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Getting Onto a Board of Directors: How to Take Your Leadership Skills to the Next Level

June 13, 2024
Six tips for becoming boardroom-ready.
An organization’s board of directors provides critical oversight and a strategic vision. But what does it take to become a part of this influential group?

Ambitious professionals often have a good sense of how to prepare themselves for the next step in their careers. But if that next step is the boardroom, the path can seem intimidatingly opaque. After all, you don’t exactly encounter board-membership opportunities on LinkedIn or via your local job board.

But in a recent The Insightful Leader Live webinar, Victoria Medvec, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, helped to illuminate the process. Medvec leads the Kellogg Women’s Director Development Program, which has prepared over 800 women for board opportunities; she has also sat on several boards herself.

Drawing on this experience, she offered concrete advice for navigating the journey to the boardroom.

Here are some highlights from her presentation.

1. Draft your board bio

Before you can begin a board search, you will need a board bio. This one-page document should tell a story about who you are and the skills you’ve acquired that would make you a valuable board member.

“A board bio is not a resume. It is not listing and describing everything you have ever done. Instead, it is a description of what you would bring to the board,” says Medvec.

She cautions that the skills that will make you an attractive board member are different from those that make for a strong executive.

“Your ability to interact well and listen and give advice are much more critical than your ability to lead a team of 3,000,” she says. “So you really want to think about: What are your unique competencies around strategy, CEO succession and planning, fiduciary responsibility? What would you bring into that boardroom, and what proof points do you have that you can really operate at that director level?”

It’s fine to start with a general template, but you will also want to tailor the bio to a given opportunity. For instance, one pharmaceutical board Medvec was considering already had several members who were scientists. But the firm had just conducted an IPO, so she tailored her bio to highlight her commercial experience.

But whatever you do, don’t go hunting for board opportunities without at least your template in hand.

“The most common thing people say in any conversation is, ‘Send me your bio, send me your information,’ and you don’t want it to take 6 weeks for you to follow up on that request,” she says.

2. Find a realistic fit

Something Medvec asks everyone she mentors is what sort of board they want to join. Often, they will mention a company like Apple or Google, which is understandable—but might also be a bit unrealistic.

“Unless you’re a sitting CEO of a very large public company with a lot of knowledge in an area that would be interesting to that board, it’s unlikely that you’re getting that big-, high-name board,” she says.

But worry not, because those big-name boards are actually just a small sliver of the opportunities out there. There are private-equity boards, startup boards, family-business boards, and even nonprofit boards. And you never know where interesting opportunities will arise. Medvec likes to share the story of a former CEO in the energy sector. The first board opportunity she was offered was at a gravel company. “She’s like, ‘Gravel? Who could get excited about gravel?’”

But she also knew that, given her background, she had a lot to offer the board. She also noted that the other board members were an impressive group, who could potentially connect her to other opportunities if she performed well on this one. So she accepted, and it worked out well for her. “That first board led to many, many, many other boards,” says Medvec.

3. Get your company’s blessing

Once you’ve readied your bio and considered where you might fit, you’re getting close to being ready to search for that first opportunity. But unless you are self-employed or retired, you will want to get your CEO’s blessing before you do anything else.

“Do not make the mistake of not having a conversation before you pursue opportunities,” says Medvec.

One useful way to approach that conversation is to explain how board membership will develop your skills, which in turn will benefit the organization. Moreover, talking to your CEO doesn’t have to be an obstacle; they might even be willing to connect you to a potential opportunity. “Think about it. Your CEO may serve on boards, your company’s sitting directors may serve on other boards. There’s a huge opportunity in that,” she says.

4. Lean on your network

Now it is time to reach out to your contacts for advice, express your interest in a board seat, and network, network, network. “You don’t apply for a board. It’s not like you’re sending in your application. So normally someone is recommending you,” says Medvec.

She points out that even when a search firm contacts you, it is often because someone in your network mentioned your name. So it’s time to rekindle old connections and forge new ones.

5. Sell yourself

Let’s say you’ve landed an interview. Congrats! But as you prepare to meet with company leadership and the other board members, remember this: much like your board bio is not your resume, your board interview is not your standard job interview.

“Your job in the interview is not to focus on highlighting your qualifications. The key in the interview is to highlight your fit with the other board members and how you might complement the existing board, how you might bring something unique to that situation,” says Medvec.

The fact you’re being interviewed at all shows that you’re qualified for the role. So instead, focus on how you’ll be able to collaborate with and complement current board members.

6. Evaluate the position before you accept it

Medvec says that as difficult as it is to get on a board, it’s even harder to get off. After all, if a director leaves a board soon after joining, that can have serious consequences, including impacting the share price of a public company.

So before accepting that spot on the board, do your due diligence. Ask to see meeting minutes and, of course, look out for blatant problems, like fraud. Try to suss out as much as you can about how the board operates and whether it is able to steer the organization. What are you signing up for?

“Some people might just want a rubber-stamp director who’s just going to approve, approve, approve, approve. I personally would never want to be on a board where I was a rubber stamp,” says Medvec. “I want to be active in the discussion.”

Another tip? “I always like to ask the question, ‘Give me an example of a time where the board and the CEO disagreed and what happened.’ And my worst answer that I could get would be it never happens. Because if it never happens, it’s a sign that CEO is probably not encouraging board debate.”

For more advice on joining a board, watch the entire webinar here.

This article originally appeared in Kellogg Insight, a publication of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. It is used with permission.

About the Author

Kellogg Insight

Kellogg Insight is the content website of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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