7 ways to position yourself to get on a board

Women are woefully underrepresented on corporate boards, and the process to get on one can feel like getting into a secret club. But if it’s an ambition of yours, here’s how to crack the code.

When Lauren Zalaznick left her role as an executive vice president at NBCUniversal in 2013, she started looking for opportunities to bring her three decades of digital and media experience to a new environment: the boardroom. Driven by the desire to gain a landscape view of corporations and work with their leadership in an advisory capacity, she navigated a competitive recruitment process that in many ways mirrored a job search. In 2014, she was named the first outside board member of Penguin Random House.

Today, Zalaznick is a full-time consultant and strategist who serves on the boards of two publicly traded companies, Nielsen and GoPro. She also has experience advising several private companies, from Refinery29 to the audio recognition app Shazam (up until its acquisition by Apple). Earlier this fall, she and a handful of other executives with board experience spoke to a crowd of around 100 senior female professionals about how to brand themselves for corporate board service.

The event, hosted at Twitter’s New York headquarters and produced by the all-female board candidate marketplace theBoardlist, aligns with a national movement to pull back the curtain around corporations’ board curation processes and unlock the benefits of increasing gender and racial diversity. “Since recruitment happens largely via referrals, it feels closed and secret,” says theBoardlist CEO Shannon Gordon. “There tends to be a lot of legwork required around networking and making sure people know you have ambitions to serve on the board.”

From the other side of the recruitment process, Zalaznick breaks down a few questions to think through if you have corporate board ambitions.

WHAT RELEVANT EXPERIENCE CAN I OFFER?

When is the right time in your career to consider corporate board service? For Zalaznick, being a great outside director candidate starts with ensuring you have the appropriate skill sets and domain expertise. At the highest level, this likely means you are a sitting CEO or a senior executive with a strong track record in operating roles and profit and loss (P&L) management. If you’ve never served on or interacted with any sort of board, seek out opportunities to present to your current company’s board and look into joining community boards.

Zalaznick, who spent six years on Brown University’s board of trustees and currently sits on the Sundance Institute’s director’s advisory group, is also a proponent of offering your time and skills to nonprofits. In addition to presenting an important opportunity to give back, you can get experience presenting recommendations, making group decisions, and expressing differences of opinion. University and not-for-profit boards are also good ways to familiarize yourself with committee structures and roles resembling those on public boards. If you’re financially-minded, joining a nonprofit audit committee can be a great way to hone a skill set corporate boards value. Meanwhile, you may also find that your fellow board members serve on and recruit for other boards you’re interested in, too.

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

Not only are public companies’ board rosters easily Googled; you can also call up the details of which members sit on particular committees. Zalaznick advises using public information to study the makeup of boards that interest you, peruse organizations’ activities, understand what their committee structures look like, and identify where gaps in experience might be. Always note who sits on (and chairs) the nominating and governance (“nom and gov”) committee. As the people responsible for assessing the skills and characteristics the board needs, nom and gov members vet all prospects. So you’re going to want to make great impressions on those people by exhaustively researching the company, the landscape, and them.

HOW CAN I EXPRESS MY VALUE?

One of the keys to being competitive in the recruitment process is being able to clearly express your domain expertise and the unique contributions you’ll bring to a specific board environment. Think about the value you can add based on strategic imperatives and refresh your bio as though board members are discussing it in a meeting. If the board is clearly seeking directors with governance expertise, and you’re a lawyer or you’ve served as a chief of staff, cite examples around that. Especially if you don’t already have public company board experience, how you articulate yourself and parlay your experience in your cover letter and in-person interactions with decision makers can make or break you.

WHAT RELATIONSHIPS CAN I LEVERAGE?

In the world of boards, Zalaznick will be the first to tell you that getting introduced to a member of the nom and gov committee or a sitting CEO is a much surer way to become a candidate than blindly sending through a good-looking résumé. That in mind, as you start exploring board service opportunities, it’s critical to tell your peers, friends, and anyone who may be willing to introduce you to sitting board members. There are roughly 659,000 board members on LinkedIn globally, so another idea is to create a spreadsheet of powerful people you’re connected to, noting who serves on particular boards or might have strong relationships with sitting CEOs. “If you have an old college roommate who’s now CEO of a company looking to fill board seats, that’s the great way in,” says Zalaznick, likening the ask to letting a friend know, “I want to go on a blind date,” or “Hey, I’m looking for a sublet.” “It’s not laughable,” she says. “As you get 20 or 30 years into your career, you come up with people who are in an amazing place.” Tap those relationships.

AM I ON RECRUITERS’ RADAR (AND LISTS)?

While referrals from sitting board members and CEOs are king, Zalaznick also recommends increasing your reach by getting recruiters who specialize in board placements excited about your candidacy. By the time you’re far along enough in your career to consider board service, you’ve likely interacted with search firms in various capacities, whether they were recruiting you, or you were hiring them to bring new talent to your organization. Reach out to generalist recruiters you have relationships with and ask for introductions to their firms’ board-focused counterparts.

HOW CAN I DEMONSTRATE MY CURIOSITY AND CAPACITY TO CONTRIBUTE?

As the chair of one nom and gov board and a committee member of two others, Zalaznick reviews slates of experienced candidates and finds herself wanting to understand their curiosity and capacity to contribute. A public board exists to support the interests of a corporation’s shareholders through the deep understanding and support of that company’s CEO, she says. Like in any job interview, you want to go in intimately familiar with the company’s products and services. Know the industry acronyms and competitive landscape, and be ready and excited to discuss the company and your specific interest in it. Instead of walking into a room with an attitude of, “I want a board seat,” express why you want this board seat and why it should want you. Beyond impressing the nom and gov committee with your knowledge of the company, be sure to demonstrate your ability to listen and ask thoughtful questions about the levers that drive the organization’s lifeblood, from company performance to brand strength to leadership landscape. “If you have awareness and knowledge that cause you to ask great questions, that’s impressive,” Zalaznick says.

HOW DO I TELL IF MY FIRST OFFER IS WORTH TAKING?

While joining a corporate board is a significant commitment, Zalaznick has a general attitude about the first offer you receive: Take it. On average, roughly one independent director seat on an S&P 500 board opens each year, and you have to pass through a host of gates that may be biased against you in the quest to join a public board, says Zalaznick. That in mind, she only advises turning an offer down if you a) had a negative interview process rife with red flags, b) don’t support the CEO’s vision, and/or c) suspect the organization is entirely dysfunctional in a way that will hinder the board’s ability to serve its purpose. If none of those apply, Zalaznick encourages you to say yes, even if you don’t find the company sexy, or you have to get on a plane to make the quarterly meetings, or there are six annual meetings instead of the usual four. “The bottom line is that board experience begets board opportunity,” Zalaznick says. “One board leads to more.”

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