A large part of your board journey requires getting board-ready. You will likely spend just as much time strategizing and improving yourself as a candidate and identifying your target as you spend pursuing and interviewing for specific positions.
This chapter outlines the process of getting board-ready, from developing key skills to identifying board positions. Specifically, it will discuss what to consider before deciding to serve on a board, how to choose the right board, how to position yourself to better your chances of being asked to serve on a board, specific steps to take throughout your career to become board-ready, what characteristics, attributes, and skills to develop, and how to start building important relationships early.
What to Consider before Deciding to Serve on a Board?
Historically, board service has been a part-time commitment for retired executives. However, this is changing. Boards are increasingly becoming open-minded about who they consider. Some boards are also rethinking their expectations from their directors.
To join a board, you need to be sure that your skills, experience, knowledge, and expectations are aligned with the company’s expectations and requirements. Moreover, before finalizing your corporate board position you must know the board position in depth, and what it means to be a successful director. The questions below are useful to consider as you contemplate your board journey.
- What and how valuable is your knowledge, expertise, experience, and time?
How valuable is your time and expertise for various boards? Where do you add the most value? How valuable is your knowledge, experience, network, and dedication? Which of these personal aspects may be attractive and to whom? How to identify your value proposition is further discussed in the next chapter.
Use these factors to crystallize the value you bring to a board. Why is this characteristic valuable to a company? How valuable is it? Be very selective with how you use your time and expertise.
- What kind of company can you benefit with your knowledge, expertise, experience, and time?
Once you identify the unique value that you can bring to a board (further discussed in the next chapter), it is useful to zero in on what kind of company would most benefit from your value proposition. Maybe you are well trained and knowledgeable about the textile and fashion industries, with a decade of operational experience in consumer athletic wear. If so, be prepared to research, identify, network, and approach companies and their stakeholders who may benefit from this value. If you are an experienced IT specialist for both the legal industry and business-to-business data companies, then you must figure out what kinds of businesses as well as which specific businesses will find your insights valuable.
- Why do you want to serve on a board of directors?
As with any undertaking, it is worth understanding your motivations and requirements. What follows is a list of questions that you should consider asking yourself.
- Why do I want to serve on a board?
- What motivates and inspires me?
- What industries am I passionate about?
- What new skills do I want to learn?
- Do I want to hone my existing skills?
- How will I make a difference?
- How will this decision benefit my career or life goals?
- What is my lifestyle, and how does corporate board service fit into it?
To decide whether you want to serve on a board, consider clearly understanding and articulating the value you bring to a board, who can benefit from it, and why you want to serve. You can focus on how to join a board only after you define your goals, your value proposition, and organization that is right for you.
It is important to determine the right boards for you. Otherwise, you may be wasting your valuable talent and time aimlessly applying and networking. Consider the steps below:
Inventory and Understand Your Skill Set
To select the right boards, you must first inventory and understand your skills. What is your knowledge, education, expertise, experience, and skills? Take time to reflect on your accomplishments, achievements, work history, education, businesses, and other milestones to make sure your list is complete. Then you can spend time identifying your most relevant board-related skills and matrix those that best communicate your value.
Figure Out Who May Want Your Skill Set
Spend time matching your skills, with both general industries and specific companies and individuals. Is your knowledge, education, expertise, experience, and skills a better match for private boards, advisory boards, nonprofits, or public company boards? Once you have an idea of where your skills match up, you can start considering the right board for you.
Articulate Your Skill Set
By joining a board of directors, you must be able to add value to the company. The process of identifying and articulating the value you bring may take time. Here are some examples of what you may bring to the board:
- Technology and risk mitigation for a consumer electronics company
- Nurturing new talent and managing talent across the globe
- Finance and operation experience for food manufacturing companies
- Sales or marketing experience and expertise for software as a service companies
- Global commerce, export, and import experience for gas and petroleum companies
If you have transferable skills you can also consider serving on a board in a different industry to prove your skills across industries.
It is important to consider all industries where your experience, expertise, and network may be relevant. For example, if you have cybersecurity expertise, do not just think of your industry or the security industry, as virtually most large companies regardless of the industry are currently focused on protection of their data. Change your mindset and become versatile for corporate board positions.
