A Five-Step Action Plan for Women to Land a Board Seat

Many women miss the boat because they don't understand the steps to take early in their careers to best position themselves for board membership. Here are five practical steps you can start taking today to increase your future chances of getting on a public company board...
09/04/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

In my last post, we discussed the fact that many women miss the boat because they don't understand the steps to take early in their careers to best position themselves for board membership. Here are five practical steps you can start taking today to increase your future chances of getting on a public company board:

Step 1: Excel at what you do. Nearly 50 percent of directors surveyed by the organization Women Corporate Directors (WCD) expressed that certain areas of expertise are missing from their boards. Research from consulting firm Spencer Stuart found that nearly 30 percent of boards are interested in adding new skills around their table. There's an opportunity here for women to help fill these holes in areas of needed expertise.

What skills are needed? According to a report in Fortune, executive teams look to fill board positions with people who demonstrate analytical and conceptual thinking skills while working well with others. Many women have the collaboration piece down -- so your goal should be to develop deep business and financial experience by starting where you are now in your corporate career. Getting P&L responsibility is critical. The key is to seek opportunities where you can be involved in real-time decision-making -- and excel at these projects in a visible way.

Step 2: Develop your brand/value proposition. You should be clear on why a board should hire you instead of assuming they know and will seek you out. To that end, it's important to understand how you can provide tangible value to a particular board -- and to be able to communicate that value clearly. What differentiates you from the pack of contenders? Call out your personal brand and demonstrate how you can use it to enhance the board's future success. Once you've developed your brand/value proposition and can articulate it clearly, create a board-specific resume that highlights the unique strengths, experiences and skill sets you bring to the boardroom.

Step 3: Gain nonprofit board experience. While there's some disagreement in the business community about whether nonprofit board experience is a prerequisite for gaining entree to a public company board, there is no doubt that sitting on a nonprofit board is an excellent way to learn board governance. Nonprofit board membership can also provide powerful and influential relationships that could result in paving the way to a corporate board seat. It certainly can't hurt to include nonprofit board experience on your board resume -- so get involved, charm a committee and take this experience as far as you can to enhance your skills sets.

Step 4: Develop and leverage a powerful network. Part of the reason that more women aren't on boards is that they lack the right networks -- as well as a sponsor who will advocate on their behalf. I have attended a number of education sessions on board membership for women, but disappointingly, the attendees were only women. Where are the men who occupy over 80 percent of U.S. board of director seats? Women who aspire to serve on a board can learn from men who are already there and should strive to cultivate relationships with them, which could lead to sponsorship opportunities.

It takes years of experience and competence to become board ready--but even with the necessary preparation, few find themselves in the boardroom without help from an active sponsor. When building your network, be bold and think big and wide beyond your existing contacts to include those with real influence. Some of the most critical relationships you can form are with recruiters who conduct board searches, and current board members. Your goal is to find one or two people who can serve as your sponsor or advocate. Seek people in power who are willing to go to bat for you specifically by recommending you for a board seat.

Step 5: Get educated. Candidates with training on governance issues, in-demand skills, and other specific experience needed for a board have more leverage to state their case for board membership. Check out your local National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) chapter and research the educational programs available. Many major universities also offer corporate director programs from which you could benefit. Be sure to list any participation in relevant classes, seminars, and skill-building sessions on your board-specific resume, and be prepared to explain how your additional learning can benefit the board you're interested in joining.

By following these five steps, you'll ignite an action plan that will increase your board readiness and help you land a coveted board seat. For more strategies on how women can prepare for board membership, stay tuned for SHAMBAUGH's Executive Forum this fall on Becoming Board Ready.

To find out how organizations can eliminate outdated assumptions and move toward true cultural transformation, visit www.shambaughleadership.com. A SHAMBAUGH consultant can help your company take a deeper dive on this critical issue. Learn more about SHAMBAUGH's nationally renowned signature Women in Leadership and Learning (WILL) Program