Is corporate board service a top goal for 2020?
What about 2022?
As the average search for a corporate board role takes one to two years – barring the occasional “right place at right time” serendipitous match – if corporate board service is in your sights within the next 18 to 24 months, you may want to start taking overt steps to prepare yourself now. In addition, learning to “think like a board member” can help you take a top-down view of your current employer and the greater playing field.
To be clear, corporate board membership is not the goal of every senior or mid-level executive, even if there were enough boards to accommodate everyone looking for a role. (Clearly there are not!) Nonetheless, the competition is quite high, so if board membership is one of your priorities, there are many aspects of your candidacy you will want to shore up as you pave a path to the boardroom.
Is board membership right for you? Is it worth the effort?
And what can you offer in return?
You will need understand your goals and direction for board service and get a handle on what board service actually entails.
As you create your vision for corporate board service, here’s where you can start:
Understand your motivation.
Why do you want to serve on a corporate board?
You may have a range of goals, such as:
- Making a difference
- Engaging in intellectual rigor
- Being part of a high-impact team
- Increasing your earnings
- Diversifying your income
- Expanding your expertise
- Leveling-up your network
- Learning more about an adjacent industry
- Growing your leadership capacity
- Moving up within your current firm
Being part of a board is a singular experience that cannot easily be replicated elsewhere. If you understand your goals and priorities, it will help you craft your vision for the types of boards you should target. At the same time, consider whether a board role is the best means to achieve your objectives and be aware you will need to craft a pitch about your board interest (that does not sound self-serving) as and when you are actually vetted for the role.
(I will cover board pitches later in this series.)
Identify the types of companies that could be a fit.
To state the obvious, taking on a board role in a direct competitor to your current employer is generally not a good idea. Yet beyond that, do you know what you are looking for in a target company? If you want some prompts, try browsing a list of open director positions, such as this one.
Think about “fit” as you contemplate which board roles you want to pursue. Fit implies a match on both ends and is based both on what you want and which boards will be best for (and want) you.
What is the profile of an ideal company for you?
What size, markets, domestic or global reach, mission, prevailing view and corporate direction would fit your interests and expertise?
With which companies do feel an aligned sense of mission and shared values?
Think about all the ways you can define for yourself what fit might mean, including the stage of the company, size and composition of the board, geographic location and other factors.
Is a tech-driven company the right fit?
Do you have experience in a heavily regulated industry and an interest in translating that experience a board?
Is there an adjacent industry to yours that would be a natural fit?
Finally (and for some of you this may be obvious), boards can differ greatly based on the stage and size of the company, current board composition (including whether private equity or other investors hold roles on or control the board) and many other factors.
Consider where you may have an “in” or find support.
As you think further about your vision and target company parameters, also consider (1) where you may have or could make connections or an edge and (2) those roles your current employer would most likely support (because what you gain from the experience will be helpful to your current company, among other reasons).
On a similar note, if you are thinking seriously about landing your first board role, you should start talking to your current company’s board, CEO and/or direct manager as applicable to secure their blessing (avoiding potential conflicts or misunderstandings later) and garner support. They may even be asked to serve on a board that is not a match and put up your name instead, but they can only do that if they know you are looking.
On the other hand, if you happen to work for an organization that does not support outside board membership, consider whether a job change may be in order depending on your priorities and other factors that could play into a decision.
Explore what value you can offer to boards.
As we will explore further later articles, it is never too early to start thinking about the value you offer to a corporate board. Not only will knowing your value boost your board candidacy, but it will also build your confidence (as you come to own that value) and help you discern the best board(s) for you to join.
Vision and Leadership Skills
Think about the vision, leadership and other soft skills you can offer a board.
- Boards value members who can both work collaboratively as a team and challenge the status quo when needed.
- Directors should exhibit high integrity, exude executive presence and hold sufficient caché, as they are the face of the organization to its customers, vendors, suppliers, competitors, regulators and the public.
- Boards also want members who can build key relationships and are excellent communicators.
