Demystifying the Path to Board Service

By Susan Paley


Director Recruitment Directorship Magazine

Thousands of business leaders serve on corporate boards of directors. And if you walk into an NACD event, it feels like the whole world does. Well, at least the whole room.

Yet when pursuing what one hopes is a path to a role on a board, arriving there can begin to feel a bit like winning the lottery. Boards on the S&P 500 appointed 388 new independent directors last year, out of a total of 5,266, according to the 2023 US Spencer Stuart Board Index. Those odds can seem formidable.

However, in many cases, boards are looking for you. As noted in the Spencer Stuart 2022 S&P 500 New Director Snapshot, more than half of S&P 500 boards (53 percent) appointed at least one new director last year and first-time directors comprised 31 percent of these appointments. Boards seek—and increasingly need—directors with unique combinations of skills, experience, talents, and attributes. And there’s every chance that you’ve got what they are looking for.

The question is, how does one highlight strengths and qualities that will attract a board’s attention, and advance on what can seem like a daunting journey? Luckily, board experts and seasoned directors have valuable insights to offer that help demystify the matter, empowering you to craft a strategic plan for your campaign to your first—or next—board seat.

Mind-set Matters

As you would with any professional endeavor, you need to be mentally prepared for what lies before you. The journey, challenge, and campaign you’re embarking on can be seen as a chore or a path to a kind of enlightenment where every conversation is a chance to learn something and every event along the way, a growth opportunity. It is helpful to imagine that nearly every interaction is a kind of audition, interview, or seedling of an opportunity. “Bring your A-game to whatever you do,” advises Mary Beth Vitale, who has sat on multiple corporate boards, including currently as chair of the nominating and governance committee of Luna Innovations and a director of GEHA. Vitale also serves on the international board of Women Corporate Directors. “I know that sounds simple, but it really is important,” she continues. “How you perform in your community, your job, at your children’s school. All that plays a role… and you never know where those [professional] connections are going to come from.”

Glenn Tobe, CEO of Glenn Tobe & Associates, advises that, because one doesn’t push oneself into a boardroom, but rather gets invited: “Ground yourself in knowing the fundamentals of board service and your own strengths.” He suggests an approach to one’s journey that emphasizes “I’m here to serve and to get educated,” accompanied by an internal mantra of “I’m in play!”—especially when facing a lull in progress or a daunting networking event.

Vitale suggests that would-be board members take a posture of saying “yes” to as much as they can, be that giving a speech or taking a meeting. “You never know what’s going to happen from that… when you give back… it comes back doubly to you,” she says. Furthermore, she encourages pushing oneself: “Some executives—[particularly those] who are underrepresented [in the boardroom]… say they feel they need to check every single box to take the next opportunity. Sometimes you just need to take the next opportunity.”

At the same time, it’s important to mindfully balance when to seize an offer and when to pause. “Fit really matters,” reflects Joanna Burkey, the former chief information security officer at HP and a board member at Beyond Inc. (formerly Overstock.com and Bed Bath and Beyond) and ReliabilityFirst Corp. Burkey also serves on the advisory board of the NACD Texas TriCities Chapter. “It can be so tempting to be in a hurry. But when you make it to the board you will be serving this company, with your fellow directors, for years. You will go through tough times, and a lot of hard work, with management and the other directors so it is critical to have a passion for the mission and to enjoy the people.” 

Deeply reflecting on your personal why before launching a board seat search will serve as a touchstone, grounding you when the road gets rocky. A thoughtful approach, patience, and persistence will also smooth your way, along with a hefty dose of resilience. “You’ll tell your story 100 times,” notes Brig. Gen. Leela Gray, NACD.DC (Ret.), who serves on the boards of Monterey Capital Acquisition Corp. and Empower, as well as the Florida Chapter of the Gary Sinise Foundation. “Get used to failure, live the word ‘resilience’. It comes with the territory.”

Develop Your Unique Value Proposition

Every aspiring director should realize that while there are some eight billion people on the planet, there is only one you. Establish, get comfortable with, and own your value proposition. The unique combination of experience, talents, and passion that you have refined throughout your years, roles, and experiences creates an offering that may take some reflection time to distill. It’s worth the investment of energy. Maj. Gen. Randy Manner, US Army (Ret.), president of Manner Analytics, strategic advisor for Johns Hopkins University, and former senior partner at Korn Ferry, suggests asking yourself: “What are the one or two things that make you attractive to a board?... Identify your value proposition—it should be less than two [minutes]—practice it verbally, write it down, show it to people, revise, tweak, and iterate.”

Perhaps, decades of doing what you’ve had to do rather than purely what you were passionate about have left you ill prepared to crisply identify your unique superpowers. There are ways to leverage allies in this endeavor. “If you don’t know exactly what your talents or skills are, ask people,” suggests Tobe.

Honing your value proposition is not merely useful for a clear-eyed launch to your campaign as you internally position yourself and tell your own story. It also helps others become amplifiers of your candidacy. “The easier you can make it for us to be able to tell your story to clients, the better,” advises Chuck Gray, Egon Zehnder’s coleader of the US CEO and Board Practice.

