Board Game: Tips to Land a Board Seat

A corner office and the C-suite are writ large in the professional pecking order but landing a board seat is as ultra-competitive. Top corporate boards provide generous compensation packages and the chance to network with a constellation of business talent, all while burnishing a professional resume and boosting one’s skill set. Non-profit board service is also a career accelerant — and a chance to make a bigger impact for a cause with personal resonance.

Whether you’re thinking about widening your field of professional vision or finding new ways to put your talent and experience to work—or if you simply see a Board role as a natural stepping stone on a career trajectory—the first step is sizing yourself up, understanding what’s out there, and learning how to create opportunity.

This week, Career Crafts talks with five experts who share how to position yourself for a board role. 

Board Game
Once you define your target, you can point your arrow. Landing a board position typically begins with understanding what skills and expertise you bring to a company, your bandwidth, and what types of businesses may benefit from your service. You may choose to create a board bio and/or a board resume. Next, it’s important to share your vision with friends and colleagues, because most board positions are filled through networking, and it can take years to land a board seat. There are ways to attempt to expedite the process, via resources like The Fourth Floor and its Board Boot Camp. Keep your goal top of mind, ask for specific and tangible introductions, leverage your network, and enjoy the journey.

Sarah Feingold was the General Counsel / first Lawyer at Etsy and Vroom. She’s a co-founder of The Fourth Floor, a creator, and producer of Legal Madness, an NYU Law School Engelberg Center fellow, a board member, an investor, and a speaker.

Ask the Right Questions
First, start with three foundational questions: What value do I bring? Where is that value best leveraged? Am I willing to commit the time required to be a successful director? Board service is rigorous and demands significant engagement. It is a mutual commitment; avoiding unnecessary and disruptive board turnover is critical.

Second, construct a Board Profile; this is not a resume; it’s your value proposition. And remember that the role of a board member is fundamentally different from that of a senior operating executive. It is a fiduciary one— providing oversight and setting strategic direction – for which you will be held accountable. 

Finally, be systematic, think of it as a job search. Seek guidance and sponsorship from your network—colleagues, clients, and executive search professionals. Join industry organizations, e.g., the National Association of Corporate Directors, Women Corporate Directors, and Women in the Boardroom. These and other industry advisory groups offer essential resources – educational materials, coaching, and webinars – critical tools to prep for interviews.  

And remember network, network, network – and then do it some more!

Maureen Mitchell is an experienced Board Director, C-suite executive, and certified executive coach. She is a director of Sterling National Bank and the Natixis/Loomis Sayles mutual funds, as well as a Senior Advisor with The Boston Consulting Group.

Build the Basics
Serving on a Board is a great way to rebrand yourself as a high-impact executive. It is also a great way to build a network of high-influence contacts who can serve as a bridge to opportunities in the hidden job market or for business ventures. If you this is your first-time “paid” Board position, build your list of volunteer and not-for-profit Board experience first. 

Rosa Elizabeth Vargas is a certified executive resume writer and career coach. She runs the global career services firm Career Steering.

Be Patient
Be realistic along two dimensions: time and hierarchy.

Give it time. Getting on a good Board is a networking game. It often takes two years of networking before you land a spot.

There is a hierarchy of Boards of Directors, and each level in the hierarchy has its unique dimensions. At the lowest level are the many human service nonprofits in your community desperate for your money and talent. Getting on such a Board is easy. Getting off is difficult. At the highest end are Fortune 100 public companies. In between are private family businesses, venture capital portfolio companies, private equity portfolio companies, pre IPO companies, small-cap, mid-cap, and large-cap. Where are you now in the hierarchy? Are you prepared to leave where you are now and focus on the next stage in the hierarchy?

Important: best time to start your board options program is in your mid 50’s. The worst time is when you turn 65 or retire.

Laurence J. Stybel is a Boston-based, Harvard-trained licensed doctoral-level psychologist who does retained searches for Boards of Directors through his company, Board Options. He is also retained by Boards to work on Board-CEO communications.