They are also searching for candidates with substantive expertise in their industry and areas of business (technology, manufacturing, healthcare, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, supply chain management, etc.) as well as most or all of the following, in varying orders:
- global business
- financial strategy
- investor engagement
- organizational planning
- CEO succession planning
- talent acquisition/HR
- M&A and/or IPOs
- regulatory compliance
- product launch
- intellectual property
- enterprise risk management
- litigation and disputes
- change management
- crisis management
- corporate reorganization
- investment oversight
- corporate governance and/or ESG
- QFE and/or audit committee
- data privacy
- insurance and regulatory matters
- executive compensation
- government affairs
- health and safety
Interests (such as a love of news, fashion, the environment, sports or technology), specialized training and language skills can also give you an edge with (1) companies that are seeking that skill, passion or input and (2) board members who share similar interests and skills.
Diversity is also playing a greater role in board recruitment among some companies, from diversity of gender, race and ethnicity to diversity of thought and approach (based on life experience, education, interests, background, age and other factors). Yet not all companies are considering board composition as a criteria for new board member recruitment, and not all categories of diverse candidates are making significant strides.
If you are a diverse candidate, you can raise your candidacy by being able to clearly articulate how your perspective adds value to the team. For example, it may help the company understand and connect with its target audience’ needs, values and demographics or provide a different perspective to problem-solving. All things being equal, you may also wish to target those companies that value your diversity rather than making the hard sell to those that don’t, at least for your first board role.
(I will further discuss the value of diversity and how diverse candidates can market themselves to boards in a later article.)
Build board-ready attributes.
A track record of taking risks, initiating solutions, raising new ideas and taking the lead on multiple projects are key attributes that will accelerate your path to board of directors positions.
While CEOs and CFOs of established corporations are clearly in demand, they are not the only sought-after candidates.
- Having experience on or frequent involvement with a corporate board, board committee (e.g., enterprise risk, acquisitions, nominating, compliance or audit) or executive committee will provide you exposure that increases your board readiness.
- Starting your own business (or nonprofit) and chairing or serving on its board is another path to serving on a corporate board.
- Non-profit boards and advisory board roles can also provide great experience and help you understand how boards and organizations function well (and when they don’t).
If you take a volunteer board position for a non-profit organization and wish to build on that experience to land a corporate board role, make sure that you are (1) aligned with the mission of the non-profit and not merely using it as a springboard, (2) gaining experience that rounds you out as a candidate (e.g., working with financial statements, if that’s a gap in your current expertise) and (3) joining a governing board, not a working board with cross-over executive responsibilities, so you can greater appreciate the distinction between board oversight and senior management’s hands-on involvement with an organization.
Further, you can increase board-readiness by keeping apprised of the issues currently facing boards.
Know what you are signing up for.
The major responsibilities of a corporate board of directors span the following:
- CEO: Select, evaluate, oversee, retain (or not) and approve appropriate compensation for the company’s chief executive officer.
- Strategic Direction: In many cases in collaboration with the CEO, (1) provide the mission, goals and strategy for the organization, (2) determine whether to approve major corporate decisions, such as mergers and acquisitions, (3) address enterprise-level major issues that arise.
- Governance: Determine enterprise resource allocation, risk tolerances and rules that govern the organization, in accordance with law and best practices.
- Financial Management: Oversee and collaborate with the auditors and approve the company’s financials.
In all cases, the board also is accountable to protect shareholder value, which comes with a formal set of fiduciary duties. It also can require a serious time commitment, both in terms of hours and (failing any change in your own or company circumstances) expected years of service.
Boards of directors can also (and in some cases are required to) have committees that consist of a portion of the larger board with special responsibilities, most often the Nominating & Governance Committee, Compensation Committee and Audit Committee and sometimes additional specialized committees (see, e.g., page 10 of the Stanford Business Corporate Governance Research Initiative). For more about the Board’s role in a corporation, take a further look at the Stanford presentation from the previous link or the Principles of Corporate Governance posted by the Business Roundtable on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance site.
Take a range of approaches to craft your board vision, so that you are prepared for the experience, more likely to be chosen for a board role that is right for you and can get the most out of your board service.
Keep an eye out for future articles on corporate board service in the following months that will help you further understand corporate board membership, craft your message and boost your candidacy.
If you have comments on something covered here or that you would like to see in future articles, feel free to send them to me or add them below. Thanks!
Copyright 2020 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.
For a preview of future articles in the Corporate Board Series, click here.
For links to more corporate board resources, click here.
Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice.
Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development.
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