Forward Thinking: How to Get a Seat on the Board

By WomenAdvancing Archives
Cover image for  article: Forward Thinking: How to Get a Seat on the Board

For many, serving on a company board would be the pinnacle of a career. It’s a lofty long-term goal, but if you actively build the skills needed for board seat throughout your career, you’ll be better positioned for opportunities to present themselves later.

Why aspire to be on a corporate board? For the satisfaction of sharing your hard-earned wisdom and helping to influence and inspire quality in a management team. There’s also the experience of seeing how things work in other companies, working with people you’d never get to otherwise and being exposed to how other groups solve problems and innovate. Plus, it can be quite lucrative. Board directors are often paid handsomely to attend a few meetings a year.

Perhaps most importantly, holding a board seat increases your value to your own company.  Professionals who have the ability to work across other industries bring unique insight and valuable perspective.  

How does a person in the midst of building a career lay track to join the board of directors someday?

I asked Nancy May, an expert in board governance and the CEO of Board Bench for her guidance. Nancy coaches board of director candidates and knows exactly what managers who have their eye on the prize need to do to prepare for an esteemed seat.

Quantify everything

You’ll have many achievements in your career – you’ll drive sales, build teams and acquire customers – and it’s important that you keep track and quantify your successes in terms of the financial returns you’ve contributed over time. If you’re in a role not directly responsible for P&L, like marketing, be able to articulate how your role has contributed to the success of the business and what your personal ROI is.

Learn how to read and analyze a balance sheet

Follow companies you like and get in the habit of reading their quarterly reports. Develop a sense of how companies work at the highest level. Every local college and university has a course in corporate governance; consider signing up.

Get exposure to other board directors

Look for opportunities to get in front of your own board: Make a presentation, deliver a report, etc. You could also join an organization like the American College of Corporate Directors.

Plan well in advance

You don’t wait until your reach the C-suite or leave your job to begin searching for a potential board seat. Begin your search in the prime of your career when you have optimal cashé.

Make sure your bio and CV are up to speed

Create an editorialized version of your character and personality. Highlight not just management, but governance experience. Accurately represent that you have influence in working with committees. Present this information in a way that demonstrates your value.

Build a network and cultivate references

Ultimately, networking is the best way to find out where opportunities are, and eventually be invited for board consideration.  Build a strong network throughout your career. If you’re in a large corporation, it’s easier to get a seat on the board of a large corporation.

Diversity is an asset

No board will hire you just because you bring diversity, but there are great companies looking for qualified candidates with diverse backgrounds and perspective.

Conventional wisdom says that serving on nonprofit boards is a path to a corporate board seat, but Nancy cautions against this approach. “Non-profit boards will help you gain exposure and experience, but it’s not a direct track,” she says. “Never join a nonprofit unless you are absolutely passionate about the mission.

“Ultimately,” Nancy continues, “you need a skill that is in top demand, so begin to make yourself a source of valuable support, advice and guidance as early in your career as you can.”

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