You’ve launched a solid “board wannabe” campaign to land that board seat; you’ve worked up a board-specific résumé; launched your targeted networking; joined some board organizations. But too few people still know about your boardroom goals, and for any effort as informal as board seeking, it pays to advertise. Time to work on your outreach.
As a first low-intensity but high-value step, you’re missing out on the 21st century if you aren’t drafting online social networks into your onboarding effort. Technology has become a central part of board searches over the past several years. Among the little secrets of board search is that nominating committee chairs and company board support staff (and even headhunters) are just as lazy as you or me when it comes to vetting a board prospect. What’s the first thing we do today in our wired world when we want to find out something on someone? We do an online search—Googling them or Bing-ing them, or Yahoo-ing them, or Baidu-ing them (in China) or using any number of other specialized search engines.
So a first step for the board wannabe (or anyone working on their career plan, for that matter) is to check the search engines to assess yourself. Assume that what you find is the first impression anyone prospecting you for a board will see. No doubt a rising exec named John Smith will face confusion problems here (or someone sharing the same name as a high-profile criminal). If you share the moniker of an 18-year-old who likes to post Instagram pics involving jello shots and raves, that can be an issue too, but let’s assume the person vetting you knows enough to get your details correct.
When this board talent searcher gives you an online look-over, what will she think of your prospects? Try doing your own name search, preferably from outside your own network or immediate location (which skews the results). Are the findings impressive, or at least representative? If you have a common name that dilutes the hits, consider what qualifiers a searcher might add for a better search fix (company name, your profession, your home city, etc.). If someone had to come up with one other word to add to your name to find you, what would it be? Try these various filters to see how results differ.
Also, check your name for “news” items (that quote of yours in the press, or an article on a trade website). Also, try “images” (does an old photo show up, or an awkward picture someone tagged you in?) and also “video” (if video of you giving a brilliant speech is available online, be sure to play it up).
Digging deeper, what sort of a boardroom prospect do you present on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, your own company’s websites, and various professional listings? Click each of these and see what sort of a story you’re telling the world. These and other online watering holes have become a crucial element of business and career networking, and belong in any board-seeking effort. But how? Here’s a roundup of evolving best practice:
Twitter is a strong online social nexus, and perhaps the source for what’s trending minute by minute (even if it’s sometimes wildly inaccurate). However, it’s also a handy board networking tool. Let’s assume you’re already on Twitter. Now, give your profile a read-over for professionalism, vitae, and connections.
Start with your hashtag—is your name, as in #FirstLast, available? If so grab it. If not, improvise with initials, affiliations, titles, and so on. Follow this with your profile statement and sweat over how much value you can fit into 140 (or now, 280) characters. Take an SEO (search engine optimization) approach and squeeze in keywords for your career and talents. Make room for “board member at . . .” or “experienced board member.”
Much of your strength on Twitter comes through the number of followers you have, so cultivate contacts (this is one area where quantity counts more than quality). For your own “follows,” seek board members at target companies (especially chairs), directors you know, and executive recruiters. There are some board-related hashtags worth investigating, including #corpgov, #boarddirector, #activistinvestor, #corporategovernance, #boardwannabes, #BOD, and #boardofdirectors. Spend some time browsing these to bring yourself up to speed on governance matters, as well as who’s who. Equally important, find out the hashtags for major companies and groups in your own industry and spend time mining these.
LinkedIn is perhaps the Internet’s most powerful business networking—and corporate recruiting—tool. A 2015 survey for Recruiter Nation found 87 percent of job recruiters used LinkedIn to seek candidates.1
While it’s rare to find anyone who loves LinkedIn, it’s also rare to find anyone who doesn’t realize it’s a valuable personal marketing and image tool. For business, it serves the purpose that Facebook was originally intended to fulfill—providing a first introductory and quick reference.
An online search for your name typically brings info at your company’s site first—but a close second will be your LinkedIn profile, so that profile has to sell. Treat it like your own mini personal website, with a good photo, plus a title and secondary title that pitch your skills in compact sentences. Keywords here and throughout your LinkedIn profile are important, and along with your job-specific items include governance and board references.
Also, make sure you look like a solid board candidate on LinkedIn and other social media. A recent survey of hiring managers found 88 percent considered a selfie in an online career profile unprofessional.2 Invest a few dollars in a professional head-and-shoulders shot.
