The first corporate board I served on was informal; we sat around the small coffee table in the living room of our modest town home. I was co founder of a technology start-up and a few of our earliest angel investors, who were veterans of past start-ups, offered to mentor us in our new venture.
I had not served on boards before and had no idea what to expect. However, I was highly motivated, invested in the venture, and eager to learn how to make it a success.
This “young, scrappy and hungry” company, webMethods, later grew to a company of $200m in revenue and became the most successful software IPO in history (at the time). It employed over 1,100 people worldwide and sold to SoftwareAG in 2007 for over half a $billion.
Starting your own business (or nonprofit) and serving on its board is one of many paths to serving on a corporate board. A track record of taking risks and initiating new solutions, raising new ideas, and taking the lead on multiple projects are attributes that will accelerate your path to a board of director position.
Since co-founding, building, and moving on from webMethods, I’ve served on many other boards; ranging from entrepreneurial tech startups to innovative social impact nonprofits, large billion dollar institutional nonprofits, politically appointed boards (one overseeing $6b in assets and projects,) and boards of several public companies overseeing over $3b in assets.
Serving on a board offers an unparalleled way to use your unique strengths, experiences, and insights to make a positive impact on an organization. I wholeheartedly believe it is work worth doing (and it can be very demanding work).
A board member can help a business or social impact nonprofit achieve its mission – benefiting customers, investors, whole communities and even the world.
Serving on a board also fulfills key regulatory requirements that are non-negotiable for a business or nonprofit’s very existence. Board service also gives you many rich relationships with interesting people and opportunities to learn and grow.
Unfortunately, as has been well documented, less than 20% of board members are women — across all business sectors, particularly in publicly traded companies. Many organizations like 2020 Women on Boards, Catalyst, Women Corporate Directors, and Women In Technology’s Leadership Foundry are making progress to change this.
One of the nonprofit boards on which I serve is the Leadership Foundry of Women In Technology, whose mission is to advance women to public company boards. Through my work there, as a mentor, author and speaker, I’m often asked by highly intelligent, talented and successful women, “how do I get on a board?”
The advice I give often surprises those who ask. Most assume that it’s all about knowing the right person, or being an alum of the right university, management consulting firm, or Blue Chip company.
While these attributes can help, on their own, they are not enough, and often aren’t a key factor in being selected to serve on a board.
After 20 years of serving on a variety of boards, I’ve discovered six surprising steps that a motivated professional can take which will increase the probability of serving on a board. An added bonus is that when you take these steps you will discover benefits in your career now and into the future.
There’s never been a better time to turn your dream of board service into a reality. Consider taking one or all of these steps:
- Educate yourself
The often overlooked first step to achieving any goal is self-discovery. Why do you want to serve on a board? Do you know and can you articulate your strengths ? A surprising number of leaders can’t, even though research shows the best leaders are self-aware. What are you expert at?
- Do your homework
There is much to consider. Do you know what board service requires and what most boards and CEOs are seeking in a board member? All boards are different depending on business needs and regulatory requirements.
If your goal is serving on a public company board, Harvard Law School outlines key areas of responsibility you must consider, as well as the expertise that is most highly sought after. Most people think of the Fortune 500 companies when it comes to public company boards, but there are actually over 6,000 companies listed on exchanges like the Nasdaq or NYSE, and thousands more private companies and nonprofits. Whether they are public, private, or nonprofit, organizations are looking for board members who have a track record of integrity, leadership, relationship building, and achieving quantifiable goals (in addition to specific skill sets and compliance requirements). Qualitative attributes like good communication skills are highly sought after.
- Make a plan
There is no one set path to board service. Whatever stage you are in now, by educating yourself you can assess where you are and what you need to do next to become board ready. There are dozens of resources to learn about board service. Some are right at your fingertips including articles like So You Want to Join a Board, and books such as Women On Board and Earn Your Seat on A Corporate Board.
My path to board service was paved through entrepreneurship – founding businesses, nonprofits, and initiatives; taking risks, working hard, sometimes even failing at an initiative, yet throughout I gained valuable skills and relationships.
I’ve found that an entrepreneurial mindset and experiences are among the most appreciated skill sets that I bring to the boards on which I serve. It didn’t happen overnight, but I took the time to set the goal of serving on a public company board — and now, I serve on five.
Use the resources readily available to you, develop a plan, and work it. In fact, do your homework before you follow the next step.
- Get advice from leaders and board members who know you
Share your aspirations with people you trust who are experienced and can give advice. Consider having a conversation with your CEO or a colleague from the C-Suite in your current position. Or, ask if they have colleagues or friends who are board members of private or public companies or nonprofits, and can refer you for an information interview. DO NOT start by asking people to float your resume, or ask them to sponsor you. That is an awkward and uncomfortable request if you haven’t followed through on earlier steps.
- Build relationships
One of the most important attributes you bring to a board is a network of leaders, experts, and problem solvers. Build a wide network and be generous in sharing it. Take on leadership roles in your current position, your community, your trade association.
- Start now
There are a variety of paths to serving on a corporate or nonprofit board. No one size fits all. By taking these steps, not only will you come closer to your aspiration of serving on a corporate board — you will achieve immediate benefits in your personal development and your growth as a leader in your career, now and in the future.
Caren Merrick is a serial entrepreneur (start-ups in tech and social impact) most notably co-founder and EVP of webMethods, Inc. which grew from her basement to a $200m global, Nasdaq company with 1,100 team members. She now serves on public company boards, writes a leadership blog at CarenMerrick.com, speaks, and advises leaders. She is married with two sons and her family loves to sail on their catamaran, Glad In It.