As a board director for over half of my professional career, I often get called for advice on how to get on a public board. “Can you introduce me to your recruiter friends?” “Which networks should I join to meet the right people?” “Would you look at my resume and tell me what you think?” As willing as I always am to speak, meet, and introduce them to people I know, I shake my head when I realize that in many of these cases, people are looking for a shortcut. They contact a recruiter, send a resume with a cover letter, and then wait for the call. They attend some networking events, pass out a load of business cards, and then wait for the call. I meet up with them again in a few months, and they wonder why they’re having such a hard time. They believe that because it’s a game of “whom you know” that merely by meeting the right people, they will have an inside track onto a public board.
It doesn’t work that way.
There are no shortcuts.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about networking. It’s not about being at the right place at the right time, or attending the right conference or giving your card to the top board recruiter in every recruiting firm. There are countless business cards that have been passed out, resumes sent, and cover letters written. That’s the problem; there are countless. Cutting through the ocean of names that want to be put on boards is the real key.
As a result, I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on which recommendations I’ve made that have yielded success...and which have not.
To be recommended for a board position, you need two things: (1) A good narrative, and (2) Being top-of-mind. They sound simple, but both of these require personal investment and effort over an extended period of time, and in an ideal situation, the effort begins to happen long before you want to get on a board.
To get on a board, a strong advocate has to relay a compelling narrative, or story, on your behalf. It’s your reputation, your personal brand. In a short conversation or paragraph, in addition to your professional resume, every interaction you have with that advocate up until that moment becomes part of that narrative. The more they know you, the better the story can be. A strong narrative consists of the WHAT and the HOW of your story: What you know best, and how you are to work with.
The headline of the narrative is about your WHAT -- those skills that make you unique and valuable. The best boards are made up of individuals who not only represent the interests of the stakeholders, but who serve as advisors to the executive team for any issue that a company might face.
- Do you have particular skills/experience for the standing committees a board needs to fill: Financial, Compensation or Governance? If so, boards often look to add to the bench strength in these areas.
- If the company is going through a merger or acquisition, have you been through one? If so, what was your role? Having had M&A and integration experience is a great asset to a boardroom.
- Is a company in an old industry that is getting disrupted by an outsider? Have you experienced this or have you started your own business? Expertise in innovation and disruption is critical in boardroom strategic conversations.
- Is a company expanding into new global markets? Have you had experience running a business in a different country? Expertise in emerging markets can be invaluable.
- Is the company looking for industry or operational expertise? Have you faced many of the issues that the executive team is looking at? Having industry (or similar) operational experience can be critical in examining strategic choices and operational performance.
- Are you well versed in the digital world? Increasing focus on cybersecurity and 24/7 communications is becoming an important component in enterprise risk management.
In addition to the examples cited above, there are many other skills that, based on a company’s strategic focus, are desired in the boardroom. It is imperative that you craft what that headline is. Think about the career choices you've made, the risks you've taken. What gives you a different perspective than anyone else in the room? It’s like giving yourself a professional Rorschach test – what are the attributes that immediately come to mind when people hear your name? It’s a 30-second answer to the question, “What makes you uniquely qualified to be a board director?”
The second thing your narrative reveals is the HOW – what are you like to work with? This part of the story usually includes how the person knows you; whether you worked together, someone introduced you, or whether you met in another professional setting. Are you friendly? Genuine? Trustworthy? Boards only meet 4-6 times a year, so they need people who can hit the ground running, and be a full contributor from day one. Many board relationships evolve into strong friendships, primarily as a result of open dialogue, debate, and mutual respect.
Whether your name surfaces through an existing board member or an executive recruiter, it’s essential that you’re top-of-mind when a board opening presents itself. This means going beyond just giving your card or sending a resume to someone, and calling them up every few months. Being top-of-mind means that when an opportunity comes up, you have created a strong enough impression in their mind that you’re the first, second, or maybe third person they think of. You’ve become the “no-brainer” and “easy sell” to a company looking to fill a board seat.
If you’re a sitting or former public company CEO or CFO, it’s easier. You’ve held a position that people believe qualifies you to sit in a boardroom, because you’ve already done it. Unless you’re someone who nobody likes being around, your path to a board career is much simpler. You need to call on a few people who are on boards or doing board placement, and let them know you’re available. You still need to differentiate yourself (see above regarding narrative), but the sacrifices/investment you have made in your career is certainly an advantage.
If your resume does not have “CEO/CFO” listed as a job you’ve held, you have more work to do. Your willingness to invest in relationships is what will make a difference. People need to be convinced that you are board-worthy, and that your experience is something that boardrooms are desperately seeking. Non-CEO/CFO directors often are some of the most valuable members on a board because of the different perspectives they bring to the conversation. However, becoming “top of mind” is imperative, and far more dependent on how strong a personal narrative you've developed, and how much you invest in professional relationships.
The more time you invest in a relationship with a potential advocate, the more comfortable he/she will be in telling your story. Handing out a business card to me has never yielded a recommendation. Sending a strong resume increases the likelihood. Having firsthand experience in seeing you go through a few years in your professional life gives me a narrative worth sharing. Good advocates are great storytellers. You need to provide a good story to tell.
Getting on a public board is not, and should not be, an easy feat. Corporations are increasingly scrutinized not only on their performance, but also on their behaviors and contributions to society. Correspondingly, director accountability and workload continues to increase.
Securing a position on a board requires significant commitment to self-improvement and investing in relationships. Investing effort in improving your narrative and deepening relationships with professional advocates is what makes the difference. As with everything else, in our professional and personal lives, the investment that we put into our endeavors is directly related to the outcome.