More than other social media or search venues, LinkedIn can establish your professional chops and board bona fides in a neat, brief package. But only if you do it right. After you’ve signed up with LinkedIn, what are the next steps in presenting yourself as a boardroom must-have?
- Sweat over the wording of your profile. By default, LinkedIn uses your current job title as your headline. Sounds good, but this is rarely helpful either for career or board boosting. “Senior Executive Vice-President for Regional Strategic . . . blah-blah” tells no one what you really do (much less what you’ve achieved at it). Write your own head, something like “Strong achievement in strategic planning, new product development . . .” and so on. Sell both your sizzle and substance, and invite the viewer to read further.
- Next move on to your LinkedIn summary. This pays off what you’ve teased in the headline. Good writing is the rule here. Avoid multisyllable buzzword salads and stick to actual achievements, preferably with numbers and data (“Managed major consumer product launch in Asia that boosted revenues $50 million.”). Give some thought to SEO, adding nouns and titles that not only sell what you’ve done, but also what you hope to do.
Look at who’s doing LinkedIn right already from a boardsmanship perspective and steal good ideas. Most board wannabes have a number of role models and mentors who’ve already established themselves on corporate boards. Now see what these leaders are doing on LinkedIn to tell their stories. “I look at the professionals in my field,” says Josie Ahlquist, a leadership consultant specializing in digital media.
What are they including—specialized training they’ve taken, board experience (even if it’s nonprofit or charities), and endorsements from people who serve on boards themselves? See what your boardroom idols are incorporating, jot down good ideas, and consider how such items can be used to boost your own prospects (and definitely seek connections to these pros).
- Your LinkedIn profile “background,” “experience,” and “skills” headings may seem to overlap, but each allows you to drive home specific career-building keywords, talents, and connections. Recommendations and endorsements are valuable LinkedIn tools that are too little used. Have some board background? Get a ringing endorsement from a fellow board member (and make sure that he or she is identified as such). Is your experience limited to briefing or working with a board? Get a plug from a member of that board on your value. In either case, don’t hesitate to draft language for the endorser to help make your point. “Skills” actually work as endorsements from your other LinkedIn connections. Seek these in areas you’d like to stress for boardroom interest (Governance, Corporate Governance, Venture Capital, M&A, etc.) and be generous in giving them to your own LinkedIn connections.
- Speaking of connections, start with acquaintances who bring board, governance, and company ties and build from there (LinkedIn does a good job of suggesting connections). The more connections the better, and use LinkedIn’s “update” feature to regularly let these folks know about your job achievements, joining a new nonprofit board or LinkedIn group.
- Most folks already list their current job title and company info, but are you mentioning that you’re on this or that charitable or nonprofit board (it helps to link to their profile)? This not only builds your boardroom cred, but also gains attention for the group and lets people know the causes that drive you.
- LinkedIn “Groups” are another solid way to network on board and governance issues. The two biggest contenders are Corporate Governance and Boards & Advisors. However, there are many others that let you target your interests in areas like risk management, finance, compliance, IT, women and boards, international business, your own specific industry, and so on. Put some time into searching these groups and joining those that offer the most bang.
- They call it “LinkedIn” for a reason—you can use it to link to all the other things online that help establish your boardroom cred. Ahlquist finds a blog particularly helpful in suggesting authority, but video of you speaking or presenting at conferences, news interviews, or publications all give browsers a taste of your talents.
- As mentioned, a good, professional portrait photo is a must on LinkedIn—but can you do even better? How about an action shot of you speaking at a podium or taking part in a roundtable panel? A picture that shows you in a boardroom setting can be a good step toward actually nudging you into a boardroom setting.
- A final LinkedIn hint should be obvious, but is still too little remembered—don’t just craft your page and then walk away. Force yourself to spend a few minutes weekly (daily is better) updating it, adding connections, giving endorsements, commenting, and showing how active you are.
As for LinkedIn style guides, Wayne Yetter, a noted health care and pharma exec and board member, offers one of the best I’ve seen (a print version is shown below). Here are a few other people who offer best-practice board salesmanship in their LinkedIn profiles.
Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Executive and Board Member
Greater Philadelphia Area/Pharmaceuticals
I enjoyed a 30-year career in the pharmaceutical industry and held executive positions at Pfizer, Merck, Astra-Merck (now AstraZeneca), and Novartis followed by leadership roles in other health care–related companies. My roles included Vice-President, Marketing Operations (global), and Vice-President, Far East and Pacific at Merck, founding Chief Executive Officer of Astra-Merck, and President and Chief Executive Officer of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, the U.S. division of Novartis AG. I later served as Chief Operating Officer of IMS Health, a market research data company from 1999 until 2000, and then became Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Synavant, Inc. (a Nasdaq-listed spin-out of IMS) that was acquired by Dendrite International in 2003. From 2005 to 2008 I served as Chief Executive Officer of Verispan LLC, a joint venture of McKesson and Quintiles and leading provider of health care information and marketing services to the pharmaceutical industry. Verispan was acquired by SDI Health and later merged into IMS. Most recently, I was Chairman of the Board of NuPathe Inc. that was acquired by TEVA in early 2014. I currently serve as a director of InfuSystem Holdings, Inc.(INFU), and Strategic Diversified Opportunities Inc. (SDOI) a shell company remaining after the sale of the Life Sciences business of Strategic Diagnostics (SDIX) to OriGene. Previous board roles include Chairman of Noven Pharmaceuticals, Chairman of Transkaryotic Therapies, and Lead Independent Director of Matria Healthcare (each of these companies was acquired). I was a member of Executive Committee of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry association, from 1997 to 1999.
I enjoy corporate governance roles and would like to identify an additional board opportunity where my background and experience can add value.
Facebook is a long-time social network staple, but one of the trickiest to use in establishing your boardability. What started as a way for kids to communicate has lost some of its cool as their moms and dads join up and share recipes, family pics, and cute cat videos. This means that business folks often treat LinkedIn as their suit and tie image, while Facebook is their let-it-all-hang-out venue.
Consider limiting who can see your Facebook page to friends, and making sure that what does come up in a Facebook search won’t offend someone. In researching a potential board or career move, recruiters find Facebook can be useful for the very reasons noted previously. Pages on Facebook tend to be a bit more loose and informal than your carefully managed Twitter or LinkedIn propaganda.
For all of these social networking board options, remember that active involvement is crucial. If your latest post is a year old, you’ll seem irrelevant (and are). Regularly post links to useful business and governance items you’ve found and comment on conversations. Good background material on you may impress the chairs of target boards, but regularly engaging them online will catch and hold their interest.
Effective propaganda for your onboarding effort goes beyond digital engagement—you need to be putting your flesh-and-blood self out there in the public arena. Building your image as a thought leader should include speaking at conferences, trade shows, business school events, and so on. The career boost is well worth the time and effort (even if you’re shy). But how to leverage your podium presence as an effective part of onboarding?
- If you’re at the career level (C-suite, VP, company founder, venture partner, etc.) where attaining a board seat seems possible, you should already be speaking at trade and civic events. You’ve obviously gained achievements by now—launched a new product, worked through a merger, built a division in another country. It would be unusual if you weren’t sought out for your insights, so get caught up.
- Before you try to build your speaker outreach, work on actually having something worthwhile to say—and get good at saying it. If you’re currently blogging, posting on LinkedIn, or quoted by trade publications/websites, think of ways you can expand these messages in ways that show off your vitae. And don’t forget that the topic is no better than the speaker—“Know how to give a presentation,” says Marjorie Johnson, president of Ascend Consulting executive coaches. “This isn’t for everyone.” Worldwide groups like Toastmasters International offer valuable peer support and experience in honing your podium skills.
- You may already receive one-off speaking invites, but actually nurturing strategic speech opportunities demands some outreach. If you’re in the corporate world, the company should have media staff who know the ropes on speaking opportunities, so check with them (they’ll also be able to clue you in on how supportive your company is about offering its execs as speakers). If there are industry conferences or programs you’d really like to target, “it’s fine to contact the organizers directly,” Johnson counsels. Let them know a bit on your background, topic, interest, and how “eager you are to contribute to the industry.”