Diversify Your Interests
Be more specific about what you are looking for in terms of the type of company, responsibilities, compensation, and board experience. In the end, there is no objectively perfect board position, just as there are no objectively perfect directors. Nonetheless, there are directors who are perfect for specific board opportunities. By being specific about what exactly you are looking for, you may realize that the best opportunity for you is one that you have not considered before.
Appendix A provides an Identify Your Target Board Opportunity worksheet, which can be used to identify the right board-service opportunities for you.
Generally, What Are the Steps to Become a Director?
Becoming a director is a matter of strategy, time, research, and patience, with skill and culture matching to a company and their board. To fulfill your goal to become a director, at a high level, you must follow these steps:
- Define and articulate your board profile and elevator pitch
You need to be able to articulate the value that you will bring to a board in a written board profile and elevator pitch that you deliver verbally. Because your board profile and elevator pitch are relatively short, you must be very selective in what you include and exclude. Some people start with a board resume/CV and board biography and then reduce them to a few sentences that capture their value proposition. I recommend starting with a clear written board profile and then use your board biography and resume/CV to expand it and add more color. Nancy Sheppard, who contributed and edited this book, recommends starting with the resume/CV, then board biography, and then narrow down to the pitch by highlighting first the three to five key accomplishments that are board-worthy. Of course, once you have your board elevator pitch, practice delivering it! Delivering your board elevator pitch out loud can help you to deliver it more confidently and identify any changes that you need to make to perfect it over time.
Appendix D features many sample board profiles that you can use to start drafting your own board profile.
- Create your board resume/CV and board biography
Based on your profile develop your board biography and board resume/CV. These documents showcase your value by highlighting the skills, experience, and knowledge that you will bring to the board. In sum, these documents communicate the same information, just with a different level of details and slightly different format.
Appendix E features many sample board biographies. Use these as an inspiration.
- Network intentionally
Many board opportunities come through word of mouth and referrals. They are rarely advertised! Networking is extremely important to becoming a director. Start networking as soon as you identify the value you bring to a board, and target companies and industries where what you bring would be of great value.
It is prudent to aim to meet directors, chief executive officers (CEOs), chairpersons, and other professionals related to boards such as attorneys, accountants, consultants, cybersecurity experts, and numerous others. Do not be afraid to be bold and share your goal of joining a board. Be clear about what type of board you want to join and what your skills are! Remember most people are not mind readers!
Of course, you should be professional and diplomatic when you deliver your elevator pitch, which will summarize the value that you would bring to a board. Assure them about your value, skills, expertise, and experience. Ask them what they have seen on various boards and about the needs of those boards. Then ask them what they can do to help you serve on a corporate board or if they can introduce you to those who already serve on or work with corporate boards.
It is important to be clear and specific. Ask to be introduced to the companies that you think match with your value. Also ask them to introduce you to CEOs, chairpersons, board members, and other relevant board-connected professionals at your target companies.
- Select a mentor and advocate
Seek out a trusted person from your network, preferably one who serves on or is connected to a board. This person may share their ideas, advice, experiences, introductions, and knowledge. Sometimes this person may be at your current job, such as the CEO of your company. Others, however, may find it easier to have a mentor outside of their current organization.
- Consider joining a nonprofit board or advisory board
Consider serving on nonprofit board or advisory board that you are passionate about before pursuing a corporate board position. This can help you gain hands-on experience, showcase your talents and expertise, learn corporate governance, determine whether you enjoy board service, and network. It can be a (relatively) low-commitment way to test-drive being a director. Of course, make sure that you are truly passionate about the organization you are joining. That is a must for any board position! However, joining a nonprofit board does not make you corporate board-ready, unless you have the skills and leadership experiences needed. It can be a great place to network with board influencers who then may recommend you to a for-profit board because they see how you “show up” in a board environment.
What to Do Now to Become Board-Ready?
Serving on a corporate board is a challenging journey for everyone. You will need lots of patience and planning to start. Take the time to be strategic. Serving on a board can be a huge challenge with great responsibilities. Even extremely talented, qualified, and experienced professionals often struggle to secure a board position, especially the first one.
Some Steps That You Can Take Now to Reach Your Board Dream Sooner
- Give your 100 percent to your “day job” and always do your best. In the end, you want to be the best business and profit and loss (P&L) operator that you can be, and have your skills and accomplishments recognized. P&L is covered more in depth later in this chapter. To make yourself board-ready, you need to achieve some significant success measures in your career. So the very best way to get a board position is to focus on accomplishing and succeeding in your own career.
