In November, Watermark honored Erna Arnesen at its "Women Who Have Made Their Mark" event. The celebration was an evening of inspiration where honorees -- Erna included, talked through their stories of personal transformation. And in a different twist, each honoree came with a sponsor and a protégé who spoke about the qualities that made each woman so special.
Against all odds for a woman in technology, Erna has successfully climbed the ranks and landed pretty darn near the top. In her 25 years in Silicon Valley, she has worked at Apple, NeXT, SGI, Symantec, and most recently held the position of VP, Global & Strategic Services Partnerships at Cisco.
But Erna's passion is not limited to innovation; she also helps other women develop the leadership skills needed to effectively contribute to corporate boards. And she's got the experience to back it -- she's currently the chairman of the board for Watermark and has also served as an advisory board member for Women in Consulting (WIC) and on the board of Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals (ASAP).
I recently spoke with this Silicon Valley veteran and here's what she had to say about how to make an impact, once you've secured your spot on a board.
Don't Psych Yourself Out
You obviously want to do a good job, but many women, especially in their first board positions (both corporate and non-profit), put immense and perhaps undue pressure on themselves. Erna emphasizes the importance of not psyching yourself out or underestimating your capabilities.
"I think women have a unique opportunity right now because if you're interested and motivated, boards are always seeking new talent."
Tap into Your Peers
Your first board position is a learning experience, but you can also continue to learn from those around you. Organizations like Watermark offer valuable opportunities for networking and others in your area might provide similar resources.
"By joining some of these groups, you've just opened the circle up to 500 people or so, many of whom are experienced executives at various levels that have some knowledge of boards and tons of experience."
The immediate benefits: In the short-term -- you can talk through some larger challenges you're facing and get some outside perspective. But in the long-term, you're also continuing to build out your pool of contacts and making valuable connections along the way. And your network, according to Erna, is key to a successful board appointment.
"You shouldn't depend on board search companies because that's not where most of the searches go. You just want to continue to expand your circle of relationships. You also want to prepare yourself, develop your skills, put yourself on registries, making your network aware of your interest in board service, and develop your résumé and LinkedIn profile."
Invest in Education
When it comes to your role on the board, you can't know how to deal with problems until you've faced them... right? Not necessarily. There are educational/learning programs out there that actually simulate situations you might face during the course of your term on the board. Watermark hosts these types of sessions and has offered two separate tracks along the way: a development track and a qualified track, depending on experience. Watermark also works with a company called Intrabond Capital, which has a highly respected board assessment tool.
"We would meet with recruiters, we'd have board simulations, there were panel sessions we could go to, and we could engage with other people who are on corporate boards. It was perfect for what I wanted, and I could participate in the evenings given my heavy work schedule. I would never have known or have been able to do things as efficiently had I not participated in the Watermark Board Access Program."
If you're looking to take it a step further, several top business schools have courses available that focus primarily on corporate governance. The Harvard/Intrabond program Erna participated in earlier this year used board case studies (as a learning experience) and brought in business school professors as well as various experts to discuss important legal issues such as Dodd Frank and Sarbanes Oxley. Kellogg, Stanford and other high-ranking schools also have similar courses.
Focus Your Efforts on One Board
"It's just really not practical to be on multiple corporate boards while working full-time," Erna said, an opinion echoed by several other executives, including a former boss at Symantec. A corporate board and several non-profit boards is the limit for most people who have a day job. In addition, most corporations have specific guidelines for service on which types of corporate boards as well as an approval process by senior executives.
The bottom line is this: Stretching yourself too thin will not allow you to put your best foot forward and splitting your time between too many boards can prove to be very challenging (even for the most experienced board members).
If you're just starting out on a board, or even if you're more advanced like Erna, keep an open mind and remain optimistic.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com.