Good. You’ve worked up a solid board résumé, gotten your boss’s blessing, and found a mentor (or two, or three) to point you on the boardroom path. And if your mentor is of any value, she’s offered a bit of wisdom that’s vital in taking your journey any further—network, network, network.
Although board member searches have become (a little) more professionalized with time, the best advice for board wannabes is still to tap into, make good use of, and expand your personal network connections. You’ve doubtless seen the statistic that some 70 percent of jobs are filled not through formal routes (such as help-wanted ads or employment agencies) but through personal contacts and networking. Board of director searches push this “who knows who” approach even further. PwC research finds that 87 percent of U.S. corporate board seats are filled through personal networking.1
However, all networking is not the same. A board-specific effort demands targeted contacts, tactics, and messages. As with everything involved in a serious board search campaign, you’ll need to invest some time and effort. Begin with these steps.
Catalog the folks in your current networks, either by browsing through your email directory, Outlook files, business cards, or even sitting down with a legal pad and scribbling up a “who do I know” list. Now that you have your names, ask yourself how much you really know about them. Member of a board themselves (and if so, who else is on the board with them)? What companies are they with? Involved in the venture capital or private equity world? Recently left or retired from what firm?
What to do with this shopping list? Start with online sleuthing resources. Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter are great networking resources. I’ll look at how you should tap these social media to advance your board ambitions later, but at this stage they offer valuable tools in researching your networks. For more detailed info, the various online business bio listings (Wikipedia, of course, but also Bloomberg Business Week, Crunchbase, etc.) are a rich store of data on connections, board affiliations, group memberships, colleges, and past employment.
Don’t forget to Google up news items as well. (Did you know, for instance, that the business speech your boss delivered awhile back was to a group with terrific board connections?) Online discussion boards, blogs, and the other Internet watering holes of your target sector also offer lots of dish on who’s hot, who’s not, and who’s leaving and joining companies and boards.
- Now, put these online digging tools to work on the top names in the network list you assembled in item 1. Who is worth a deep dive (researching everyone would be a full-time job—and make you a bit of a stalker, for that matter). Did you know that a certain contact was with this or that prospect company a few years back? Not only does contact X serve on the board of company Y, but Z is also on the board, and he’s a partner with a venture firm whose attention you’d love to gain for board opportunities. People may complain about “clubby” boardrooms, but that clubbiness can work to your advantage.
- Don’t forget the value of nonprofit and charitable boards in your network research. Major foundations, noted causes, and local affiliates of national groups tend to build all-star boards. That name on your contact list may not have strong business or corporate boardroom connections, but she’s on the board of the regional chapter of the National Association for Doing Good Deeds with someone else you’d love to meet as a board mentor. How could you leverage that connection?
- Working your current network is good, but now it’s time to expand it into board-specific directions. Keep track of what’s happening in your target sector when it comes to companies divesting, spinning off, merging, acquiring, and restructuring (or rumors thereof). These are the companies most likely to be shaking up their boards. Who do you know at their executive VP, general counsel, COO, and current board levels? Who could you get to know? This should push you to pick a few target companies for your onboarding efforts (always more effective than a scattershot approach).
Since networking remains the well-known secret to finding (and being found) for board opportunities, it’s vital for any board wannabes to build up their networking muscles. Just as important, though, is to understand the specific nuances in making networking effective as a board search tool.
Michelle Stacy is a pro at both. A marketing veteran with Proctor & Gamble and Gillette, former president of Keurig, and with board seats including iRobot, Tervis, and Coravin, Stacy applied her marketing savvy to building her boardroom career. Here are her first-hand tips for networking and board search:
- “Boards are groups that need to be able to sit down and do a job together, so building a common networking connection is even more important.” Along with its career value, networking gives contacts who already have boardroom connections a sense of your interpersonal and social skills. Are you someone they’d want to sit around a board table, discussing important matters with?
- Board networking requires targeting to be effective. “Look carefully at the important skills you can bring to a board, and matching these skills to a board’s needs.” The next step, “identify five or six companies where your skills could be an asset in the boardroom.” Now, examine your current networks to see who can get you close to the company and its directors.
- Networking is an indirect, degrees-of-connection thing, especially in your board search, so make serendipity your friend. Stacy tells how she used such indirect networking to gain a board seat with iRobot. “Someone gave me an introduction to the head of HR, and I contacted this person, telling them I was interested in the business culture of iRobot, and would like to have a conversation about it.” The chat went well, and, given Stacy’s strong marketing background, she was asked to speak to management to offer her own take on their corporate culture. Two months later, a board vacancy came up at iRobot, and guess who got a call?