- Relevant operational and leadership experience related to the value that you would bring to a board is necessary to serve on a corporate board of directors. Seek out opportunities to gain this experience in your current position.
- Being an expert in your industry may improve your visibility and reputation, which may be helpful in your board search.
- Start small to achieve something big. Consider starting with a nonprofit or advisory board to gain experience, expertise, exposure, and connections.
- Be clear about your motivation, values, skills as well as your reasons for serving on a corporate board.
- Become known as a thought leader by writing and speaking on a few key topics that are important to the success of a company.
- Develop and keep an external networking and visibility focus. Make the time even if you have a very busy job. Too many people keep their heads down with internal duties for too long in their careers.
- Use opportunities to be involved in board activities and board meetings at your company.
- Keep in touch with professionals in your target industries, especially those who are considered experts and those who serve on boards. Most board positions are filled through a network.
- Do your research and understand governance responsibilities by reading, doing webinars, and educational programs. A director has considerable obligations and responsibilities. Make sure you understand how the boardroom works, what the law requires of directors, and where directors can get timely advice.
Questions You Should Be Able to Answer If You Are Ready to Serve on a Corporate Board
- How much experience do you have as a senior executive leader in any private, public, or nonprofit sector? A minimum of 10 to 15 years is a good place to start.
- Are you ready to work a minimum of 200 to 300 hours every year as a director, in addition to your existing obligations?
- Will you get the support of your current company’s senior executives or directors for your new role and time commitment needed?
- Are there company policies that will prohibit you from serving on a corporate board of directors?
- At a minimum, are you comfortable and experienced in understanding and navigating a boardroom?
- Do you have your professional governance designation or certification (Chartered Director (C.Dir) or Institute of Corporate Directors, Director (ICD.D)) from a corporate director organization, institute, or college? These are more essential if you seek a public company board.
- Do you have any nonprofit or for-profit board-service experience in a director, observer, or board presenter or assistant capacity?
- Can you work as part of a team by understanding the board’s dynamics and by creating and following good governance?
- What do you know about the liability, responsibilities, and functions of a director? Do you understand the risks of serving on a board of directors? Are you familiar with ways to mitigate these risks?
- Do you have the capability to maintain separation between a management role and the role of a director? Will you be comfortable with determining high level strategy and letting the executives and senior managers run the company’s daily business?
- Do you have the skills to at least proficiently understand and read financial statements regularly?
- Are you ready to take responsibility for the critical areas of a company? Can you solve these issues with your prior experience such as digital media, risk management, mergers and acquisitions (M&A), international markets, cybersecurity, and long data?
What Are the Characteristics and Attributes of an Ideal Director?
A successful and compelling director requires powerful, effective, and collaborative individuals. Here are some of the key attributes of good directors:
Directors should work for a cause, industry, or organization that they are passionate about. This way they will be truly connected with the general mission and enjoy their board service more.
Having the specific knowledge, experience, expertise, and skills that are valued by your target companies is the best way to be considered for board positions and enjoy your board service.
Many professionals will consent to serve as a director without acknowledging the time commitment that it will require. Besides standard meetings, there may be additional requirements to assume the responsibility of other tasks. Therefore, it is important to be clear about expectations and time commitments.
Directors must be proactive and not wait for issues to come to them. Board service requires individuals who can remain in front of the industry, their field, and their company’s problems, rather than continually being in a responsive and passive state.
- Toughness and collegiality
Directors must be prepared to go up against difficult and complex issues, and go the extra miles through clashes. At the same time, they should be conscious and inspire cooperation. Being able to balance these skills and seemingly conflicting values is an art worth perfecting. Be open to healthy disagreements with others, but also be able to eventually accomplish resolutions and keep a working relationship and connection in place.
- Highest level integrity, good judgment, and confidentiality
A high level of integrity and a track record of good judgment are paramount for a corporate director. After all, the directors must make very important decisions, lead high-profile companies, instill investor confidence, and help companies through transitions and important milestone events. Many board decisions and discussions are confidential and may not be shared outside of the boardroom.