- Having a topic and knowing how to speak are good, but you’ll also have to “add value to the conference,” says Anett Grant, CEO of the Executive Speaking firm in Minneapolis. How will your comments advance the overall theme of the program and fit in with other sessions? Also, when speaking to industry peers, realize that you’re on display before a tough audience. “This is a smart, accomplished group, so you want to leave them feeling even smarter,” advises Grant. Definitely avoid self-advertising—your insights and vitae are all the promotion needed, not egotism.
- We often think of executive speaking gigs primarily as keynotes, but Grant points out that panel discussions are an easier way to break in, are more common, and can actually work better for the board wannabe. “There, you’re interacting with peers in a forum that’s similar to a board situation.” Not only does a panel discussion let you show your expertise, but it also gives attendees and other panelists a preview of how well you interact with top colleagues, your discussion and teamwork skills, and emotional intelligence.
- Speaking at an important event offers more board-wannabe mileage than just impressing those in the room. Don’t forget to promote the program in advance on Twitter, LinkedIn, and your other online squawkboxes. After the event, use these media to thank the organizers, plug how great the discussion was, and if possible link to video or transcripts of your remarks.
As with any other networking, there are do’s and don’ts when it comes to board-wannabe outreach. Often, that magic connection that will lead to a board invite comes down to the ask. But how you ask—and how you respond when someone asks you—demands some emotional intelligence.
Q: “I’m a partner with a venture firm here in the Northeast and serve on the boards of several of our investments, as well as a regional bank and a couple of nonprofits. An acquaintance has asked me to drop his name as a board prospect several times. While I know this person from some general business dealings, I really don’t know much about his business background or board qualities, and feel uncomfortable going out on a limb as a board reference. What is the etiquette on giving—and asking for—board referrals?”
A: Once an executive today reaches the CEO’s office, they almost immediately go from “don’t call us, we’ll call you” board invite status to being overboarded (this particularly applies to women executives). This makes “I can’t—but I know someone who can” referrals valuable.
Yet this isn’t as simple as letting your neighbor’s kid list you as a summer job reference. Dropping someone’s name as a potential corporate board candidate offers them a major stamp of approval for skills, personal ethics, teamwork qualities, and responsibility. Not only does this mean going out on a limb for someone you may know only slightly but also suggests that your referral could backfire.
“You should really ask people [for a board referral] only if you know them well,” says a long-time director and VC of my acquaintance. Otherwise, if you do drop this name for a board opening, “they’ll ask how well you know them, and why you’re recommending them.” If you lack a good comeback, both you and the candidate look bad.
Leslie Green, of the New York-based Roffe & Green management consulting firm (and a seasoned director), questions the value of board referrals overall. “I’ve made recommendations of other women for board seats, but the boards just don’t pursue them.” Green sees a big gap in director selection today. Boards may ask someone to join because a current member knows them personally and can vouch for their savvy, or the board goes through a recruiter and does a more objective, scientific search—but nothing in between. “All my friends gained board seats either from knowing someone personally, or through professional headhunters.”
This gives you an opportunity both to politely decline your acquaintance’s name-dropping request and offer some valuable advice on how to do it right. Point out that wannabe directors rarely get mileage from a casual reference—but that they would do far better by actively grooming strong, first-person contacts, as well as schmoozing with board recruiters.
Board-Seeker Action Items
- Invest some time in researching how other business leaders present their board savvy on social media. Try searching these media on words like “board” and “governance.” Steal good ideas.
- Speaking of time, set yourself a daily or weekly target of time spent updating and improving your top social media accounts.
- Review your business outreach activities for the past year (speaking, news quotes, articles published, etc.). How could links or snippets from these be used to promote your “boardability” image? Could you turn the text of a speech into a potential article?
- Does your company have dedicated media staff? If so, discuss your board goals with them and seek outreach advice.
- Select several of the “wish list” companies whose boards you’d like to serve. Do online research for news articles on these and who the reporters covering them are. Add them to your media outreach efforts. ALSO—search which online and social media forums most discuss these companies, and join.
1Jobvite. 2015. “Welcome to the 2015 Recruiter Nation.” https://www.jobvite.com/jobvite-news-and-reports/welcome-to-the-2015-recruiter-nation-formerly-known-as-the-social-recruiting-survey
2Cosmopolitan Online. 2017. “The one thing on your LinkedIn profile that might be stopping you getting a job.” http://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/worklife/careers/a10358749/linkedin-profile-no-selfie