Becoming a board member is a lifelong goal for many professionals. But attaining your first board seat can feel like a tall task.
We work with our board-ready members and help them through this process. This guide will highlight our four-step process to prepare you to join a board of directors.
- How to orchestrate your board search campaign
- The differences between private and public boards
- How to write the perfect board bio
- The tactics to prep for your board interview
First, let's take a look at the current board recruiting landscape.
The current board recruiting landscape
We just released a research paper on the Fortune 500 Board Diversity in 2022. The paper examines the diversity of today’s boards. We highlight disparities, discuss intersectional diversity, and explore what can be improved using best practices for building better boards.
Historically, when an organization begins its search for a new board member, the director, chairperson, or CEO would ask the other directors for recommendations in their network of people that can fill the seat.
But when most board members are predominantly white men, their network is predominately white. This mentality has perpetuated inequitable trends on boards.
Additionally, many boards have required candidates to have CEO or CFO experience, and often searches require previous board experience. This makes the eligible talent pool shrink from a pool down to a puddle.
Luckily, the skill sets needed to govern effectively are expanding in today's globalized business world. The best boards are composed of experts across functions, from digital media to cybersecurity to HR. They realize the benefits of diversity.
This allows you to focus on your unique skill sets and leverage them to complement the existing board members.
Ultimately, highlighting your skills and understanding how to communicate them is what will land you a seat on a board of directors. And this brings us to step one.
Step 1: Orchestrate your campaign
Board recruiting is not like executive recruiting. The best way to frame your board search is to think of it as putting together a campaign.
The goal of your campaign is to appeal to a set of people in an organization whose mission you believe in. To do that, you'll need to communicate what you bring to the table.
There are four fundamental questions you'll want to be able to answer. These questions will become the pillars of your campaign:
Question #1: What is your value proposition?
A value proposition is typically no more than three sentences. It’s an elevator pitch highlighting the unique expertise you will bring to a board of directors.
Base your value proposition on the industries you have worked in, the specific type of experience you have, the knowledge you have acquired, and the successes you have earned.
For example, suppose you have spent most of your career in small startups from zero to a hundred million dollars in revenue. Even if that's what you do better than anyone else, that experience won't appeal to a company trying to scale from five billion to 10 billion dollars. So stick with what you know.
Question #2: What skills do you have?
You already have a requisite set of skills from your professional experience. Knowing those skills is crucial and explaining how you can leverage them for a board role is crucial.
Think of your skills as mini value propositions. Make a list of your skills and explain how they are an asset to a potential board.
For example, let's say you're an analytics expert. Your value proposition for this skill could be that you can use predictive analytics and statistics to help make recommendations that solve complex problems and propel business innovations forward.
Writing your skills list is a great exercise to truly understand what you bring to the table and is also great for overcoming imposter syndrome. When writing your list of skills, be thorough and add as many as possible. When finished, you should feel energized and empowered by everything you can do.
Question #3: What networking relationships do you have?
Like it or not, one of the most significant factors in landing a board role is who you know. Because networking is crucial, it's worth taking the time to understand your relationships with your network. Make a list based on the following:
- People you know that currently serve on the board.
- CEOs you know that now work with a board of directors.
- Recruiters you know that conduct board searches.
- Anyone else you know who is "in the room" with a board (i.e., lawyers, advisors, or heads of organizations.)
The goal of networking during your board campaign is to strengthen relationships and receive referrals. The best way to receive referrals is to tell your network you're looking.
Write a short note explaining that you're searching for a board seat and that if anything happens to cross their desk, you would be a great fit to keep in mind. You’ll want to attach your board bio so they have it at hand.
Step 2: Craft your board bio
Many people overstress about their board bio. They believe crafting a perfect bio will make or break their chances of sitting on the board. But it's simply not true.
Yes, your board bio is important. Providing a short, to-the-point overview of yourself will help frame the conversation. But again, ultimately, it comes down to the unique skills you bring to the table. So try not to overthink it.
