05/14/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Engineering a Corporate Board Seat

What I tell women who want to get on corporate boards is to get connected! Do volunteer work, network in business, join community organization where you can demonstrate your leadership capabilities and other people can see your skills being applied.

That is the recommendation of the first female CEO in the male-dominated utility industry -- Debra L. Reed, Chair and CEO of Sempra Energy and one of a handful of women CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations. These activities certainly helped her ascend the corporate ladder, and this advice echoes that in The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors.

Ms. Reed is among 58 women directors profiled in the book, who shared their career experience and strategies for becoming board-ready with author Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire. She is one of the 10 very successful women in The Board Game, who challenged the stereotype -- women are not good at science or math -- by majoring in civil engineering at USC, where she was one of very few women in that department.

Like the other women in the book who chose science, math and engineering in college, Ms. Reed learned early how to function, learn and lead surrounded by men. Her ease and comfort in that environment, coupled with her outstanding career accomplishments made her an ideal candidate to breach the old boysʼ club barricade in the boardroom.

She joined Sempra Energy, which was then the Southern California Gas Company, as an intern while still in college. After graduation she took an entry-level position as a systems engineer. Her reputation as a productive team-member and creative problem- solver propelled her to leadership positions in energy distribution, finance, human resources and administration. Within 10 years she became the first women corporate officer at SOCALGAS, the Southern California Gas Company.

One of the most important factors in womenʼs recruitment to their first public company board seat is the presence of mentors or sponsors, who take an interest in the womanʼs career and provide her with opportunities for growth. Ms. Reed was "sponsored" by her CEO, who recommended her for her first board -- a public water company -- so she could add governance and leadership experience to her impressive resume. During her rise at the company, SOCALGAS and San Diego Gas & Electric merged to become Sempra Energy. Ms. Reed had been CEO of both.

Throughout her career, she has been a champion for diversity. Under her leadership Sempra has achieved more diversity than any other utility in the country, with more women and people of color hired, trained and promoted. She has also broadened opportunities for vendor companies owned by women and minorities.

The Board Game found that women board members not only add value to the companies they direct, but also, like Reed, focus on the women in the company -- their opportunities for promotion and leadership, as well as adequate training. This attention
obviously benefits the women but also the company in widening the pool of executive talent.

"Lastly," Ms. Reed says to women who want to become board directors, "broaden your work experience -- either within your company or through your job progression in other
companies. Above all, get financial, operations and marketing experience to complete your portfolio."