Of all the career paths winding through the business world, few can match the prestige and fascination of corporate board service. The honor of being selected to guide the future of an enterprise, combined with the intellectual challenge of helping that enterprise succeed despite the odds, make directorship a strong magnet for ambition and a worthy goal for accomplishment.
As the baby boomer generation ages, I’ve been getting more calls from people interested in becoming corporate board directors as a way to bridge to retirement. It is an honor to be selected to guide the future of an organization and the pay can be decent as well — sometimes. That said, this is one of the hardest roles to find and be selected for.
Competition is fierce for the relatively small number of roles compared to potential candidates. With so few board seats opening every year, and with a strong preference toward for-profit CEOs to fill the open roles, it is a real challenge to get through the boardroom door. If you are interested in a board director role for a publicly-held corporation, the competition is even more intense thanks to the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which imposes stringent corporate requirements and tightly regulates board membership.
Overall, it’s a competitive market. Often, companies will engage executive search firms to find candidates with the credentials needed to be a financial or compensation expert. If you have that experience, you’ll be asked to demonstrate proof from your work experience, degrees and certifications.
Once your background is vetted, you will need to make a substantial time commitment. Board directors today spend about 20 hours per month preparing for and attending meetings and traveling.
The preparation is extensive. Board directors should understand the company’s products, main competitors, health of the business and larger industry, how consumers view competitors, tax rates, regulatory burdens and the global competition for top talent the company requires. This takes time and effort.
Betsy Atkins, a professional director and author who currently sits on seven boards, employs a team of four staff, including two CPAs and a market researcher, to help her stay up to speed.
Knowing all that, are you still interested? If so, here are five steps to help you find your first board seat.
1. Rewrite your resume (or have a professional resume writer do it)
A board director’s resume delineates the skills and accomplishments one would look for in an executive and also provides insight about your effectiveness as a director. This is not to suggest you need two resumes, one for boards and one for executive work. Any rewriting should enhance an existing executive resume.
Be sure to highlight any board positions you have held, including not-for-profit board service and work on special committees and task forces. Highlight important strategy implementations you have executed and that you have advised other organizations about.
Make sure to use “director speak” and avoid any verbiage that suggests you single-handedly brought about results. Instead, use phrases like “working with peers,” “dialogue,” “stewardship,” “socialization,” “fiduciary group decisions,” “building consensus” and so on. Using terms like “risk oversight,” “assurance” and “systems of reporting and compliance” will show an understanding of governance.
Another hot area is your knowledge and use of social media. List how many followers you have on various platforms and show how you have used social media as a leader. Companies are interested in the pull you have through social media to drive consumers to their products.
Additionally, show how you have mentored executives and how their careers have progressed. Companies often do not have time or resources to provide solid mentorship for up and coming executives, particularly women. Many companies are interested in starting mentorship programs that involve their directors so they can have productive succession planning for both male and female leaders.
2. Join the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD)
As long as you serve as a director on a board — even a local not-for-profit — you can join NACD. As a member, you will be assigned your own personal advisor, receive a variety of benefits and be able to network with other board directors.
3. Network, network, network
Make sure you attend the local chapter events of other professional organizations that you belong to. Don’t just shake hands. Get to know people, talk to the speakers and find out what is happening in other companies. Then, follow up on these connections. Invite these new contacts to coffee or lunch so you can learn more about them. Find out the issues they are dealing with and offer to provide help in any way you can. Let these new contacts know you are ready, qualified and looking for a board seat.
4. Pace yourself
Bear in mind the average individual’s active search for a board seat usually takes more than two years, according to a survey from Women Corporate Directors.
5. Consider everything
Most likely, your first board seat will not be for a publicly-held corporation. Actually, your first board seat, even for a for-profit entity, will likely not be paid or will be an equity-only opportunity.
Network far and wide and consider every opportunity carefully. A non-paid role may balance out with the opportunity to enhance your resume, show true board experience or learn more about an industry.
Being selected for a corporate board seat can be a rewarding experience, but positions are not always easy to come by. If you have the right skills and you actively pursue opportunities, it can be a dynamic way to accelerate your career, make a contribution and make a difference.