It is an unfortunate phenomenon, but I have seen many young business leaders and entrepreneurs shy away from opportunities to join boards simply due to intimidation and fear. These individuals do not feel as though they have the experience or professional prestige needed to serve. They may also have the misconception that corporate boards are limited to bluechip, household name brand companies.
However, there are thousands of public companies that are not in this elite class that offer excellent opportunities to serve. Consider that there are more than 2,800 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and more than 3,100 companies listed on the NASDAQ. Add to those the tens of thousands of privately held companies who rely on boards.
Each of these companies seek out board members with diverse skill sets and expertise that will help keep the company well-rounded and innovative. What you uniquely have to offer may be exactly what one or multiple boards need.
I’ve served on a variety of boards (nonprofit, private and now several public company boards) and highly recommend young entrepreneurs aspire to board service. Serving on a corporate board can be a rewarding way to work hard, learn a lot, collaborate with extraordinary leaders, make a variety of significant contributions that help a company grow and ensure critical government compliance is met -- all while getting compensated for your time.
There are a variety of ways to join a corporate or public company board, including recruiters and services that list board opportunities like the National Association of Corporate Directors or Boardlist. While these are worthwhile, I did not arrive at my board positions through a recruiter or a service. Rather, the opportunities were extended to me because I put the necessary steps into practice in order to be sought after for board positions.
If you think you’d like to serve on a corporate board one day, here are six steps to take that can accelerate your trajectory and ensure your service is valuable to all stakeholders of an enterprise.
1. Why you want to serve on a corporate board.
If you think that serving on a corporate board is just a gig where you show up, do little work, enjoy great prestige and collect a big paycheck, you are sorely misinformed.
To be a great board member, you will be required to roll up your sleeves to do the work. You will be stretched to tap into what you know and challenged to keep learning and growing in areas that are unfamiliar to you.
Great board members are not born. They have to work to become valuable and sought after -- and you can, too.
Identify your “why” for joining a board and go into the position determined to make a difference -- all while enhancing your own career.
2. Become an expert in your field.
Your goal on a board is to be very valuable, offer key insights and help a company advance or solve problems. The best boards for the highest performing and ethical companies are those comprised of experts in their fields -- including but not limited to finance, legal, operations, HR and marketing. A major and growing emphasis for the companies on whose boards I serve is cyber security.
You can build your value every day, right now, by taking on extra projects and stepping outside your comfort zone. The more you know, the more you have to offer. I would also recommend attending industry conferences and investing time to stay on top of what’s happening in your field.
Even better, be an innovator and take risks in your field! It sets you apart and builds your credibility and visibility along with your expertise.
Also, while you don’t need to be a CEO or CFO to serve on a board, there are key compliance areas in finance that you’ll want to become familiar with prior to seeking out board opportunities. You will need to invest in acquiring the financial acumen required to become an independent director and meet Sarbanes-Oxley regulations.
3. Grow your network.
I don’t like the term networking because it has evolved to imply those disingenuous encounters that are akin to speed dating, where you size someone up in less than 90 seconds to see how valuable THEY are to YOU. That won’t help you in your career and it will likely prevent anyone from ever suggesting you for a board position. However, if you aim to build relationships by helping others build their business and solve problems, you will stand out from the crowd and get noticed.
To increase the number of relationships in your career, attend a variety of conferences and/or meetings (small and large) that are strategic to developing your expertise and helping your current company grow. You may believe you are too busy for this, but you DO have time. Even the busiest people carve out time for these opportunities to grow their network.
I recommend making it a goal to attend one strategic event in your industry each quarter. It’s a great way to build your existing network and connect with other board participants - you may even make great friends along the way.
The often overlooked but most important network includes the people that you work with NOW. They are your colleagues, boss, board, customers, clients, partners, etc. These relationships are not fleeting and often these people either refer you to a board opportunity or they are contacted as a reference in the vetting process.
Recently I received a call asking for my opinion about two former colleagues who were being considered for a board. We haven’t worked together in years, but that didn’t stop the recruiter from reaching out to ask for my feedback.
4. Start small.
You can cut your teeth on the ways and means of board work through volunteering on industry association and nonprofit boards, advisory boards, and start-up boards. As a great start, Dan Blakemore offers excellent ideas on how to join a nonprofit board.
Those “networking” meetings I mentioned above offer excellent opportunities to volunteer for a board or committee. These positions can be fun, interesting, and strategic ways to make friends, learn, and build a base of contacts. With these opportunities, you will also learn how boards work and how they don’t (or shouldn’t)!
I served on several nonprofit boards before joining public company boards and learned a great deal of worthwhile skills that I later applied on public company boards.
5. Get some training sooner rather than later.
Well before you think you’ll need it, attend a board boot camp through organizations like Women Corporate Directors and the National Association of Corporate Directors.
I attended a few of these training programs and one of the key takeaways was to prepare a board-friendly bio/CV so that when board opportunities came along, I was ready. I would also recommend keeping your LinkedIn profile current and continually look for ways you can improve it.
6. Tell people about your ambitions to join a board.
Share your aspirations with people you trust, like your mentor. Although I did not seek out any of the board roles I have held, I did tell people I trusted (and those who were in leadership) that it was a goal of mine to someday join a board. Doing this helped me stay focused on gaining skills and being prepared. It also helped keep my name top of mind should my trusted friends and colleagues learn of an opportunity.
If you put these six steps into practice now, you will see your path to a corporate board accelerate, you will differentiate yourself, and become more successful in your career along the way.