Getting on a Corporate Board
Among the S&P 100, women occupy just 19% of the board seats, and women of color occupy less than 4%. Further complicating the quest for diversity. Those who overcome the barriers to entry may have trouble hanging onto their board seats or getting additional ones if they question the status quo. In remarks at a recent conference, I was startled when I met a female director who was removed from a board because she questioned a CEO’s pay. In a comment afterward, she said she is aware of many other similar situations. I have personally witnessed situations where investment management firms want board seats to control outcome and direction in many technology growth companies.
For women – and men – who play the boardroom game successfully, a corporate directorship offers challenges, connections, and cold cash. A woman whose credentials include a stint in the Federal Aviation Administration, earned around $100,000 (in cash and stock) as an outside director for a prominent Airline Group. That’s in addition to what she makes at her “day job,” in a major aerospace trade group.
Apart from being potentially lucrative, board service can expand your horizons, present intellectual challenges, and offer meaningful work for those who can’t see themselves fully retiring after traditional employment ends. Many boards don’t require you to step down until age 72, and some have no age limits.
No wonder directorships have become a mainstay for lots of ex-CEOs and former high-ranking government officials. High-profile women entrepreneurs and the rare breed of Fortune 500-woman CEOs are trophies for corporate boards. But the merely accomplished tend to have more difficulty snagging these coveted positions. All the more reason for women to help each other. It’s all about networking.
Here is some of the advice about how to get on a corporate board I have gleaned over time.
Maneuver in your 30s and 40s through non-profit board involvement, political connections, and company activities, so you meet people who are themselves on boards.
One of the key credentials for board members is experience being accountable for the profits and losses of a company. “P&L responsibility,” as it’s called, is usually something one only gets by being an upper-level executive. I have been blessed to have such experience. However, women are still poorly represented in the C-suite: because of job discrimination, failure to “lean in,” and taking time off the career track for motherhood. Gen Xers and Millennials take note.
“Boards want people who can be contributors. Since women have held fewer P&L roles than men, “You have to work that much harder, and your network needs to be that much stronger.”
Another thing to do in the early decades of your career is to bond with older colleagues who can give you a leg up. In lieu of hackneyed and sometimes awkward mentoring relationships, consider becoming what’s popularly called a “reverse mentor.”
Acquire marketable expertise. Knowledge of digital technology, the regulatory environment and executive compensation are in popular demand. But to parlay those skills into a board membership takes a lot of networking. You’re not going to get on a board unless someone on that board already knows you or is closely connected to someone who can vouch for your qualifications, preparation and ability to get along with others.
Service on a nonprofit board is one way to get in the game, but it should be a large nonprofit board. Think university trusteeships; directorships at large nonprofits that deal with “any part of the body” and prestigious arts organizations. Their boards are populated with people who also sit on the boards of public companies, so it’s a great way to make connections.
Recruiters, who increasingly get involved in the search process, are bombarded with resumes from wannabes. Most often, they are retained to vet candidates who are already under consideration, rather than to discover new “talent.” If you want them to also be your advocate, make their job easy by identifying in your bio something they can sell. Example: experience with cost-cutting at a company during a transition and preparation for sale.
Create digital footprints.
In this context, as in others, serendipitous online connections can lead to pleasant surprises. For example, last fall, a senior education management consultant whom I had known professionally 20 years ago ran across my name on LinkedIn. We met for coffee the last time I was was in New York, and in the course of conversation she decided my governance experience was a perfect match for a major university. A letter to the president suggesting me for the board opened the door for conversations.
International experience (especially in Asia) is also in demand. Depending on the company that might mean an international posting, extensive overseas business travel, or responsibility for foreign markets. Other boards want someone who deeply understands the culture and consumers and may insist the executive have on-the-ground experience. It’s rare for a board of a company headquartered in the United States to insist that board members be fluent in a foreign language. But if you want a seat on the board of a company based in another country, that might be an issue.
Host a schmoozefest.
last May a group organized an event that might be called “speed dating corporate directors.” The invitation, sent to 75 read, “Bring your favorite director to cocktails.” They arranged for booze and hors d’oeuvres. All they asked was that each guest bring a director “who could learn from the experience.” Tables in the room were arranged by topic, and organized so that guests, wearing a name tag with the name of their company and an elevator pitch for their skills, could easily circulate.
Fact is there is no proven recipe, however for the right women at the right time these roles can be rewarding and quite impactful.