- Strategic thinking
Directors lead the company’s strategy, which gives quantifiable objectives and goals for the company. The director role is very separated from the role of daily management. It is important that directors are comfortable and proficient with setting and keeping an eye on a strategy.
Effective directors get their work done. They go to meetings educated and prepared to examine concerns and issues. They take the time to review and understand all important documents to administer effective strategies and objectives.
- Enthusiasm for learning and service
The most effective directors are always ready to learn, cooperate, ask tough questions, and ultimately lead. They are driven and enthusiastic about serving others.
Directors must understand the goal and mission of the company. They are acutely aware of where the company has been, where it is going, and how it will get there.
- Eye for diversity
A good board incorporates and includes individuals from different fields and backgrounds, with diverse experiences, expertise, and knowledge, to guarantee that the organization is well rounded in its qualities and strengths.
To join a board, you need to identify your unique skills, experiences, knowledge, and achievements. The goal is to become more adept at precisely defining your specific skills that is desirable. What follows are a few ways to get there.
- Passion for a company, its mission, products, services, and industry
As a director, you must be passionate about your company and its mission, products, services, and industry. You must know all the important stakeholders and have good working relationships with them. Heavily research the company and get to know its key players and stakeholders. Aim to make deep connections so you can develop a true passion for all aspects of the company. This is required for all directors, whether be it for public or private companies. Passion creates a drive to succeed and overcome all obstacles.
- Effective decision maker
Decision making is paramount for a director. A director must be comfortable educating herself about complex subject matters where she has little or no expertise, making decisions by bringing consensus, and coming to quick and accurate decisions in a crisis. Fumbling or getting confused is not an option. Working in different situations and organizations will provide you with a strong foundation to make decisions by consensus, and stay coolheaded, even in a complex situation where you are not an expert.
- Innovative thought leadership
Boards set long-term strategy and are responsible for the long-term success of an organization. To this end, it is important to adjust to changes in the economy, foresee technological shifts, spot trends in your customers’ tastes and preferences, and engage in out-of-the-box thinking in a strategic, calculated, and intentional way. Being open-minded and enriching directors with your innovative ideas is essential for serving a company.
- Staying active in your field and industry
Action is part of your board service. While director positions tend to be part-time positions, it does not mean that they are part-time commitments. In fact, joining a board is a commitment to full-time, lifetime learning. Whatever the value you bring to the board, you must commit to further developing, refining, and upgrading these skills. Moreover, to set a long-term strategy for your company you will need to understand and be involved in your company’s industry and know key industry stakeholders. In other words, joining a board involves a sizable commitment in and out of the boardroom.
- Long-term strategic thinking
Directors provide the strategic long-term vision for the company, normally to maximize the returns for their shareholders (true for public companies). To this end, you may be making decisions that affect financial strategy, management strategy, technology strategy, innovation strategy, expansion strategy, and many other key decisions. Practice thinking in the long term and understanding how different areas of a company interact. This can involve research, networking, and expanding your current position’s responsibilities.
- Impeccable judgment, wisdom, and integrity
Boards are generally looking for people who not only have enough experience but are also known for their impeccable judgment, wisdom, and integrity. After all, the board sets long-term strategy for the company, leads all stakeholders, and inspires confidence in investors, government officials, and many other important players. Therefore, impeccable judgment, wisdom, and integrity are paramount. Ensure that your reputation in this regard is flawless. If you are still in the beginning of your career, keeping this in mind can be especially useful.
- Diverse and relevant skills and expertise
Most decisions to fill a board are at least partially driven by skills that a board may need given where the company is and where it is going. Therefore, it is very important to understand and articulate what skills and expertise you have. Make sure that you develop a diverse array of skills to increase the chances that you are the “missing piece” a board is looking for. Also practice articulating your skills in flexible ways that show your value to a board. There is a difference between saying “I have legal experience” or “I am a lawyer,” and “I am skilled at constructive risk analysis.”
- Interpersonal skills and collaborative personality
Communicating and establishing a relationship with the other directors is a vital skill for a director to be effective and efficient. This is especially important for relatively large boards because the decision-making process may already be slow and frustrating. Therefore, building coalitions, active listening, and choosing your battles wisely are crucial skills for any corporate board of directors.
How to Identify and Address the Missing Skills for Board Service?
