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Becoming a Public Company Board Member: A Roadmap for the Emerging Director

December 20, 2014


by Tracy Houston, M.A., President of Board Resources Services, LLC

With the amount of disruption in the market the voice of the future at the board table is paramount.

We are living in unprecedented times of uncertainty and challenge. Never has it been more critical for directors and officers to be capable of leading in the boardroom. In light of increased regulatory changes and reduced public confidence, the question of who sits on a board and why they were selected is critically important. Board members must embrace new perspectives and bold strategies. Whether the issue is financial resilience, corporate strategy, customer relations, sustainability and risk, executive compensation, or regulatory compliance, are you a candidate that can assist a company?

Selection for a seat on a public company board is a long process. Recruiters say that it takes on average 12 to 24 months to identify and gain a first public company board seat. Getting there requires an organized plan – the focus of the my Board Guru™ handbook – Becoming a Public Company Director. On the flip side of the extended time to become a public company director, is the fact that most U.S. board members serve, on average, 8 to 10 years. This means the investment of time and resources that go into gaining a board seat can potentially have a long payoff for your career – once the first board seat is obtained.

Key Point: Patience

When thinking about your career trajectory here are a few steps to help guide you toward your goal of becoming a public company director:

Step One: Create Leadership Savvy

First and foremost, you must be purposeful about leadership presence in your professional self-concept. Seek out mentors, hire a coach, and complete personality assessments to refine your understanding of both leadership and “followership.” You must see yourself and present yourself as a critical player before leadership roles develop. Your vision of yourself and your role in the organization set the stage for advancement to the boardroom.

Key Point: Increase self-awareness as a focal point for sustainable leadership.

Step Two: Find Leadership Roles that Will Develop Your Career for Board Service

In your current position, look for and develop opportunities to advance your career. Take on the lead role in major projects to develop your team-building skills. Seek out engagements to make public presentations and professional writing projects that position you as “the” expert in your field. Gain board experience by sitting on a non-profit board. This experience provides exposure to board dynamics as well as potential leadership roles on committees. Keep in mind a financial commitment is often a part of serving on a non-profit board. You may also consider serving on an advisory board to gain experience in leadership and guidance. Both non-profit and advisory boards offer ways to meet and work with other leaders. You become a “known quantity” when working side-by-side with other board members. To ensure future advancement to a public company board, the boards you sit on need to be populated with high-profile executives. Then, in the future, you can share your board aspirations and ask them for introductions or endorsements. To avoid languishing in this role as a non-profit board member, provide a letter stating the length of time you will commit to the organization. Generally, a term of around three years will allow for the onboarding learning curve and any leadership position you may acquire.

Key Point: To maximize your potential takes purposeful boundary spanning and key leadership traits.

Step Three: Create a Board-Level Value Proposition

A board-level value proposition is four to six sentences or bullet points that summarize your highest level experience into a succinct statement for board service. To create your value proposition, think about the following:

  • Professional background;
  • Highest level experience; and
  • Industry niche.

Follow the development of your value proposition with a comprehensive networking plan that includes learning about boards and how directors bring value to their role; list key individuals such as sitting directors, C-suite executives and corporate governance organizations to join for network development. Consider beginning the process by conducting key conversation with directors, C-suite executives, executive search firms, venture capitalist, attorneys and others to explore what board service might mean for you, what leadership competencies you might bring to the boardroom and what types of boards might find those competencies attractive. These conversations may lead to opportunities but the goal of the meeting is to gain as much information as possible about the world of boards.

From these interviews you should have some concrete direction on the type of boards that would be the best fit for you. This could include industry, company size (micro, small, medium and larger cap) and any adjacent markets. The insights you gained from the interviews can also provide the information you will want to include in a board resume and bio.

You can now begin a list of potential target companies to gain a board seat. Review and prioritize the list by looking at the current board of directors and their skills base. If you have a solid understanding of the company’s future challenges, you can formulate how you will add value to the board in the gaps existing in the current board.

Key Point: This is a significant career stepping stone – be vigilant.

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