I recently attended a Board of Director course offered by Kellogg’s executive education program that is specifically targeted at women. We spent three days learning about the role of an independent director, the current landscape and expectations, key financial measures to know, and how to secure a position as a director.
I thought I would capture a few key takeaways for anyone that is interesting in pursuing a board seat. The following can be helpful to anyone – any gender, any background, any industry, any executive position.
Preparation is critical.
Understand your key value for a company and board. You need to know what you offer to the company. Conversely, understand what you will learn and bring back to the role you currently have. If you are currently an active executive, discuss this with your CEO. Get buy-in before you start to pursue board roles. If you cannot articulate your current role or your value to a recruiter or someone in your network, you may have more challenges securing a director position. Your current resume probably isn’t sufficient and you need to develop a board Bio. You need to make sure your resume, LinkedIn and other profiles are all current and similarly written for a board to review. You should also develop an elevator pitch to give your network and recruiters a view of who you are. Here’s mine:
“Hi! I’m a high energy and visionary Chief Marketing Officer that has positioned B2B and consumer brands and created world-class modern marketing practices that deliver results. I have done this for technology companies including Sun Microsystems, Plantronics, SAP and several startups. In my three-decade long career, I have driven positioning and strategies of key technologies and trends including Java, HANA, Open Source, SaaS, Cloud Computing, IoT and Big Data that have had an impact on the larger technology landscape. I am able to deliver tremendous insights and value for those companies that want to participate in digital and modern marketing transformations, and am now advising several startups. As a key member of executive teams, I have actively participated in public company board discussions and strategies, and welcome the opportunity to deliver value from the other side of the table”
Getting Started: Network, Network.
Get outside of your own “echo chamber”. Create a network map of all of your contacts. Many very senior women from major Fortune 100 companies (including Fortune 1) attended the Kellogg course with me. Some of these women had broad networks which will be very helpful. Others, need to get started. The truth is that so many of us are so busy, we fail to cultivate our networks or don’t even have a broad network. Use every opportunity to build your network – examples – on Linkedin, ask your CEO, ask your non-profit fellow board members, at conferences, basically take the opportunity everywhere you go including on planes (introduce yourself to your seatmate). Get on Nurole, Broadroom, Boardlist, etc. Understand and articulate which industries and which geographies you are willing to consider. Word of mouth also goes a long way. Nearly 70% of board seats are filled this way! The remainder are filled by executive search firms. Connect with those firms as well and tell them that you are interested in joining a board. BTW: interesting feedback from the experts at Kellogg… non-profit board experience is for you, and you only. Do not expect that public board seats will now fall from the sky for you. Public board seats are viewed entirely differently.
You got the call! Do your homework. (before the interview)
All that networking paid off, and you got the call to meet. Be prepared. A good board member not only understands the financials of the company, but the strategy, the people, the products and market landscape. Fortune 100 or even Fortune 1000 public companies are less risk adverse. Early stage startups have a lot of risk and may require more guidance from you. Understand the financial statements and ask questions – lots of questions. A good place to start on the financials is the annual report, but you should research earning reports and calls, 10Qs, financial analyst reports, etc. Look at what the executive team is measured on. Look at ROIC. Look at the percent differences quarter over quarter of every line item. If you are not a financial person, ask a CFO friend to help you (preferably over coffee or a glass of wine). List your questions and bring them to your interviews. Remember, this as much about you interviewing them as well.
Board relationships. Beyond chemistry.
Congrats! They made you an offer. Now would be a good time to understand board dynamics. You must do this regardless of the size company. Board member tenure is long lived and once you join, it is difficult to resign as it hurts both you and the companies’ reputation. You have to trust and work with fellow board members. One key consideration that we were given at Kellogg: keep in mind that you may have to work long and hard during challenging times. In other words, can you work with them when the going gets rough and you are all in the “fox hole” together?
The role itself.
The shift from operational role aka Management to Director is one that we from Corporate America need to understand. The advice was, “Nose in. Fingers out!” As a director of a board, you are not management and are not there to micro-manage or do the job, but ask thoughtful questions and make decisions for the good of the shareholders (which you represent). Making that mental shift is do-able, but you always need to remember it. Another great piece of advise on your first board meeting, is to really limit yourself to one very thoughtful question. And of course, read all the pre-reading, understand the company, expect to be on a committee, and offer up all your great experience.
Wish me luck as I pursue this next step in my career. I’m excited to get started!