3 Secrets to Landing a Corporate Board Seat
Studies show women mean money. Marshal your talents and clinch the deal
Gail Tifford has championed other women’s success for years. As a vice president at Unilever, she helped create a women’s network that provides leadership training and career development. She also co-founded #SeeHer, an Association of National Advertiser’s initiative aimed at presenting a more accurate portrayal of women and girls in media and advertising. So, when she started reading articles about the lack of women on corporate boards, she decided she wanted to change those statistics by joining a board herself.
“Just look at stats for women on boards,” she says. “It’s staggering. It’s one of the reasons I left Unilever to work at Weight Watcher s— to be in the C-suite of a public company.” Tifford is now Weight Watchers’ chief brand officer.
Tifford is also part of the wave of women joining corporate boards. She became a director at American fashion designer and manufacturer Fossil Group, Inc. in July 2017 after a six-month search, although she had anticipated it taking two years or more to join a board. “The reality is timing is everything,” Tifford says. “Board seats don’t come along very often so when an offer does come along, think twice about saying no.” Tifford interviewed for one other board position at a public company in Boston before joining the Fossil board. That interview “gave me confidence for my next interview,” she says.
Why they want you: Women =$$$
Consider this: In 2018, one-fourth of all publicly held companies have no female directors on their boards and one-third have only one female board member, says Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, CEO of 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign to increase the percentage of women on U.S. company boards to 20 percent or greater by the year 2020.
The statistics look better for women and minorities, however, if you focus on just the S&P 500. In 2017, for the first time in the history of the Spencer Stuart U.S. Board Index, just over half of incoming directors on S&P 500 boards were women or minorities. Perhaps that change can be traced back to a 2016 Credit Suisse report that found that companies with at least one woman director received a better return on their investments compared with companies with all-male boardrooms. But Berkhemer-Credaire cautions that boards need a minimum of three women to be successful because “one woman is a token, two is a conversation and three has impact.”
Earlier this year, Berkhemer-Credaire says corporate investors such as Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street and Morgan Stanley started putting pressure on the boards of the companies they invest in to add female directors. They communicated that they’re watching what’s going on and they’re insisting those boards address gender diversity if they want institutional investors to look upon them favorably.
You don’t need to learn new skills
Tifford’s digital marketing experience and her prior experience on a non-profit board helped her to land in a director’s seat quickly, says Nicole Kyner, head of search at theBoardlist, a group that connects highly qualified female leaders with opportunities to serve on private and public company boards. Boards are looking for people who can solve the problems their companies are currently facing, and digital marketing experience is becoming increasingly important, she says.
In the last three to five years, the skills that boards are looking for have changed, says Sheila Ronning, CEO and founder of Women in the Boardroom. A decade ago boards were looking for financial experts and current or former CEOs. But today, she says, they are also looking for experts in talent management, risk management, cybersecurity and digital disruption — all in response to the challenges companies face.
Yet, despite companies looking for more women and minorities with broader experiences, only 1 to 3 percent of people of all genders will ever serve on a corporate board, Kyner says. “You really have to be at the top of your profession. You have to make yourself very visible.” Most corporate boards are looking for people with operating experience who have built programs and projects, and know how to lead, says Kyner. However, once you’re on a board, your role isn’t to build and to lead but instead to advise the CEO without telling him or her what to do. “It can be a difficult transition,” she admits.
The questions Tifford was asked during her interviews fall into two common sought-after buckets — her ability to influence others and her emotional intelligence. “You can have all the [technical] skills but if you can’t convince and align people, you will be ineffective,” Tifford says.
The big game changer: fit
Cultural fit can be more important when joining a board than with a full-time position, Kyner admits. So you need to realistically consider whether you would use the product or service the company sells. “If you wouldn’t use it, you shouldn’t be on the board,” she says.
Kyner helps to match qualified women with corporate boards looking for directors. “I look for experience that will resonate with the board,” she says. “I’m looking for that great fit.” Every woman on theBoardlist was nominated by a CEO or a board member and about 50 percent already have had experience on three or four boards, she says. For instance, former Twitter COO Adam Bain nominated Tifford.
Getting an endorsement from someone already in the C-suite can increase your chances of becoming a board candidate so, if you’re interested in serving on a board, let people know. Then, when they’re asked to nominate a board candidate, your name will come to mind. “Never underestimate every conversation and connection made,” Tifford says. “Look at every person you talk to as an opportunity. If people don’t know it’s of interest to you, nothing is ever going to happen.”
Work your connections
In fact, the majority of board seats are filled by candidates referred by other board members. Less than 15 percent of seats are filled by candidates recommended by search firms, Ronning says. That doesn’t mean you need to meet with 50 new people a month to be considered for a board seat. Instead, re-engage with people already in your network who are influencers and connectors, she says. Once you reconnect, think about how to maintain a relationship with them going forward. For instance, if you see an article or something that would interest them, send them an email or call them. “Let them know you were thinking of them and that keeps you top of mind for them,” she says.
Berkhemer-Credaire agrees that it’s important to develop a solid network of people who serve on boards. But, it’s also essential that you get experience serving on large non-profit boards like United Way or American Cancer Society. Or get a seat on a city, county or state commission to learn about fiduciary responsibility, she says. You can apply for a seat on government websites or ask your local politician to recommend you. “A smaller board will lead to a bigger board,” says Berkhemer-Credaire, who is also the author of The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors.
Fiduciary experience is essential because all board directors are responsible for the stewardship of the proper spending and management of the company’s money, Berkhemer-Credaire says. As a board member, you represent the shareholders in approving budgets, managing the company’s strategic growth, and taking responsibility for the hiring and firing of the CEO as well as his or her compensation.
Make sure you have no conflicts of interest
Before joining a board, be sure to get the support and approval of your current employer, Kyner says. You don’t want to get an offer to join a board and then find out there is a conflict with the company for which you currently work.
While investors have put more pressure on boards to address gender diversity in the boardroom, it is unclear how much impact the #MeToo movement will have on the number of women serving on boards. Although theBoardlist is getting an influx of calls and emails from boards saying they want to add a woman to their roster, Kyner isn’t sure if it will ultimately lead to more female directors. While it may translate to more female candidates, Kyner is cautious about assuming that it will translate to more women on boards.
One of the most surprising aspects about being on a board, Tifford says, is how emotionally invested she is in the success of the company and the friendships she has developed with other board members. “I care so much,” she says. “That works to their benefit. When you care, you give more.”