Vitale is careful about how she positions her value proposition. “I don’t lead with ‘I’m a woman’… I always lead with cyber because that’s important especially in this day and age.”

Burkey agrees: “Having an in-demand skill set—cybersecurity in my case—definitely opened doors for me. It was having good communication skills and a passion for the broader business that got me through the door.”

Visualizing that sweet spot where your talents, experience, and passions overlap—imagine your own, personal Venn diagram of those three elements—can take the help of a friend or colleague, a coach, or just some focused self-reflection and observation over time. You’ll no doubt feel more centered as you land on your concise value proposition statement. It will likely evolve or sharpen over time, allowing you to truly provide others with an authentic, soft “pitch” of what you offer a board, whether delivered via email, on social media, or during the proverbial elevator ride.

Educate to Elevate

Even for those who have deep levels of executive experience, there is another set of learnings to get one’s head around when it comes to board service. Garnering a grasp of governance fundamentals is essential to your journey. Ask yourself if you are aware of basics that Tobe points to, such as knowing the three key committees on public company boards, iconic events of the 20th century that led to today’s governance structures, and significant regulations of the current century such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd Frank. Are you clear about distinctions between serving as management versus as a director? Do you feel solid in your understanding of what a board’s role is? As important as knowing yourself, your audience, and your own industry or skills is being acquainted with critical elements of a board’s raison d’être. It’ll help you feel confident in your conversations and in your own skin as you travel the pathway to interviews and a vetting process.

There is no shortage of resources for educating yourself, and while there is no master list, by virtue of reading this article, you’re taking a plunge into the offerings of one such organization, NACD, while there are countless others available coast-to-coast and virtually. A board readiness program is recommended by a variety of directors we spoke with as well.

“The world is very complex,” observes Vitale. “It’s changing quickly. So, I suggest getting as smart as possible! [That could include] good board readiness programs.”

Joining the board of a nonprofit organization is universally recommended. Not only will you be giving back to the community, but you’ll be learning the ropes of the boardroom and immersing yourself in board-level conversations. Calling upon those skills and highlighting them on one’s resume will continue to serve you. So will the relationships you build.

“Key nonprofits in your community such as the zoo… the opera, usually have high-level people serving on the board,” says Vitale. She adds that this type of board service is a great way to develop and that working with your CEO to identify opportunities could be a route worth pursuing.

The saying goes, “What got you here isn’t going to get you there.” And that may be true—at least partially—when it comes to board service. The role you’re playing in the boardroom is decidedly different from that of your executive career in that you’re overseeing—serving as a resource for management—and not managing the business yourself. Threading the proverbial needle to ensure you’re attracting the right attention and invitations to board discussions involves a balance of specific knowledge and broad awareness.

Competency in one domain, no matter how critical it may be, is not enough for a board to fill a valuable board seat, shares Burkey. “Any director must bring value to all of the conversations that occur in the boardroom. I’ve been part of a few director searches, and it’s nonnegotiable to find candidates that have deep knowledge in one or two needed areas and at the same time bring broader business skills that make them well-rounded executives."

Supercharge Your Board Journey

We’ve heard the adage, “If a tree falls in a forest….” A board-candidate’s corollary might be, “If I’m experienced, educated, and ready, what happens if no one knows about it?” To be invited to interview for a board role, one must take intentional steps to amplify their presence online as well as in person.  

A first step is to update your resume or CV, ensuring it highlights aspects of your career where you’ve interacted with or served on boards and features board-level key words that would be searched for in scans for candidates. Your board bio, which is a distinct document from the resume, is also important as you progress further into the candidacy process and reflects in a single page, with a photo, a concise story of your quantitative and qualitative achievements that drove the business and that are also most relevant to board work.

“There’s not just one version of a board bio,” advises Leela Gray. “Don’t carbon copy someone else’s bio. Tweak yours for different opportunities.”

More important than ever is your LinkedIn profile that similarly reflects key accomplishments, including quantitative data points as well as board-related experiences. “If I hear a new name, the first place I go is LinkedIn,” notes Chuck Gray. “It helps us quickly get a sense of your career progression… so It’s a very good way for us to get a read. That’s a place to invest time.”

As if providing proof, Vitale underscores that assertion: “I cannot tell you how often I get a call because they looked me up on LinkedIn.”

While a LinkedIn presence has become de rigueur, it is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a larger online presence. Authoring articles, posting them, and sharing news—and photos—of your speaking engagements have become part of current online culture and what some call the art of the “humble brag.”

“Publishing something changes everything,” asserts Tobe. “Start small. Just start.”

Get Out There!

You’ve got a thoughtfully composed resume, board bio, and LinkedIn profile at hand, and you’re expanding your online presence. Now what? “Network, network, network,” implores Vitale. “Seventy-five percent of all board seats are filled through networking… and it’s got to be purposeful. It’s important for you to know something about them. Ask them questions, be personal. Have your one or two minutes [ready, and express that you’re] looking for a board, especially in manufacturing [or whatever your focus is]…. And don’t forget to ask them, ‘How can I help you?’ It’s a two-way street.”