Your board bio should fit on one page. To ensure you do that, follow this framework:
- Your unique value proposition
- Your current role and how it relates to corporate governance
- Top career highlights and how it relates to corporate governance
- Your education, credentials, and accomplishments
Keep each of the above bullet points to three to four sentences max. Remember, the board bio is an overview. Don't feel the need to stuff every credential or career highlight you have. Keep it concise enough to pique their interest so you can wow them in your interview.
Step 3: Choose the right board type for you
A matchmaking exercise is deciding what type of board you want to join. You want to align your skills with a company's needs. But before you dive into your company search, you'll want to know what type of board you’re looking for.
There are two types of corporate boards:
Serving on a private board can be a very hands-on experience. Private boards are more involved in all aspects of a company.
The governance is less confining than in a public board, so you can be responsible for everything from setting annual budgets, establishing operational goals, and evaluating the CEO's job performance.
Private organizations are usually run as a partnership. Typically the CEO and CTO are significant shareholders, so you'll want to ensure you agree with their vision. They will have much more influence than in a publicly-traded company.
Sitting on a public board is a prestigious seat. But the role comes with more exposure to legal risk, significant time commitment, and potentially public criticism. So thick skin is a prerequisite.
The fundamental role of a public board is much like a private board -- to ensure that management is acting in the best interests of its shareholders.
But a public board role has three general differences to a private board:
- They are responsible for hiring the CEO and deciding compensation.
- They are tasked with determining short and long-term business objectives.
- They must file and disclose all financial information and partnerships during the fiscal year.
A brief word on nonprofit boards
We often get asked if joining a nonprofit board is a good precursor to moving to a for-profit board. In our opinion, it's not.
There are, however, similar dynamics at play under the surface. Maneuvering social politics and gaining better situational and contextual skills are essential for any board. But the actual mechanisms of corporate governance are not translatable enough to for-profit boards.
Step 4: Prep for your interview with the board of directors
Before your interview with the board, learn everything you can about the organization.
You’ll want to be informed about:
Company mission, products, and services
Before even reaching out to schedule an interview, you should know their business top to bottom (from an outsider's perspective). Understand why they exist and who they serve. Know each of their products and services, and be able to "sell" what they're selling.
By knowing everything you can about an organization, you'll be able to speak with the directors like you're already part of the team.
Main competitors and their value proposition
Dive deeper into the competitors and understand how they are positioning their business. You don't have to do rigorous competitor research. Just gather a broad picture of the major players in the industry and how they position themselves.
How consumers view the company and competitors
Gather a consensus on consumer sentiment and identify any challenges. The easiest way to collect this data today is through Twitter.
Type the organization's name in the search bar and click 'Latest' to get real-time information of what people are saying now. You can also click on the 'Top' tab to see what posts have received the most engagement.
The makeup of current board members
A board of directors is typically a collection of insiders and outsiders. Insiders are the board members who also serve within the company (like a CEO on a private board). Outsiders are those who strictly serve as board members.
A good rule of thumb is to look for an organization with a healthy dose of both.
Insiders can be more emotionally invested in big decisions, so outsiders bring a balanced perspective. But their insider knowledge is crucial for identifying company-specific sticking points that outsiders may not see.
Latest company news
Do a brief Google search for the organizations' names and tab over to the news section. That will give you all of the top press they have received. If you want to join a public board, search for them on Yahoo Finance to gain access to their financial information.
A tip: try searching for company news using Bing as your search engine. Bing lets you filter results by recency (something Google does not). So you'll get up-to-the-minute headlines from blogs and press outlets of all sizes.
Prepare your questions for the board
Once you understand the above info, your final step is to prep questions for the board. Here are our favorite three questions to dig deeper into how the board functions:
- What is the board's vision for future growth?
- What are the current boards' dynamics?
- What are the board's expectations for the role?
As exciting as a board seat may be, remember that you are also interviewing the company. Make sure the culture and the role suit you. If they don't, it's okay to walk away and find another opportunity.
Your next steps
Let us help you network and meet the decision-makers. Through our #BuildBetterBoards initiative, we are working to introduce thousands of board-ready minorities to the world’s leading corporations.
Are you board-ready? Apply today.