Each and every one of us has a unique set of experiences, skills, and values that shape how we approach the world in which we live and work—how we operate both personally and professionally. That is what you want to communicate in creating and promoting your personal brand when you are branding yourself to try to join for your first board of directors.
To get started, ask yourself, “What are the key things I stand for and key values I can offer? What do I want someone to know about the value that I would add to a board and a company?” The answers will help you define the distinguishing factors that will form the core of your brand; knowing what strengths you contribute will help you be able to clearly articulate what you will bring to a board.
You want to, essentially, be able to “sound-bite” in 90 seconds your personal brand, who you are, what you stand for, and the value you bring. Outline your soundbite. Practice it.
Once you have perfected and curated your personal messaging and the value you will bring to a board, you have to get the word out to your network that you are actively searching for a board opportunity.
Personal networking can play a powerful role in bringing you to the attention of boards seeking potential candidates. As an aspiring director, you need to work at both nurturing and building on your existing network.
Most of us know more people than we realize. Take some time to consider your circle of friends, colleagues, and business associates, and draw up a short list of those likely to be most influential. This existing network is a valuable resource and needs constant attention to maximize the hidden potential it can provide. Reflect on all of the great executives and bosses with whom you have worked with during your career and whom you admire. Ask yourself what you have done to help them before asking them to help you with anything. If you haven’t yet been helpful to them, figure out a way to bring value to them.
It would be well worth your while to reach out to these execs and cultivate the opportunity to sit with them for a quick espresso. A short reach-out that talks about what you admired and have learned from them in the past year as you look forward in developing your own career is always well received. Most people within your organization, if you’re explicit in your ask, will carve a little time out to meet with you.
You need to be diplomatic and careful in how you make such an ask. It is normally well received, though, if handled correctly.
Another way to strengthen your network is by going back to former bosses in your career and updating them on how you have been progressing. Let them know how what they taught you has been meaningful in accelerating your own career. Mirror back to them the attributes in their leadership and in their success that you have most admired and tried to emulate. This will allow you to establish and reinforce strong relationships with the people most likely to be asked for references for your future positions.
As you cultivate their enthusiastic support and approval, you can also ask for guidance on your journey about who they have admired and think you might learn from. You must be specific in what you want to get out of a conversation. Also, keep your conversations brief and be on the alert for cues that you are taking too much of a contact’s time. Building a network is something that you do gradually over time and over multiple meetings.
You must also invest in these relationships by bringing something of value to every meeting. Earn credibility by contributing value to conversations before infringing on people’s time. Be sure you are interested in finding a way to be helpful to them as you are asking them for a favor.
Building a network is a continuous and long-term process. Your goal may be a long-term project to get yourself on a board. It may take six months or more, even several years.
As you seek a board seat, you will discover that members of the investment community, both venture capital and private equity groups as well as bankers are among the biggest influencers who interact with corporate boards. Others include outside law firms and accounting companies that advise the board, as well as management consulting organizations such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain, and Accenture. These are all valuable networks that you can cultivate. Try to build relationships in these different organizations where you feel you have a connection.
A very important avenue for finding potential board roles are the specialty turnaround consultancies such as Alvarez and Marcel, Alix Partners, BDO Seidman, and Buxbaum Group. Activist hedge fund investors are potentially great board opportunities for people who haven’t yet served on public boards. The big activist funds are companies like Elliot, Carl Icahn, Third Point, ValueAct, Jana, Pershing Square, Starboard, and Trian.
When you have the opportunity to pursue a board position, create talking points tailored to the specific company. Is it an early- stage company? A mid-stage company? A late-stage company? A public company? A growth company? A turn-around company? A value company? Draw on your experience to develop talking points that are relevant to the company’s current stage and future aspirations. Tailoring your experience to how it’s relevant for the current status of the company is critical. Your communications need to be more than simply a playback of your functional background or your industry background.
You will need to demonstrate that you have the credentials and personality to help the board move the company from its current situation to where it wants to be.
Being able to weave in your values and your qualitative attributes, as well as your specific measurable industry and functional background, is essential, especially when you get the chance—in baseball terminology—for an “at bat” with key players who can assist your quest for a board seat.
Typical at-bat opportunities include the chance to meet with a venture capitalist, a private equity person, a banker, a lawyer, a colleague, a prospective CEO, and/or a board member able to help you. Prepare carefully for such opportunities because you have one chance to make a positive impression. Come with your thoughts organized, prepared in an outline, and take full advantage of the opportunity.
Getting onto a board is rarely a one-and-done transaction. It’s an investment in building relationships, and you need to do the work to forward invest.
Forward investment is important so that those in your network get to know you in the context of a potential board member. You want them to feel proud to introduce you to others and to potential boardroom opportunities. In my experience the networks closest to you, with the people who believe in you, will be the ones that are the most likely key to help unlock that boardroom opportunity for you.