Here’s How Women Leaders Can Win Their First Board Seat

In a new report, Odgers Berndtson offers a series of steps to help land your first board role. From the self-awareness of knowing your motivations to winning the right kind of attention, this study provides a valuable roadmap. Let’s take a closer look and see how more women can attain their first board role . . . and what they should do to be prepared once in place.

March 31, 2021 – Until the late 1970s, corporate board seats were generally filled by “friends of the boss.” In other words, they were usually men, mostly white, who often ran in the same social circles as the CEO. By the 1980s, however, societal demands for corporate diversity began to change boardrooms—or at least what they looked like. While we are still some way from achieving gender parity on boards, societal pressures are mounting, and there are simply more and more opportunities for women seeking to secure their first board posting, according to a new report from Odgers Berndtson.

The firm offers eight steps for landing that still-elusive first board role, including knowing your motivations, identifying your proposition, knowing where you are needed, controlling your image, networking, and leveraging your identity. They are all important steps along the journey, said the report.

Step 1. Know Your Motivations

“As a prospective director, you need to be aware that, though board membership is generally high paying relative to the time commitment, there will be times when your director role will be all consuming,” said Steve Potter, U.S. CEO of Odgers Berndtson. “At such times, laden by the risks and stresses of the job, you may even feel underpaid. It is also important to remember that directors are being held to accountability standards by the companies they serve, the shareholders of that company and various oversight organizations.”

“By serving on boards, directors incur personal risk exposure. Individual public board members can be named by shareholders in federal securities class action lawsuits which are rising in frequency,” he said. “Directors in the private and non-profit sectors have less liability than their public counterparts, but they can still face employment practice suits, breach of fiduciary duty suits and legal proceedings by government regulators. It’s important to investigate the risks—and the various methods of offsetting them, including ensuring you have directors’ and officers’ insurance—before joining a board and to look at the risks that may be specifically relevant to the company or industry that you’re targeting.”

Step 2. Identify your Proposition

The next step toward getting on your first board is to identify what skills, perspectives, and experiences you can bring to the boardroom. “It’s important to go about this systematically,” Mr. Potter said. “Your eventual goal is to build your proposition in the same way that a fashion brand shapes its image in the minds of the consumer. But this process is neither as simple nor as comfortable as it first sounds. It involves a good deal of honest self-analysis. You need to be aware of any aspects of your skillset, employment history or mindset that might serve as red flags to prospective employers. It is important to be cleareyed in your identification of these red flags because, as you go through the board search process, you should be working to circumvent or explain them.”

Mr. Potter says to start with skillset and ask these questions: What, first and foremost, can you bring to the boardroom? Are you a practicing financial expert? An economist with deep and current knowledge of fluctuations in global markets? Do you have recent experience scaling a software company?

“Remember that boards are increasingly looking for directors whose expertise can play a particular strategic role for the company or fill a knowledge gap in the board’s composition,” Mr. Potter said. “For this reason, it is important to be vigorous, specific and nuanced when identifying your skill-set. Do not stretch for expertise outside your field, and do not feel that you need to be everything to everyone. Remember that your skill-set will be most valued because it’s different from, not similar to, that of the pre-existing board and rival candidates.”

As mentioned, recruiters will look at your CV with two questions: (a) What are you good at? (b) Is your temperament compatible with the boardroom? When analyzing your temperament, you should do the same. Are you a good motivator? A good change socializer? Where are these skills most evident in your career? “As with your expertise, be thorough,” Mr. Potter said. “Talk to peers, employees, and current and former bosses. Eventually, temperament details should infiltrate descriptions of your expertise on your board CV, which should describe both your accomplishments and the methods you used to effect them.”

Step 3. Know Where You’re Needed

Once you know what you can offer, Mr. Potter says that it’s a good idea to identify what kind of companies can benefit from your service. “Personal branding requires more than just self-awareness; you also need to identify your audience before you can customize your message to them,” he said. In thinking about the kinds of institutions that will most benefit from your presence, Mr. Potter offers this advice:

Think widely. It may be the case that your skills are more valuable outside the industry that you’ve grown up in. A compliance officer in the financial services industry may find themselves hugely valuable to companies in the telecommunications and technology sectors, both of which are facing new levels of regulation.

Start small. There are many paths to Fortune 500 board positions. There are more than 6,000 publicly traded companies, each of which has a publicly listed board of directors. Getting yourself into one of these smaller companies makes you more likely to be found by a recruiter, gives you demonstrated experience that you can leverage, and increases your network. Also be on the lookout for mid-sized startups and private equity portfolio companies, many of which will eventually go public and often set up public-style boards years before an anticipated IPO so that there will be continuity in governance once the company is public.

Related: Independent Directors, Women and Minorities See Board Gains

Be global. If you are willing to travel, do not ignore European and Asian companies. There are two big reasons for this. First, international firms with a significant presence or market in the U.S. often recruit American directors for their national expertise. Second, many European governments legally mandate diverse representation on boards; as a result, there is high demand for, but a shortage of, talented female and minority candidates. It is important when considering what kinds of firms to serve on to think about how your personal brand will be reshaped by your directorship.

