Board service can be a great way to gain experience and learn about the inner workings of various companies. But what’s required to serve on a board and what are some best practices that professionals should follow to gain board experience?
Sara Faivre created and leads InTouch2020, an Austin-based board readiness program. “It can take several years of focused effort to land a corporate board seat,” she says. “Beyond acquiring specific skills, this path includes creating a board-relevant personal brand and becoming recognized in your field and your community as a person who gets things done.”
There are, she says, “lots of books, and weekend programs designed to teach the basics of what it takes to be a board member. The list includes leadership and industry skills, C-suite-level experience, and understanding of fiduciary responsibilities. Executives with an interest in corporate board service are commonly advised to serve on non-profit boards, advisory boards, and government commissions.”
Here’s a look at some other advice from experts on board service for positioning yourself to take on board-level positions.
“Perhaps the most critical aspect on the road to a corporate board seat is building and using your network,” says Faivre. “Talk to everyone in your close network about your board aspirations and ask their advice,” she says. She also recommends that those interested in landing board roles “fish where the fish are”—seek out and attend events where people who are on boards will be present. In addition, she recommends: “Be active on LinkedIn in ways that are board-relevant, like commenting and posting articles on board service.”
It may be disconcerting to those at an early point in their careers, but boards like to populate their seats with those who have C-level experience. After all, just as in filling any job, the greater the experience and qualifications you can draw upon, the better.
Christopher Kummer is a former executive consultant who has helped to win board members for listed and privately held companies. “Usually we would look for C-level executives who have gained experience in the C-suite,” says Kummer. Depending on the needs of the board, additional considerations might come into play, he says. For instance: if the new member were to serve on an audit committee, “a CFO with a CPA was a good addition.”
Create a Board-Specific Resume
Seeking a board position isn’t like seeking a job. Rachel Vander Pol, an executive resume writer and personal branding expert for the C-suite suggests that those who are actively seeking board-level roles create a board-specific resume. “This resume uses a slightly different format and specifically shows overall business acumen and performance,” she says. “While numbers and metrics matter, just as important is showcasing the candidate’s ability to see the big picture, be forward thinking, and bring organizations to the next level.”
To prepare for, or to boost your credentials, formal board education may be advised, says Vander Pol. “Board education programs are a wise investment,” she says. “They not only show one’s commitment to board leadership but can also open doors to great networking opportunities.”
Key Points to Remember
Donna Miller is co-founder and CEO of Purse Power, Inc., and a former HR executive and executive coach. Miller has been putting on Women in Leadership events for 10 years and 2020 Women on Boards events for four. Over the years, she says, a wide range of speakers have made important points about getting on boards.
- Don’t wait until the end of your career to start positioning yourself for board service. “Every career step you make should position you for this goal,” she says.
- Seek line experience. This is particularly important for women, she says. “Women often get stuck in staff roles when the real route to the top is through operations,” says Miller. She advises taking on challenging line opportunities—that might include product or service development, work in M&A or turnarounds, or technology implementations.
- Consider the type of technical expertise that can best position you for board service and then take steps to gain that expertise. For instance, Miller says, data security and technology are critical areas. Board members often have financial acumen, but fewer have these skills.
- Gain experience by participating on non-profit boards that may be more within reach. State boards and commissions can also provide valuable experience, she says. Participation on non-profit boards may not, necessarily, help you become considered for paid board positions, but “non-profit board teaches you the ropes of board participation.” The contacts you make may also prove helpful.
- When it comes to board service, it really is “all about who you know,” says Miller. “Board members refer other board members. Your network is very important, and you should be building a robust one throughout your career.”
When a board opportunity emerges and you’re invited to toss your hat into the ring, experienced board member Paul A. Dillon, CMC, with Dillon Consulting Services, LLC, recommends asking some detailed questions to do some due diligence before accepting the position. After all, he says, it’s important to ensure that the mission of the organization you will serve is aligned with your own. Here are Dillon’s recommended questions:
- Can I get a copy of your bylaws and board policy manual (if you have one)?
- Do you have Director’s and Officer’s (D&O) liability insurance? If so, can I get a copy of the policy to read?
- Do you have an annual audit from a reputable CPA firm? If so, can I get a copy of the latest final audit report?
- Can I get financial statements for your organization for the past three years?
- Has your organization ever been sued? If yes, please provide details of any past or present litigation.
- Can you arrange for me to talk to some present and former board members?
- Can you arrange for me to talk with key members of the professional staff?
- Can you arrange for me to talk with some of the people who are serviced by your organization?
- Is there anything else about your organization that I should know?
In addition to providing you with important information to help guide your decision, these questions and requests also serve to position you as someone with a solid understanding of what board service entails. As Dillon points out: “What’s interesting is that, once you develop a reputation as a diligent and competent board member, organizations seek you out and pick you, rather than you picking the organization on which to serve.”