The Board Game: Are You Ready to Play?

No matter what stage your career is in now, it’s never too early to think about a seat on a corporate board – and find out what you need to do to get yourself there. The move will certainly give you more confidence, expand your leadership skills and most likely help propel your career by providing added visibility.

Getting on a board’s not easy, especially when most seats are either filled with men (women comprise about 19% of board seats, according to Catalyst, a research group for executive women) or sitting or former CEOs and CFOs.

Flickr photo by Enda Nasution

It takes a subtler approach than a job search. “If you want a job, you can pursue a company, but you can’t apply quite the same directness with boards,” executive coach Wendy Alfus-Rothman told the Wall Street Journal. “If you want to be on a board, you must be invited to the party.”

It takes a well-paved path and plenty of persistence.

Getting on Board: Women Leaders Who Found a Seat at the Table

Women leaders who’ve earned such coveted seats tell how you can claim your place at the boardroom table:

Take stock of your skillset. Women elected to boards tend to bring important skills – such as corporate governance, sustainability and compliance – because more women than men have experience in risk management and human resources, a recent study says. These key decision-making skills hadn’t been well-represented on boards before. Developing specialized board skills, such as cybersecurity and digital commerce, would also make you more in demand. 

Focus on your target companies. Once you’re confident you have the necessary skills, how do you find the right match? Target industries where you have experience and passion, particularly when you seek your first board role. Do your homework and look online to assess your target’s sitting board: Are you a good fit? “Be deliberate about defining your value proposition and determining industries and organizations that would benefit from your skills and capabilities,” Diana Tremblay, VP, Global Business Services for GM, said to Chief Executive. “What you bring to the table has to fit the needs of the board.”

Take your career to a “hire” power. Aside from your resume, you’ll need to prepare a board bio that lists your leadership skills, along with your target companies, before you can approach a board-specialized executive recruiter, such as Korn Ferry, RSR Partners and Spencer Stuart. In the 1990s, when Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison was Executive VP at Kraft Foods, she set her sights on adding a board seat appointment to her resume, so she traveled to New York and “pounded the pavement to understand how to get myself on a board,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “I talked to a lot of recruiters to understand the criteria and skillsets that were required. I was politely told that ‘Well, we’re looking for sitting CEOs.’” Her unorthodox approach still got her a callback from one of those recruiters who offered her a board seat six months later.

Find sponsors who can usher you to your seat. Find colleagues, suppliers, customers and executives of target companies and ask them to promote your board candidacy, recommends Joann S. Lublin in her book, Earning It. Former Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter was VP of Sales at a small software company that catered to cable TV operators when she campaigned for a seat on a cable TV association board. She wrote to 2,000 industry suppliers who belonged to the association, soliciting their support and promising to issue a newsletter after every board meeting – and she got the board seat.

Put the work into your networking. “Make sure that people know you are interested,” Vicki Holt, CEO of Proto Labs told Lublin. You might choose to speak at prominent industry conferences, selecting ones where you could meet the CEO of your target company. “I always encourage executives to join groups that provide access to other high-level professionals, especially those outside of their immediate field of work,” executive coach Jan Babiak told CNBC.

By increasing your board-readiness, you’ll enhance your visibility to a lot more people, and that’s the whole intent. You want the board to find you.