C-Suite Insights: Serving on a Corporate Board – Uncover If It’s For You & Where To Start

08/08/2016 11:54 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2017

The C-Suite is a vast audience of leaders who all have a little extra insight into their industry and the current business world. I sit down with these leaders to give them the opportunity to share that insight and give a glimpse to their personal stories as a business leader.

I recently sat down with Sheila Ronning, CEO and Founder of Women in the Boardroom. In 2002, long before women on boards was a hot topic, Sheila believed in women’s ability to serve on corporate boards, strongly enough to found Women in the Boardroom. Today, as one of the nation’s top leadership and board service experts, Sheila excels at connecting influential women executives and professionals with the people and tools they need to succeed in business and the boardroom. She has built a strong track record over the years and a powerful network, which she uses to help women achieve their goals.

Let’s just start the basics, what kinds of boards are there?

That’s a great starting point. The media really only focuses on the Fortune 500, and realistically there are so few people, men or women, who are even qualified to serve on those boards.

The first step is making sure that you’re being realistic about the size of boards and what types of boards that you’re qualified for. Typically, those include smaller, publicly-traded boards and privately-held boards, as well as advisory boards and non-profits.

Advisory boards can range from small startups to Fortune 500 companies. For legal reasons, companies can’t have a lot of corporate board members, or people don’t want to have the fiduciary exposure. What they can do, is be great advisors to those companies. Also the networking opportunities are significant for folks who are on those advisory boards.

How does one start the process of looking to get on a corporate or organizational advisory board?

First, let’s talk about the non-profit side. I get asked the question all the time, “If I have no board experience, will serving on a non-profit board help me on my path to the corporate boardroom?” My answer is “maybe.” I never want anyone to stop doing their charitable work, but if they are thinking that they want to use that non-profit board service to help them get into a corporate boardroom I have a few rules.

You need to make sure that, one, it’s a large non-profit board, and you need to make sure that it’s a well-run board, so that you’re learning good governance. Of course you want to make sure you’re passionate about the mission. You definitely need to take a leadership role, and absolutely know what the expectations are, as far as the give and the get. Such as, do you need to write out a check for $20,000, or do you need to go fund raise $100,000? Also make sure you know the time commitment. Do they want you for one year or five years? And do they expect you to put in five hours a week, or five hours a month?

Those are very important things to know. Lastly, I always tell women to make sure there are men at the table, because the networking component is the biggest takeaway from serving on nonprofits. We know men are the ones who are serving on the corporate boards, so make sure that you can use it as good networking opportunity.

When you’re ready to join a board, you’ll want to make sure you have a solid board portfolio. This contains a professional profile and a board bio. These components should really highlight your background for board positioning and your skill sets as a value add.

But we know that networking is absolutely key in getting your first board seat. Less than 15% of board seats are filled by a search firm. Even when that board is retained by the search firm, they turn around and ask the people at the table, “Who do you know?”

Are there any risks with serving on a board?

Yes, absolutely. Especially on a public board. You want to make sure you have Director’s and Officer’s Insurance. That is typically covered by the company. If the stock price sinks, you’re most likely going to be sued. If you’re performing your duties diligently and being able to show that you followed a responsible process, you’re not going to be held liable. One very key piece that cannot be covered by D and O insurance is your reputation, so you need to make sure that you’re absolutely doing your due diligence, prior to joining that board.

You want to be strategic about the board(s) you choose to be on. The organizations your reviewing need to have the similar concerns and values that you do. It’s a very slow process. They’re going to make sure that they have the right person. At the same time, you need to make sure you’re checking them out, and other board members. Take the time to talk to past board members and if possible, talk to management. It’s a big commitment on both ends. If somebody is wanting you to hurry up and get on their board, that’s a red flag in itself.

What’s more important, education or experiencing getting considered for a board seat?”

It’s your skill set. If you’re ever questioning if you should take a course on being a board director, the answer is no. You do not need to go and take courses on becoming a board director. There are so many great places online to learn what happens in the boardroom.

I often get asked about becoming certified as a board director. Our organization received more than 100 board openings over the last few years. Zero of those openings required certification as a board director.

It’s not a requirement. It’s the skill sets. It’s knowing what types of boards you’re qualified for and your experience. We can all have great education, but it’s how we’ve applied that education through our experiences, and bringing those experiences to an organization, so those experiences can help them with their mission, vision, and purpose.

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