Step 4. Write Your Board CV

“Your board CV is a curated version of your executive CV,” said Mr. Potter. “In curating it, keep in mind all that we talked about above, especially the unique demands placed on directors and your target audience.” He says that if you are an executive, your current CV probably focuses on accomplishments and contains lines like “Engineered the turnaround of a Sisyphus Capital portfolio company from a loss of $140 million to profitable with EBITDA $280M in a two-year period.” That’s great, but your board CV should add emphasis on how you effected that change. What ideas drove the change? How did you socialize those ideas? “The goal of the board CV is to convince recruiters and others that your executive experience will translate into their boardroom,” Mr. Potter said.

The State of Gender Equity on Boards

In a new report, Russell Reynolds Associates examines the steps that countries are taking to encourage or mandate improved gender diversity in the boardroom. Among the countries observed: Japan, the U.S., Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil and Germany. And in a fresh, new episode of “Talent Talks,” Georgina Pawley, partner EMEA at Beecher Reagan, discusses changes in diversity recruiting caused by COVID-19.

Once you’ve written your CV, give it an unalloyed inspection. What would a board recruiter read into it? “If your CV fails to demonstrate both your expertise and your board complementary temperament, you may need to more actively prepare yourself,” said Mr. Potter. “Consider attending one of the many training resources that cater to first-time and future directors. These resources, which range from certificated governance classes to one-on-one mentorship programs, are great ways to augment your CV, expand your network and get noticed by recruiters. In the appendix, you will find a survey of prestigious classes, certificate programs and mentorship hubs.”

Step 5. Control Your Image

It’s important to build brand consistency. What happens when you type your name into Google? “A prospective director should appear not just on LinkedIn and Twitter, but also in conference videos, publications and podcasts,” Mr. Potter said. “Your LinkedIn account needs to reflect the changes you’ve made to your CV and display directorial mindsets. Your Twitter should demonstrate a socially conscious, forward-thinking professionalism. You should demonstrate active and considered thought leadership on all these forums.”

Mr. Potter says that if negative items appear in relation to your name, you should work to either make them disappear or develop an explanation. If, for example, your name is associated with a company that went out of business, you should not simply be able to explain your involvement when asked, nor act defensively; you should go out of your way to publicize those explanations. Mr. Potter says you can do this in editorials, white papers, conference speeches, etc.

Step 6. Publicize

To get on your first board, you have to be noticed. “Yet it’s important to be noticed for reasons that will reinforce rather than distract from your board member brand,” said Mr. Potter. “After looking for current members of public or private company boards, people—executive recruiters, for example— looking for potential public company director candidates often study conference speaker lists, professional associations and author pages. It is in these places that you should advertise yourself.” He says to write papers, speak at conferences, try to publish articles in major outlets, trade journals and “best-in-class” periodicals. Also, seek out speaking engagements, panels and conferences, ideally at industry-leading events, but younger candidates may need to build up to these. Some exposure is better than none and will lead to more.

Step 7. Network

“Like anything in life, who you know and who knows you is half the battle,” Mr. Potter says. “Relationships of trust are a huge part of hiring at all levels.” He offers 12 keys to networking for a director position.

  1. Perfect your elevator pitch.
  2. Get to know currently sitting directors.
  3. Get to know key board recruiters.
  4. Get to know key influencers.
  5. Remember your CEO.

Related: Record Number of Women Win Directorships but Gender Parity Lags

  1. Remember your board.
  2. Remember clients.
  3. Do not ignore junior professionals.
  4. Do not limit your network.
  5. Find a board mentor.
  6. Networks are assets.
  7. Be strategic.

Step 8. Leverage Your Identity

Diversity can be a significant element of your overall proposition. “However, as with everything else that we’ve talked about so far, it will not singlehandedly win you a director seat,” Mr. Potter said. “Boards have traditionally been, and to an extent remain, staffed predominantly by white men. But this paradigm is rapidly changing. There is increasing pressure for the diversification of corporate oversight by the public, stakeholders, and governments around the world. Meanwhile, it has become clear that diversity of all kinds—not just diversity of expertise— makes decision-making teams both more creative and better able to sidestep a slew of cognitive biases. Large public companies, the vast majority of which serve hugely diverse client bases, are also interested in bringing on diverse and international directors because they want to reflect their client base in their corporate composition.”

The numbers indicate that this change is actively, if very gradually, changing the American boardroom. Mr. Potter said: “Our advice to diverse and international candidates mirrors what we advise all candidates to do: identify your proposition, control your image, become a thought leader, join a professional association, and network vigorously. In the process of doing this, diverse or international candidates should be sure to emphasize any expertise that follows from their diversity proposition. In other words, talk specifically about how your diversity will give you contributory strength in the boardroom.”

“As with non-diversity candidates, we also recommend that diversity candidates think geographically,” he said. “Many European countries—in fact, most of Western Europe— have legislation mandating percentages of gender representation on public boards headquartered there. As a result, boards in Europe are often more actively on the lookout for female directors than their North American counterparts, for whom the pressure to fill board seats with female or diverse candidates is social rather than regulatory. Getting on a publicly traded European board can very possibly open doors in the U.S.”

Related: Boards Seek Diversity With Help of Executive Recruiters

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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