Relevant skills are crucial for you to become a director. You need to be acutely aware of the skills and experience that you bring, as well as the skills and experiences that you do not have or have not fully developed. Here are some tips to identify and fill in missing skills:
- Lead with you your core skills, experience, and knowledge
It is important to design your corporate board biography and resume in a way that highlights your core experience, expertise, and skills which are valuable at the board level. The aim is that you join the board based on your core competencies and that the bulk of the interview process is spent in those areas. Practice discussing your skills, experience, and knowledge in measurable and specific ways to make a compelling case that you are the ideal director for the company that you are targeting.
- Research and identify the skills, experience, and knowledge of the similarly situated current directors
Consider what skills, experiences, and knowledge the current similarly situated directors bring to the company that you are either targeting or are like the one that you are targeting. What critical skills, experiences, and knowledge are you missing? Can you fill these missing attributes?
Focus on highlighting the skills, experience, and knowledge that are missing yet necessary that you can gain from being in the current target board.
To answer all these questions, you will need to do extensive research. For example, besides researching your target company and its specific needs and stakeholders, consider also researching the skills that the corporate board looks for when appointing a new director. Look for trends for director recruiting in similarly situated companies and see how you can help your target company.
- Fill your experience gap
You will have to be honest with yourself and identify the skills that you are missing. If you are still a few years away from applying for your first board position, consider taking strategic assignments or job positions to develop these skills. If you are already pursuing board positions, ask yourself whether you can get up to speed through education, reading, research, or interviewing colleagues that may have the skill that you are looking for. Also, consider highlighting the value and skills, experience, and knowledge that you have instead of what you are missing.
- Highlight your unique skills, experience, and knowledge that are valued across industries, geographies, and companies
Certain skills, experience, and knowledge are universally sought after across industries, geographies, and companies by all types of boards. Some examples are experience entering new markets, managing financials, targeting new demographics, leading through difficulties and transitions, expertise in understanding and dealing with regulators, taking a company public, structuring M&A, facilitating post-merger integrations, leading global expansion, orchestrating a digital transformation, launching emerging and disruptive technologies, managing risks, having foreign language skills, and changing company culture. Consider emphasizing on these skills and experiences on your board resume and board biography.
What Factors Are Considered in the Selection of Directors?
The following categories of factors are considered when prospective directors are evaluated:
- Experiential attributes, such as education qualifications, accomplishments, industry experience, expertise, and knowledge, as well as functional experience.
- Demographic attributes, which include generation, gender, geography, ethnicity, and diversity of thought.
- Personal attributes, which include personality, interests, values, propensity to collaborate, judgment, integrity, and cultural adaptability.
While other attributes may be considered as well, these categories of factors often create a baseline that permits companies to more deliberately shape their boards. These factors are often addressed during the candidate evaluation process, either implicitly or explicitly, through interviews, meetings, references, psychometric examinations, and other evaluation techniques.
Why Should Directors Master P&L and Financials? How to Leverage Your Financial Experience?
P&L stands for “Profit and Loss,” which refers to a comprehensive financial statement that is prepared at the end of a period to display the costs, revenue, and expenses of a company over that period. It is more like a financial summary which shows whether a company has been able to make profit or loss over a given period. When the income is more than the expenses, profit has been made during that period, and vice versa.
Why Should Directors Master the Company’s P&L and Financials?
- Better decision making
Directors are involved in setting the strategy of the company, which means that your decisions are very important and will impact the bottom line of the company. Knowledge of P&L and financial statements will help you to make more well-informed decisions. Finance is a corporate language, and directors are expected to be at least proficient if not fluent. In fact, financial literacy is so critical that it is virtually impossible to get on a board without this skill. If you are not a finance professional, consider cultivating this skill throughout your career.
- Analysis of revenue earning departments
Mastering the figures usually presented in a P&L and other financial statements enables a director to properly analyze the company’s performance. This allows a director to have a deeper understanding of what is going on in the company. All financial statements tell a story. The question is whether the prospective directors can read it.
- Projection of revenue
Directors must know how to set targets. P&L and other financials are vital when projecting revenue and planning. In other words, they are critical to strategic leadership.
