I call it the Magic Moment. It arrives at some point in every highly successful business career. Maybe it’s gaining your first C-level executive position, when you’ve either achieved it, or it’s in sight. You’re running a division and built solid P&L success. You’ve built a startup into a real company, maybe even done it several times. You and your firm have invested in enough ventures to build a good idea of what works and doesn’t. You’ve accumulated a few decades of career achievement, and now wonder what new challenges (and opportunities) post-retirement life could offer.
These are a few of the career profiles I’ve encountered in the past few years. Many different paths; men, women, job titles, nationalities, but all shared that one Magic Moment. A light bulb went off over the head of each achiever, and the thought occurred “I could join a board of directors.”
It’s breathtaking and audacious, really. We spent most of our careers viewing The Board as a mighty, Oz-like entity to be feared and supplicated. As we climbed the corporate ladder, shaped our own companies, drew closer to power, we pulled back the curtain a bit. We sat in on board meetings, briefed directors, served on committees with them. We saw board members as not only smart, committed people, but also just as frail at the rest of us. Furthermore, we realized we often knew more on the specifics of things than those boardroom solons did. And that’s the moment the light bulb sparks to life.
At this point your “board-wannabe” interest may remain only that—a spark. Despite the business seasoning you’ve accumulated (and despite much hard-earned career savvy), you realize that the boardroom world involves many unanswered questions. What do you need to know? What makes someone more (or less) boardable? Biggest unknown of all—how does it actually happen? Just how are board prospects identified, vetted, and actually selected?
For starters, not very logically. The hiring and promotion of management at the top of a major company by definition is based on focusing talent needs to the narrowest of points. There are only so many “C” level positions, and any company will obsess over finding the top talent, the best fit, and the greatest leadership potential. Grooming internal candidates, setting up a succession “horse race,” nurturing skills, and recruiting (and retaining) high-potentials are crucial tasks for any executive team.
When hiring from the outside for a top position, the standards are even tougher. Background, credentials, achievements, and skills are closely examined and weighed. All involved realize that selection of a top C-level talent (especially the CEO) is a decision made for high (possibly “bet the company”) stakes.
But shopping for another top-level role at the corporation—the board of directors—is handled very differently. Board selection typically involves no aptitude testing, no job descriptions, and no outside certification. Going through a search firm to find qualified board candidates remains uncommon—most directors, even at the Fortune 500 level, are still recruited through a “who knows who” network. When specific skills are sought (such as finance background), qualification is often based on title, such as being a CFO or former audit firm partner, rather than any tactical achievements.
“Interviewing” of board prospects in the conventional hiring sense is also amateurish. Yes, there will likely be multiple rounds of interviews, but these are based less on a systematic winnowing plan than on the busy schedules of current directors who just want to “get comfortable” with the prospect.
In short, those who hold the corporation’s most powerful office are picked through its most casual, opaque, and subjective selection process. At least when a guy is hired as janitor, he has to pass a drug test.
All of which leaves you, the career achiever, with a light bulb over your head that’s already starting to flicker. If gaining a corporate board seat is a mysterious process, and the more you dig into it, the more incoherent it becomes, what hope is there for you?
Quite a bit, actually. If gaining a board seat is on your career checklist, the timing has never been better. The “small circle of friends” that made up most corporate boards for decades has grown far more democratic. A recent study of major U.S. corporate boards1 found that in 2000, a cadre of 61 well-networked directors each served on five boards or more. By 2012, there was only one such boardroom “ace” left.
Board diversity, long a “yeah, we gotta do something about that someday” matter, has now become a very hot governance topic. Most European corporations today face either mandated or “comply or explain” gender requirements for boards, and in the United States, proxy campaigns and “name and shame” campaigns have made the exclusively pale, male board untenable.
Broader, yet more technical, board skill demands have also opened the pipeline. Being tapped for a board opportunity was long based on who-knows-who among folks already in the boardroom. Skills and vitae? It was important to hold a CEO title, and the board could use someone with financial chops for the audit committee, but little beyond that. Now, boards are prodding themselves to deepen their talent bench. Technology (in such areas as cybersecurity, social media, and marketing), risk management, finance, M&A, government regulation, and global markets are skills boards increasingly seek. Even narrow (but proven) skills can meet specific boardroom demands. A pharma industry exec with strong bones in bringing new drugs to market can be just what a biotech startup needs as its founders try to get their new molecule approved.
So yes, the boardroom door is now opening, and you may just be able to make your way in. But even for someone with your level of career savvy, the board search will demand some new skills, new tools, and an attitude adjustment. That well-crafted résumé of yours is likely burying any board-specific nuggets. You may have a solid, instantly deliverable elevator speech on your career assets and goals—but it says little on why a board should want you. And if you honestly assess your wider career network at this moment, how many specifically know that you’re seeking a board seat?
Yes, you have many of the raw materials available to make your boardroom dreams a reality (in fact, likely more than you give yourself credit for). But first, you have some work to do on making yourself “boardable.” This starts with asking yourself a few tough questions.
1J.S.G. Chu, and G.F. Davis. November, 2016. “Who Killed the Inner Circle? The Decline of the American Corporate Interlock Network.” American Journal of Sociology. webuser.bus.umich.edu/gfdavis/Papers/Chu_Davis_2016.pdf