Corporate Governance

How To: Five Steps Toward Getting on Boards

Tips for landing a seat in the boardroom at any stage of your career.

October 13, 2021

| by Bill Snyder
Colleagues gathered for a board meeting. Credit: iStock/FangXiaNuo

Review the rewards and risks before looking for spot on a board. | iStock/FangXiaNuo

Whether you’re starting your career or about to retire, serving on the board of a public company can be professionally, personally, and financially rewarding. Before you start down that road, however, you need to “take a 360-degree view of your qualifications” and think seriously about the risks, says executive coach Margaret Chan.

In a recent webinar organized by Stanford GSB Alumni Relations, Chan outlined a strategy for targeting the right board — and landing a seat at the table.

1. Be agile: Serving on the board of a company in the same market segment as your employer would be a conflict of interest. So you’ll need to show your ability to grasp the nuances of a new industry with a different business model. If you’ve shifted roles as an executive, emphasize how quickly you came up to speed.

2. Make your value proposition: Even if you don’t have P&L responsibilities under your belt, you might be able to demonstrate a skill a board lacks. Audit and CFO experience are in high demand, as are cybersecurity and social media backgrounds. Skill in building consensus — a key attribute of successful directors — is also desirable.

3. Consider a nonprofit: Winning a seat on a public company’s board can be tough if you’ve never served on one. Joining a nonprofit’s board may be a more realistic first step. The step after that: advisory boards, which often provide expertise a smaller company may not have in-house.

4. Network with search firms: As companies strive to go beyond the old boys’ network, many are turning to search firms to fill board seats. A firm working with your current employer isn’t likely to place you on a board, but it may be willing to counsel you and help you gain entry into corporate databases as a potential candidate.

5. Know the risks: Directors are increasingly held to account for decisions made by CEOs, even if board members weren’t made aware of the risks. Most public companies carry directors and officers liability insurance, but smaller companies often do not.

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