In the wake of a big promotion, many careerists begin to set their sights on - or at least consider the benefits of - joining a corporate board of directors. A board of directors is a group of people that looks after an organization's interests and activities. It's common for these people to own equity in the company, to have expert knowledge in a given field and have enough experience navigating financial challenges to feel comfortable discussing in great detail which risks the company should take on.
While many senior managers are qualified to join a board, entry is still no easy feat. Corporate boards tend to be conservative institutions that frequently go through headhunters for recruitment. From there, self-marketing often requires a sophisticated balancing act of capability and character. Not everyone wins a seat, despite your publications, connections and qualifications.
Times are changing, though. Board seats are opening up to promising potential directors with more diverse track records and those who align with market needs.
“In the past, especially if you are a woman, you needed to be a CEO or a CFO to join a board, but now we're seeing board seats offered to chief marketing officers, chief technology officers and investor relations executives, as well as people in other positions," said David Bell, a partner with Fenwick & West, a law firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Now, we're seeing a powerful trend towards increasing diversity on boards."
If you want to position yourself for future corporate board membership, you may want to join a nonprofit board first, which can be accomplished much more easily and builds your resume and connections while you gain board experience.
At the same time, your area of expertise and the level you have reached in your career can help determine whether or not you are ready to take membership to the next level. If you believe you could be ready to join a board now, here are three considerations to help you win the new role.
Corporate board members spend between 20 and 40 days annually attending meetings, reviewing materials, participating on committees and researching issues, said Bell. That can be a big commitment for someone who is simultaneously running their own business, especially during challenging times.
Nevertheless, the role does carry benefits.
Working on a corporate board with other professionals from different backgrounds can enrich your knowledge of best business practices, deepen your understanding of the issues companies face and give you the opportunity to showcase your own expertise, said Bell. Board members can learn about different industries or related industries and bring that knowledge back to their own companies.
In addition, corporate board service typically includes financial compensation for preparation hours, committee work and meeting attendance.
The average compensation for a corporate board member is $64,980, according to Payscale, although payment in the form of cash and stock awards can reach into six figures and higher at Fortune 500 companies.
“Being on a board is a two-way street," said Jamie Inferrera, an attorney with Eckert Seamans in Pittsburgh. “While the board benefits from the skills of its directors, the directors gain professional development and an expanded network of relationships."
If you feel you have the time and experience to add value, you'll need to be proactive and prove it.
“You need to let people know you're interested because, if you're a successful professional, you and those in your network are naturally busy," said Inferrera. “Let people know you're looking for specific opportunities and be convincing."
Self-promotion is especially important if you're in a position where you feel you have something to offer but simply lack the connections to join a board, said Bell.
“For instance, university professors often have deep expertise in particular fields such as medicine or science that would be valuable to a board, but they often lack corporate connections," Bell said.
Volunteering to speak on panels, writing published articles on your area of expertise or receiving public acknowledgement such as an award for your work are all ways to increase your exposure and get noticed for a potential board position, said Bell.
“You should put together a resume that shows off your quotes in the press or other public appearances that demonstrate your expertise in an area of interest, such as artificial intelligence, online security, alternative energy or anything that could be valuable to a company," said Bell.
An “elevator speech" that showcases your expertise is important when you're looking for board opportunities, said Inferrera. “For example, I can tell people I'm a public finance attorney who works with government agencies, which can be helpful for some companies."
After you shape a compelling story, you should be able to communicate how it relates to a firm's operations and where you could add the most value.
Rather than jumping at the first opportunity to join a corporate board, take a strategic approach to finding the right fit for you and for the corporation.
Do your research. The more you know about a company, a board and its directors, the better positioned you are to add value.
“Check out who's on a specific board, find out their expectations and look for connections to your network," said Inferrera. “Be realistic and recognize that your first board opportunity may not be with a Fortune 500 company."
Public companies need to explain the value each board member brings to their company in an annual report, added Bell, so think about what your value could be to various companies before having discussions with them.
Because boards are looking for change in one way or another, you have more agency than you realize in enterprise innovation. Choose wisely.
There are numerous organizations committed to increasing diversity on corporate boards, and they can serve as invaluable resources for those looking to make connections.
If you're unsure of how to move forward, prospective board candidates should contact organizations that can help with networking events, coaching or connections to possible board opportunities, such as:
“These organizations provide access to materials that can help you prepare to join a board. They also give you information about boards that are looking to add directors," said Bell. “They're like headhunters for board positions and can make introductions for you."
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