Looking to network? Career need a lift? Here are five steps that could get you into the hottest seat in the house: a board of directors' chair.

It was the break of a lifetime, and Bruce Clay virtually stumbled into it. He was 40 at the time, just getting his Los Angeles tech consulting firm off the ground. One of his first jobs: setting up a computer network for Business Forum, a Beverly Hills outfit that hosts power lunches. The higher-ups there "didn't have a clue" about technology issues, he says, and to Clay's surprise, invited him to be a director.

He soon discovered how much cachet that carried. People who wouldn't return his calls before suddenly did. "If you call a VP and say, 'I'm a consultant,' they're going to take a message," he explains. "If you say, 'I'm on a board of directors,' you'll get through." He credits his board status, for instance, with getting him in to see the managing partner of a top L.A. law firm -- a confab that resulted in $750,000 of consulting work.

Being a director gave Clay a chance to get in tight with the folks at Business Forum too. This spring when they were looking for a chief operating officer, they tapped him, after 11 years as a director, for the six-figure job. Clay has even leveraged his director status to land three more board seats, at dot-com startups where he received sizable equity stakes. If any one of them hits it big, he quips, "I'll have to decide what island I want to buy."

As Clay found, a board seat can give your career an adrenaline shot. It stands out on your resume, and it gives you a chance to rub shoulders with heavy hitters. (Clay says he's met a "who's who of executive VPs and presidents" while serving on boards.) "You're able to network with people at the highest level of leadership," says Roger Raber, president of the National Association of Corporate Directors.

Where do you sign up, you ask. Well, first there's that little matter of getting appointed. Some tips:

Start small.
As in any milieu, cultivate your local contacts first. Volunteer for the board of a local nonprofit. These are often easier to get on but serve as valuable training grounds. No doubt sharing the table with you will be well-heeled folks who serve on for-profit boards as well. Raber, for instance, first made a name for himself as chairman of a small school board in Connecticut. A local bank honcho was at a few meetings, liked what he saw and invited Raber to join his board. That led to other director offers.

First thing we do, we schmooze all the lawyers.
"The royal road to getting on boards is schmoozing with partners in law firms," says Larry Stybel, founder of Boardoptions.com, a Web site run by the Boston search firm Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire. "Every partner will know a gazillion companies, so when there are openings, the attorney usually knows where they are."

Lobby search firms...discreetly.
The real powers behind the throne are executive recruiters Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, both of which handle reams of director searches. But don't go to them cap in hand. "It's always better to be recommended by somebody else," says NACD's Raber. "With unsolicited resumes, 99% of those are dumped." Instead, get someone who's respected to write a letter to the headhunters. Since director searches are often loss leaders for headhunters, they are receptive to quality tips that make their job easier.

Don't come across as desperate.
Even if you really, really want to be a director, never admit it. "There's a CEO of a very prominent company on the East Coast who's been telling everybody he wants to serve on a board," says Dennis Carey, vice chairman at Spencer Stuart. "It backfired, because it looks like he's too desperate to get a seat." Casually let it be known that you're available for a seat, but don't actively campaign for it. And focus on what you can do for the company, not what it can do for you. Experience in finance, strategic planning and raising venture capital are the hottest traits du jour.

Get your name on key Web sites.
Boardoptions.com, for one, keeps a registry of board hopefuls, but it will list only people who are already directors or who are in senior positions. Bruce Clay landed his three Internet board seats through the site and has received about a call a month since being listed.

The good news is, once you've made that initial foray onto a board, getting onto the next one is that much easier. "Board members beget board members," says NACD's Raber. "That's still the best way to get on a board: if you're already on one."