Leela Gray suggests that tucking a few powerful questions in your back pocket is a great tool in networking. And when you do land an opportunity to set up a meeting with someone in person or on a call, pay close attention. “People gave me their time and I made a note of the conversation, their name, the names of their kids,” recalls Gray. “I asked them if there was anyone else they suggested I talk to. My advice is: leave the meeting with three actionable ideas.”

Rose McKinney-James, a board member of Ioneer, MGM Resorts International, the NACD Pacific Southwest Chapter, Pacific Premier Bancorp, and Toyota Financial Savings Bank, doubles down on mindful networking: “When seriously exploring a board opportunity, it’s important to remember that you never know who’s watching you and that relationships and reputation are critical assets that need to be both protected and nurtured. Networking with purpose is essential so do your best to be resourceful, authentic, and intentional in your search.”

Have an invite for a conference in your inbox, and thinking about it makes you want to roll your eyes? Tobe suggests an internal posture of, “I’ll learn something, I’ll have a good conversation.” He advises against marketing oneself on-site, and instead approaching others with curiosity, humility, and honesty.

Conventions, symposia, and other professional gatherings often do produce fresh opportunities and new connections. "The path to my first public company board seat was via networking and relationship building,” recounts Burkey. “After attending the same conference, and hearing each other speak publicly, the CEO of a company and I became acquainted. After a while this turned into a board opportunity—and an invitation to join the board. Regardless of that result, just creating a new and valued relationship was a worthy outcome on its own."

In addition to leveraging local and national events both in person and online, including via an array of affinity groups, you can gain significant exposure within your own organization. “If a candidate doesn’t have board experience…,” explains Chuck Gray, “We ask the client, ‘What if they have board exposure?’ And that’s loosely defined as that person presenting to their own board.” He suggests asking your CEO if you might get on the board agenda for an upcoming meeting. “If you’re on the other side of the table presenting to board directors, you understand that board dynamic a little bit more than somebody who’s never had that exposure at all.”

"Get out of your functional silo,” recommends Burkey. “For some with the less traditional backgrounds, it can be so easy to stay ‘in the zone,’ networking with similar people, attending the same industry conferences, speaking to audiences that are in similar roles. It is key to go broad, not just for exposure but also for learning.”

On Assignment

Fulfilling your objective of joining a board means strategically planning and setting expectations for yourself regarding actions to take. According to Manner, it also demands tracking your advancement with metrics. “What will success look like in your personal board search? What objectives will you set, and how will you prepare?”

Manner recommends outlining three specific methods you’ll use to identify mentors, which connections you’ll network with, and how you’ll track your progress and stay accountable. Tobe encourages clear statements of which actions you’ll be taking: “This week I’ll contact ‘X’ number of people… next week, I’ll meet with ‘Y’ number of people.” He endorses reaching out to strangers, provided your outreach is thoughtful.

You likely have arrived at your current place in your profession through collaboration and support. Likewise, your path to the boardroom doesn’t need to be one you walk alone. Consider the benefits of composing a group of trusted allies or your own personal “advisory board” to support you on your journey. Manner encourages meeting regularly with a buddy, running your pitch past them, and leveraging them for encouragement.

Prepping for Your Interview

You’ve landed a board interview! Now what? Prepare well for your upcoming conversation with the recruiter, search committee, or nominating and governance committee. Leela Gray counsels, “Look at the company’s proxy statement—you can Google it…. Brush up on your industry-specific knowledge. Have your powerful questions ready.”

Tobe advises, “Know the company, [its] competition, [its] product.” By focusing less on your own needs and more on the board’s journey of advancing or elevating, you can, as Tobe suggests, “play to their needs.” He suggests asking overtly, “What [does] the next level look like for this board?” Manner underscores the point: “Even more important than knowing your own value, understand what the board needs.”

Chuck Gray’s advice for approaching an interview is, “Don’t be arrogant, don’t be aloof… show up… act like you belong [on a board].” When you put into the world a confidence that you are ready, it can change the game.

Finally, Nell Minow, vice chair at ValueEdge Advisors, prior president of Institutional Shareholder Services, and an attorney who has worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and the US Department of Justice, instructs, “Remember who is interviewing whom. It can feel like you’re interviewing for a job, but you need to go in with skepticism and figure out if they are looking for someone to ask questions in the boardroom and do their homework. If not, say no.”

Burkey adds a dose of reality about what board service entails: “Clearing the calendar at 6 p.m. on a Saturday for an emergency call can be onerous if you don’t fundamentally get fulfillment and purpose out of board service. But when you find those great fits, it’s truly a pleasure to serve the company and [its] management through all circumstances.” ■

Photo Credit: iStock/ MikkelWilliam


Susan Paley
Susan Paley is vice president of the NACD chapter network, executive sponsor of NACD Board Search, and a host of NACD’s podcast, BoardVision. She is certified as a leadership coach and is a former television script writer and producer.


This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Directorship.