually for a two- or three-year period. They’re paired based on how mentoring can most benefit the leaders of the company, and the board member’s biggest areas of interest and expertise. It’s part of an overall mentoring system here—board members obviously can’t mentor everybody, so we look at who [in management] is making the biggest decisions.”
- Examples? “For my own mentoring experience, my previous background was in regulatory and legal issues, but not so heavily in private sector and corporate development matters. I had the opportunity to work with a board member who increased my knowledge of how companies work and think, how they interact with private investment, and how they’re viewed on the Street. It was a great way to learn about how to make important corporate decisions.”
- Advice for boards weighing a mentoring program. “I’ve found that you really need a CEO who embraces the idea. People get very busy, and they need to know that this is an important part of the corporate culture, one that they need to make time for. It’s very valuable, but would be difficult to maintain without buy-in from the top.”
Board-Seeker Action Items
- Ask if your supervisor is willing to give mentoring support to you, or introduce you to members of her network who could.
- Review your earlier list of company contacts with board experience. Consider any who would be willing to discuss your board goals with you, and seek their input.
- List at least five things you most need a board mentor to provide (current board connections, recent onboarding experience, etc.).
- Review your wider personal networks for board experience and contacts. Consider which of these would be willing and able to provide mentoring advice.
- What professional or nonprofit groups or associations are you currently active in? Have you considered your contacts in these for potential board mentors?