Tips for Landing a Seat on a Corporate Board
Here is an opportunity for management-savvy older adults to learn and earn, and age is actually an advantage
Serving on a corporate board of directors can be a rewarding second act, especially if you're eager to keep learning and earning after retirement. But finding and landing a corporate board seat isn't easy.
Debra Boggs, a job search and resume expert who helps executives find board seats, offered some pointers in a session on "Board Resume Best Practices" at the annual Career Thought Leaders conference in Philadelphia in April.
Here's what she said about what corporate boards look for in new members, how to prepare for board membership and tips for designing a board resume:
What Makes Someone a Strong Board Candidate?
Having expertise in "hot" areas is also a plus.
Let's start with the fundamentals. Corporate boards seek directors with deep industry and functional knowledge, who offer a mix of skills and perspectives that are missing from their current board. Typically, boards look for candidates with a specific skill-set, such as legal or IT expertise, or who have experience leading a business through a crisis or transition period, such as a merger or acquisition.
Increasingly, boards need members with strong digital transformation skills, who know how to leverage technology to keep a business competitive. Expertise in "hot" areas, such as sustainability, diversity and inclusion, or cybersecurity, is also a plus.
Traditionally, directorships were reserved for C-suite executives (those with the word "chief" in their job titles, such as chief executive or chief operating officer) and existing board members, meaning the majority of seats have gone to candidates who were white men.
But now, with companies under pressure to diversify their boards, opportunities for candidates from underrepresented groups — many of whom come from roles outside the C-suite, such as functional or line leaders — are on the rise.
How quickly are boards diversifying? Consider these stats from the executive search firm Spencer Stuart's 2021 Board Index, which tracks board composition trends:
- Nearly half — 47% — of the 456 new independent directors are from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and 43% are women.
- One-third (33%) of all new independent directors are Black/African American, the most since Spencer Stuart began tracking this data in 2008.
- Female representation on S&P 500 boards increased to 30% this year from 28% last year and 16% a decade ago.
In short, it's a good time if you're a board candidate from an underrepresented group – and there is still ample opportunity if you're not.
"I sometimes hear white male candidates say they feel like they are at a disadvantage now, but that's not necessarily true," said Boggs noting that most boards still aren't diverse enough. "They just might have to work harder than in the past to be considered."
How to Prepare for Board Service
No matter how impressive your professional background, it's unlikely that you'll land a corporate board seat without prior board experience. Boggs offered four ways to improve your board readiness:
- Serve on a non-profit board. The easiest way to build your board skills and learn about board governance is to join a non-profit board. Look for boards where you can gain the skills and leadership experiences that would be most valued by a for-profit board.
- Become a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD). As long as you serve as a director on a board — even a not-for-profit — you can join the NACD. As a member, you'll gain access to a variety of educational and networking opportunities.
- Enroll in a board-readiness training program. A number of universities, including Yale, Harvard and Northwestern/Kellogg, offer programs that teach aspiring and current board members about the tactical, legal and logistical issues of board membership. Some programs, such as Yale's Women on Boards, are designed for women, while others are open to a broader audience. Admission criteria and fees vary by program.
- Nurture your network. Most board seats are filled by networking, or though searches conducted by executive search firms. So, work on building-up your network long before launching your board search. "Having a wide industry network really helps," said Boggs. "It really is difficult to land a board role without one."
Tips for Drafting a Board Resume
Many executives hire professional resume writers to help them create a board resume. But if you prefer to do it on your own, here are a few recommendations:
- Keep it short. While most board resumes are one-page documents, they can run two-pages if you have many board roles, publications or speaking engagements. There is no need to include day-to-day responsibilities and accomplishments for every position. Instead, focus on your highest-level accomplishments and general scope of responsibility. This sample resume on Bogg's site will give you a better sense of what a board resume should look like.
- Showcase your board experience at the top of the resume. List the organization's name, a description of who they are and what they do, your role (e.g., board member) any committees you sit on (chair of the Governance Committee or member of the Audit Committee) and the dates.
- Include any "board adjacent" experience, such as presentations you've made to a board or board committee, roles you've had on an executive committee or team, or experience with corporate-wide committees or task forces.
Finally, don't worry about hiding age or dates on your board resume. This is one arena where your advanced age plays to your advantage.