How can you get appointed to a board if you’re not a household name? The simple answer is to bring something the board wants but doesn’t have, according to authors John T. Montford and Joseph Daniel McCool in their new book, Board Games.
“How can I get appointed to a board?” It is a question we are asked frequently by up-and-coming, high-performing professional men and women and just as often by established, long-tenured leaders and chief executives who view an appointment to a corporate board of directors as the pinnacle, defining achievement of their careers.
Getting the call to the boardroom is a testament to a successful career. It is a special recognition of hard work, experience, and expertise, and one typically reserved for individuals who have conducted themselves as consummate professionals while building their credentials—and, just as important, their peer relationships and professional networks.
Being asked to serve on a corporate or not-for-profit board or even an organization’s advisory board is clearly an invitation to participate in the American dream. It represents an open door and a world of possibilities and learning. It demands an increasing amount of due diligence to determine which board is right for you and whether you’re up to the expectations of a board that asks you to join.
Know What You Are Signing Up For
A call to the boardroom should be received as both a special opportunity and a personal calling—a calling to service and to stewardship of institutional and shareholder concerns. It now demands a willingness to learn what it takes to be an effective director in an age of continued globalization, activism, and growing calls for the kind of servant leadership that puts others first.
It would be easy, given some human tendencies, to use a board appointment as a reason to gloat, to inflate an already healthy ego, and to trumpet the latest in your string of achievements. If you are so inclined, you’d better find some other place to channel your energy.
What is interesting—and telling about your success as a director sitting in a paid, corporate board seat or in a volunteer role with a not-for-profit, charitable, or advisory board—is that everything that brought you to this pinnacle moment is now set aside so you can focus on the company and work with other directors and management.
Part of the allure of a boardroom appointment is the public acknowledgment of your business savvy, experience, and expertise—and, perhaps most of all, its exclusive nature. Many are qualified, yet few are asked to serve, for reasons we will explain later in this chapter.
But the real key to your success in the boardroom will be to remind yourself, at the start of every single board meeting, that the call to the boardroom is a call to serve. It is an invitation to work hard, do your homework, show up, and contribute to the board’s business in a way that leverages what you know and need to know, as well as your willingness to put in the time to do the job well.
So revel in getting the call. Celebrate with family and friends. Feel good about yourself, then set to work immediately putting others’ interests at the fore.
Practical Observations About The Boardroom
While many highly accomplished men and women hope and expect to get that call to the boardroom some day, the truth is that few are asked to serve organizations in such a critical governance role.
Unless you have the wide name recognition of a former secretary of state, cabinet secretary, or U.S. senator, or you have celebrity status as a high-profile chief executive officer, you’re not going to be openly solicited for board service. Individuals like Condoleezza Rice and Bill Gates are going to get calls about serving on boards. People with incredibly high name recognition will get those calls. And when you consider that shares of Weight Watchers soared in October 2015 upon the news that Oprah Winfrey would be joining its board of directors and taking a 10 percent stake with options to acquire another 5 percent stake, you can expect the big names to get even more of those calls.
However, for most people without household name appeal, the pathway is clear—we have to earn it. There simply is no big “easy” button to push for appointment to the boardroom. It is for this reason we committed to put together this roadmap for getting to the board appointment you want and which you may also deserve.
Many accomplished executives would like to serve on a board of directors. Appointment to a major corporate board may bring significant compensation. Appointments to the board of a smaller, private company or the governing or advisory board of a start-up company, a not-for profit, charitable, philanthropic, and/or community or institutional board all stoke executive-level interest.
Yet if we consider the actual number of annual appointments to paid corporate board positions each year, we see that only a small fraction of those who would like to serve in such a stewardship role will receive the call.
So what separates those who actually get appointed from all those who would simply like to get appointed?
These factors are particularly important qualifiers for securing a board appointment:
- Your reputation, experience, and credentials for a board appointment
- The expert knowledge and insight you bring and how it will extend and deepen board competency in the right areas, at the right time
- The networking relationships and advocates you can engage to rise above other successful leaders
- The clarity, consistency, and conviction of your own efforts to engage with influential people
So how do you get on a board? The answer is, a lifetime of hard work creates what, more now than ever before, represents only an opportunity to do more hard work in today’s corporate boardroom under an intensifying glare of public opinion, shareholder advocates, activists, lawyers, labor unions, the media, and more.
But to get there, you have to have a plan and stick with it. Of course, luck also factors into the board appointment equation. Be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people. You can control two of those variables. As for timing, well, let us just say we hope luck is on your side.
If you bring more than one of the above-listed attributes to a board, there is still no guarantee that you will get the board appointment you desire. You still have to make it happen.
As a practical matter, you have to set your sights on getting a board appointment and go after it if you want it. Interest in serving is not enough to get to the boardroom. That is true for paid corporate board directorships, although your willingness to volunteer may indeed qualify you for any number of not-for-profit, charitable, or community boards or advisory boards.
When it comes to securing a paid corporate board seat, do not expect your own fairy board-mother to flitter her wings heralding a major board appointment while you sip a martini on your back porch. That is, unless you are cavorting with some of the best-known names in business, government, civic affairs, or perhaps the worlds of media or sports. Those relationships may help you to get where you want to go.
But the right path is the path that will work.
How to get appointed to a board is simple: you are going to have to earn it. You are going to have to work for it if this is what you really want. You are going to have to set your sights on it and go after it.
The truth is, you are going to have to plan for it—and put that plan into action over time.
Yet before you can build your own plan, let us consider what boards are looking for, the different paths that would position you as a highly qualified potential candidate for a board seat, and some other timeless lessons on getting to the boardroom and making a difference once you get there.
Know What Boards Are Looking For
It is hard to serve a need until you understand that need.
In order to get to the boardroom, you must understand what boards want, what they need, and what is motivating their directors to seek new competencies that will improve governance and, in some cases, cover their rear ends if something goes wrong.
As has been the case for decades, today’s boards of directors do not want to be taken by surprise or be caught unaware. The last thing anyone wants is to see his or her name associated with damaging headlines splashed one morning all over the front page of the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times.
Contemporary board directors want to be regularly briefed on emerging threats to and opportunities for the business. They want to engage with board peers they like and respect. They want to safeguard shareholder interests, contribute meaningfully to corporate strategy, plan for the eventual succession of the chief executive (if they are doing their jobs), and ensure the growth of total returns to shareholders over time.
To achieve these goals, they need smart people assembled around the boardroom table who are open-minded and dedicated to put in the hours it now requires to be a good board director.