- Stacy stresses that this aspect of networking—giving as well as getting—becomes even more important for the board wannabe. “Sit down with someone on the board, or in the company’s c-suite to find out what the company is about, but also to give something back. Say ‘Hey, you did a great job of marketing that new product.’” Be transactional, offering advice and connections that will be of value to the contact or the company.
- While networking is a powerful tool for the board wannabe, use it carefully. “Don’t try to reach too far above yourself in networking,” Stacy cautions. She advises reaching out to people at or slightly below your current career level. “Don’t start with the CEO—his time is precious, and you’re likely to just make him feel awkward.”
- You should already know that effective networking doesn’t kick off with you saying “I want” something, and such a blunt approach is even more deadly if you’re aiming for the boardroom. “Plant the seeds by asking about any boards they’re on, what board they think you might be good for, whatever board advice they might have to offer. They’ll get the point.”
Other “conversation” skills play a role in making the board-wannabe’s networking effective. Successful executives and entrepreneurs learn early in their careers how to shape and deliver a good “elevator pitch.” You find yourself sharing a one- or two-minute elevator ride with a funder, the CEO, or some important prospect. This may be your only shot at impressing someone enough to look at your deal, support your project, or consider a purchase. So you deliver a basic pitch that covers the essentials (and isn’t fawning or pushy) and gets ‘em interested for more.
You’ve learned how to craft the elevator speech for other career needs, and now is the time to prepare one for your boardability. Work this up, winnow it down, and practice it, like the board seeker below:
Q: I’ve been following your advice for the “board wannabe” and have been developing my personal board outreach program. I’ve put together a specific board résumé and drawn up a list of opportunities, networking contacts, and target companies. However, I still seem a bit stuck in moving forward from here. How should I actually raise the issue of my board interest with my networking contacts?
A: Professionals seeking to add a board seat to their vitae typically follow your path. Now you face the trickiest part—getting to the “ask.” Going public with your board campaign can be an awkward bit of self-exposure, even to business pros toughened up by a career of chasing sales leads or venture funding.
A first step is to plot out a 30-second elevator speech on your board interest and value. Try wording one just for your board and governance interests and try putting it to work when meeting someone with strong board contacts and experience. “Don’t just start by saying ‘I want to join a board,’” counsels Carter Burgess, managing director of the board search practice for RSR. Instead, make it a natural segue from your networking—“ask them about their own board experience,” and then what they suggest for your own search efforts.
Since a natural follow-up to the potential mentor’s advice is your own qualifications, be ready to offer the elevator pitch of your business skill areas and board background. Aim for several sentences that tell “who you are, what you’ve done to collaborate, and how you worked into executive positions,” says Paul McDonald, a senior executive director with Robert Half. Be sure to drop in targeted hot-button board skills, such as audit, finance, or compliance work.
As with most elevator speeches, your board pitch isn’t really a single, canned script but rather a menu of modular tidbits that you’ve worked on in advance, and then customize on the spot between the ground floor and the executive offices. Shaping a final boardability elevator speech thus requires you to think fast on your feet—but by this point in your career, you should be good at that.
National Association of Corporate
Washington, DC 20006
Association of Audit Committee
Frederick D. Lipman
American College of Corporate
PwC Center for Board Governance
Deloitte Center for Corporate
Board-Seeker Action Items
- Write up a formal list of contacts in your various networks (most of us never put this down on paper). Highlight names you know have board connections, as well as those who may have, and require further research.
- Add a third section, a “wish list” of people not in your current networks, but who you should add for board-wannabe purposes. Make notes for each on how to do this.
- Finally, list personal networks that may be outside your regular business circles (professional and membership associations, nonprofit groups, religious organizations, volunteer groups, etc.). Review these for possible board connections.
- How many of the people in your network lists have you specifically told that you’re seeking a board seat? Set yourself a goal of dropping the word to a certain number of these contacts each week.
- Prepare yourself a quick script you can offer networking connections when it comes to your board interest (asking about their board background, a short elevator pitch of your own interest at skills).
1C. Brown. July 6, 2017. “Why Men Still Dominate Corporate Boardrooms.” Fortune Online. http://fortune.com/2017/06/07/most-powerful-women-career-advice-corporate-boardroom-diversity-workplace-inequality-favoritism