How You Can Leverage P&L and Financial Experience
Understanding and being proficient in your company’s P&L and other financial statements is crucial to your success as a director. Therefore, financial literacy is a plus for any corporate director candidate, even for those that bring other different talents to the company. Consider educating yourself about P&L and other financial statements in your current role. Take assignments where you are responsible for a large budget and must make projections. Also consider volunteering for other opportunities that will increase your financial literacy. This can make you a more attractive candidate for board service.
If, however, you are a former chief financial officer, controller, or some other finance professional, consider prominently highlighting this skill in a clear and a measurable way. All boards have finance professionals, and their expertise is highly valued and sought after.
Are Board-Placement Services Useful?
The recent hype about board service, especially for women and diverse candidates, is real. It seems like everyone is getting on board—or at least trying to. The increased interest in board service has led to a proliferation of board-placement and board-readiness services. These services offer appealing packages, intended to help prospective directors become desirable candidates and find the positions of their dreams. Many seem like the “magic ticket” to a professional’s first board position.
Professionals ask many questions about these services. Are they useful? How much do they cost? How should a hopeful board candidate choose from the many options? As much as I like to advise and encourage potential board candidates, it is difficult to answer these questions. They are just too subjective! Choosing a board-placement or board-readiness service is like choosing a car: The right one depends on who you are, your goals, and your preferences. It is not an easy process, but by asking the right questions, you can get a feel for whether a specific placement or readiness service is right for you.
Not sure where to start? Here is a list of questions to ask any board-placement or board-readiness service:
- Geographic concerns
Where are the services offered? Where are the candidates placed? Does the service offer board-placement or readiness services locally, nationally, and internationally? At a minimum, you want to make sure that the board-placement or board-readiness service meets at least some of your geographic needs and aspirations.
- Industry and network fit
Does the service offer boards from organizations in a wide variety of interest areas to address your goals? Does the service have connections in your industry? Does it place people in public, private, startup, or nonprofit boards that you are interested in? Does it have connections and trusted relationships with the executives, decision makers, and influencers? It is important to ensure that the service’s expertise, core competency, and network are of use to you.
- Track record of success
Does the service track its success metrics? How often does it place candidates? How frequently do the candidates that it places work long term? Do its candidates tend to stay on boards where they are placed for at least 3 years? Does it publish its rates online? If not, why? Does the service provide a relatively comprehensive list of companies that it has helped? How long has the service been in existence?
- Process logistics
If a service considers itself a board-matching service, how many board positions does it offer each month or year? How many organizations does it serve regularly? Does it let you interview with more than one board opening at a time? It is also important to understand what, exactly, you are signing up for. How exactly does the algorithm or process work? How involved is the service, beyond simply identifying candidates? Is there someone at the service who will be personally familiar with and knowledgeable about the company, their needs, and their experiences and then match you with the right board opportunity? Or will you be invited to a board fair, or provided with a list or search engine to pursue board opportunities on your own? How does the service ensure quality control for matches? Finally, what are the credentials of the individuals who will be performing your search?
- Promises made
What promises are made regarding your success? Does a firm do a “reverse search” agreement in which you pay a fee to be connected to boards? If so, is a board seat guaranteed? Do they introduce you to board members? Board-matching firms that are successful typically charge large fees.
- Money matters
Who will pay for placing you, how much, and when? Will the company pay? Are you expected to pay? Is the payment tied to reaching any milestones? Are there different packages for different candidates or companies?
- Included and additional services
Does a board-readiness service provide assistance, such as writing your board biography? Does it provide you coaching regarding your network and your presentation skills? Does it provide constructing an elevator pitch and interview coaching? Does it share research about the company, its executives, and its directors? Does it provide a matching service, and if so will the service stay involved throughout the matching process to answer questions and keep the interview process on track? What other value besides helping you present yourself as board-ready and qualified does the service provide?
- Good to know
You may also want to understand whether the board services specialize in certain demographics such as hiring initiatives for women, placing diverse candidates, or locating first-time board candidates. You may also need to know whether the service will allow you to work with other board-placement or board-readiness services simultaneously.
This list may seem overwhelming, but because board service is such an important career step, every question is important. After all, you would not purchase a car without making sure all your bases were covered. Similarly, when choosing the right vehicle for this exciting career move, you need to shop smart and stay proactive to separate out the lemons.
Appendix C provides a list of Board Search Resources, which includes some board-placement services.