A Guide to Securing Your First Board Seat

Bill Hogenauer | November 10, 2021

Professionals across nearly every industry look at board seats a similar way: as a sign of legitimacy, expertise, and access. Joining a board of directors can do a lot for your career and personal life. You can expand your professional network, grow your personal brand, hone your skills, support causes that resonate with you, and much more. But getting that first board seat is often the hardest, so you need to have a plan in place—not to mention be honest with yourself about why you want it in the first place.

In our experience recruiting and assessing exceptional business leaders for growth-oriented organizations, we’ve seen a fair number of people make it to the board room. It’s such a hot topic, in fact, that our IT Executive Practice made it a primary discussion point at JM Search’s third virtual Diamond CIO Council. Two of our featured speakers—Hannah Shore, Platform Director of Greycroft; and Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO and SVP of Nutanix—shared proven steps you can take (and important questions you should ask) before going after your first board seat. Let’s review.

Network, Network, Network

Only through constant networking can you let others know what your brand is. There are many ways to do this, including participating in thought leadership groups, doing advisory work, and joining affinity groups. Finding one or two existing board members to advise you on your journey can also be a great help.

Remember that, by networking, you are ultimately endeavoring to create value for others (i.e., selfless networking). When you participate in thought leadership advisory groups, you have the opportunity to put the most valuable parts of your background and expertise to use. If you strive to help someone else first, it will ultimately come back to you in the future. Boards are looking for examples of how you can create value, so think of the best ways to show that. And though you shouldn’t be afraid to start small, don’t just take a board seat where you know you won’t add value. For example, if you want to be on a public company board, consider joining a pre-IPO VC/PE-backed board first to get things started.

The Right Reasons

Don’t take a board seat just to take it or simply because you know someone. It can be hard not to jump at the chance when so much potential career value is at stake. But sometimes, it’s best to start with an early-stage start-up, a pre-rendered concept, or by forming an advisory board. Anything you can do to build up your personal bio is helpful as long at your motivation for doing so is to create value. Jumping on a board blindly without understanding the problem set can prevent you from taking advantage of great industry connections.

It Takes Time

Joining a board of directors requires a unique matrix of skills in order to succeed. The first and often most overlooked is the simple capacity to contribute; be aware that sitting on a board requires a lot of time and interaction. Make sure you understand not only the skills gaps on the current board of the company to ensure yours are required, but also the bandwidth required to adequately contribute. This bandwidth need may be much more intense in an early-stage business than it is for a larger enterprise, for example. When you’re with the board, be sure that your attention is squarely focused on the objectives. Stay engaged and accessible, as factors that impact the business can change rapidly.

Politically Correct

When and if you find your way into a board evaluation process, there can be politics involved, even if there’s good chemistry and you seem to be making fast friends. Regardless of the relationships that may emerge or any experience you may share, when you come into a board, you’ve got to listen first. Whether or not you agree, there will be agendas in play, no matter how sophisticated a board may appear at first glance. It’s an important opportunity to display diplomacy and understanding, all while presenting your most authentic self (any attempts to fake who you are will be exposed in the very first meeting). It’s a delicate balancing act that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Employer Buy-In

Make sure your current employer allows participation in a board of directors. This simple oversight can sabotage your board room dreams before they even begin. Be sure to do your due diligence, too—getting proper permission can mean asking your executive leadership, the legal department, or even potential vendors. If you have a financial interest, you must clear it and check with your superiors.

As noted above, bandwidth is key to contributing to a board. It may seem like common sense, but your current employer has to know if you are going to be dedicating business hours to your board duties. If you need to travel to fulfill those duties, you’ll have to share your calendar with all related parties. Also make sure your employer understands and feels comfortable with any compensation details.

Take the Call

Speaking with a seasoned recruiter about securing a board seat can help you on this journey as well. If a recruiter reaches out about a board search, be sure to take the call even if you can’t do it or it doesn’t sound relevant. Recruiters depend on people picking up the phone, and they know exactly the type of person who will succeed in a given role, so when they call, it’s critical not to blow it off.

There’s no downside to speaking with a recruiter about board seats. You can gain an understanding of what’s happening in the marketplace, and you may be able to share something about your background that might be of value regarding future opportunities. Good recruiters always keep you in mind the next time around.

Create a One-Page Board Bio

Lastly, take the time to create an optimized one-page board bio to succinctly get your value and experience across to the audience. Think of this simple hand-out as a “lite version” of your resume that puts everything in chronological order, starting with your education and leading all the way through your professional experience. Board members responsible for admitting new members will want to see a brief paragraph on your career, verticals in which you’ve worked, and if you’ve had any board activity whatsoever—even non-profit seats at the YMCA or a book club. Hobbies come into play, too. Whether you’re an avid cyclist or into deep sea fishing, your personal interests could help break the ice with decision makers and reveal shared core values.

If executed correctly, the board bio will open the door to your first board seat and reveal your ambition and personality—a personal highlight reel. If you’re more tech-savvy or consumer-focused, the bio should make that obvious.

Once you settle on a tightly written bio, don’t forget to share it with recruiters. The right executive search firm will have already built a lot of momentum in the board recuriting space, working regularly with portfolios that need talent. When board members have a positive experience with a search firm, that positivity can be transferred over to you by association when a recruiter sends your bio for consideration—in other words, if recipients on a board have any influence whatsoever with talent, you and your recruiter get the downstream value.

Board seats are not just “shiny objects” one should pursue for the optics. Few other positions add instant credibility and grant valuable access to career development in quite the same way. We hope you’ll keep these key learnings in mind as you continue to pursue your first board seat. And when the time is right, consider partnering with an executive search firm to make that journey a little easier.

If you are interested in joining JM Search’s Diamond CIO Councilor to learn more about future CIO-focused events, please reach out to Bill Hogenauer. Special thanks to Hannah Shore and Wendy Pfeiffer for inspiring this article by leading the discussion