4 Strategies to Secure a Corporate Board Seat
To understand how people who are historically underrepresented on corporate boards successfully landed their seats, the author recruited 12 Black female public corporate directors to discuss their career paths and process of being recruited. His conversations revealed that recruiters and boards tend to look for and pre-vet C-suite candidates who resemble current and past directors. This makes it even more critical that candidates from underrepresented backgrounds build a robust and healthy social network filled with individuals who know you — and know what you want to accomplish. He recommends four strategies to accomplish this: 1) Demonstrate your ability to add value; 2) Gain board exposure; 3) Be your own best advocate; and 4) Build and nurture your network.
We’ve all heard, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Very few recognize that even knowing the right people is not enough. Instead, who knows you actually drives the opportunities you’re presented with.
This notion was reinforced by a recent study I did to explore how people who are historically underrepresented on corporate boards — in this case, Black women — successfully landed their seats. I recruited 12 Black female public corporate directors to discuss their career paths and process of being recruited.
My conversations revealed that when opportunities like a board vacancy emerge, we are often unknowingly identified, vetted, and selected — or weeded out — based on our network of current and past relationships, all made visible on social media. This means that to architect a fulfilling and impactful career, we must build, continually examine, nurture, and repair our relationships throughout our careers.
My conversations also revealed that recruiters and boards tend to look for and pre-vet C-suite candidates who resemble current and past directors. This makes it even more critical that candidates from underrepresented backgrounds build a robust and healthy social network filled with individuals who know you — and know what you want to accomplish. These four strategies can help.
1. Demonstrate your ability to add value.
Whether you’re in the early, mid, or later stages of your career, if you want to secure a board seat, now is the time to make others aware of your ability to add value. Your goal is to ensure that people see you as someone who can help.
To demonstrate your suitability, you need to showcase your ability to have high-level strategic conversations at an executive level. That involves deep and active listening, characterized by seeking information, engaging in dialogue, and challenging others’ thought processes.
Michele, a public company CFO who has spent 17 years serving on seven boards, advised that when you find yourself with someone on a board, “Know how to elevate your conversation in a way…that [the board member] will be thinking: ‘Wow, this person gets it. They’re a real strategic thinker about their own business or some other business.’”
2. Gain board exposure.
There’s a wide variety of boards (e.g., private corporate, small-cap public corporate, large-cap public corporate, nonprofit), and each type has a unique focus, impact, and set of needed director competencies. You need to understand these differences to demonstrate your value as a potential board member. Doing the legwork will help you determine which boards you are most interested in serving and where you may be able to add the most value.
You can take three steps to build this knowledge and experience. First, identify board members in your existing network and ask them about their experiences and observations. If you don’t have these relationships, you can find them through affinity groups or by asking your contacts to introduce you to current board members. You may also review issues of board-related magazines such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, or Private Company Director to begin familiarizing yourself with the concerns and activities of various kinds of boards.
Second, join professional organizations dedicated to board effectiveness, such as National Association of Corporate Directors, 50/50 Women on Boards, the Executive Leadership Council, Black Corporate Board Readiness Program, Black Women on Boards, African American Directors Forum, Women Corporate Directors, OnBoarding Women, Director Diversity Initiative, Private Directors Association, and many more. These organizations will help you remain aware and focused on the germane issues in the boardroom and provide excellent networking opportunities through their events.
Third, gain exposure to boards by interacting with your own company’s board. Attend board meetings or offer to present. One director I spoke with shared that for seven years while she was on her company’s leadership team, she attended every board meeting, staffed one of the board committees, and worked very closely with the chair of that committee. She also presented to her company’s board as president of her division.
Any of these experiences will help you clarify your own ideas about how and where you can add value, and they’ll help you build the connections and reputation that will be vital for attracting board service opportunities.
3. Be your own best advocate.
If you want to secure a board seat, you need to become a vocal self-advocate. Let your friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances know that you’re interested in serving on corporate boards, which types of boards you would be a great fit for, and why you’re interested in serving. These elements make up your “board readiness story.” When you share this story with everyone and anyone, you help others advocate for you and increase the chances that you will come to mind when a board seat opens.
The directors I spoke with emphasized that they were extremely deliberate in broadcasting their interest. Victoria, a CEO with 22 years of experience spanning five boards, acknowledged that although it’s not advisable to directly ask for a board seat — “I want to get on the board at [specific company]. Can you help me?” — you do need to make your interest known in some way. For example, in response to “What do you do?” you might say, “I’m an IT director at [company]and I serve on several nonprofit boards. I’m also looking for opportunities to share my expertise in cybersecurity through corporate board service to private companies.”
4. Build and nurture your network.
The directors I spoke with emphasized that networking is key to getting on boards because of the inherently social nature of recruiting and placing new directors. If you desire a board seat, you need to make sure the right people know you and say positive things about you, that you learn from their experiences, and that you maintain positive relationships throughout your network — even if it has been years since you worked together.
April, an attorney and board member, summarized that filling a board seat comes down to “who the recruiter and existing board members know, who else knows those candidates, and what those other people say about the candidates.” Michele, a public company CFO, added, “I had to learn that being great in my business unit wasn’t enough. I had to make sure people outside my business unit knew me — and it wasn’t enough for me to know them.”
Your network should include mentors and sponsors who can help guide and facilitate your strategic career decisions, as well as recruiters, search firms, and other board members who can help you find board seats. The board members I spoke with said that joining professional organizations and attending board education and networking events were exceptionally helpful for building connections, learning the unwritten rules of boards, shaping their careers, and securing board seats.
Finally, while it can be enjoyable to build new relationships and expand your network, it’s equally critical to nurture your past relationships. Remember that anyone could be your next character reference. April shared a story of being contacted for an open board seat based partly on a recommendation from a colleague from 20 years earlier. Several directors I interviewed reflected on the importance of treating others well, leaving lasting, positive impressions, and mending any relationships that need it. By nurturing your networks, you make it far easier for others to recognize that you are the next director they need.
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Long gone are the days when knowledge and skills or knowing the right people will enable you to land the opportunities you desire. By diligently demonstrating your value, gaining board experience, advocating for yourself, and nurturing your network, you can move beyond outdated approaches. After all, it’s no longer what you know or who you know — it’s who knows you and what they say about you that matters.