Do you want to serve on a Board of Directors? If so, are you finding the path to a seat on a board vague, daunting, perhaps frustrating? I’ve met dozens of people who fit this description. They are almost all successful, smart and experienced.

One woman I met recently fits this description. Susan and I met for coffee to discuss her interest in serving on the board of a for-profit company. She spent 10 minutes telling me why it probably wouldn’t happen. She would have kept it up had I not interrupted her to ask why she thought this way.  None of her reasons are valid. Not one.

Directors say it’s hard to find good candidates and those who want to be directors say it’s hard to find opportunities.  This sure smells like opportunity!

Killer Conventional Wisdom

Susan had been listening to too much advice that is patently wrong, though promulgated by people who appear credible. What had she heard that was killing her interest? That she:

1. Must be a CEO or other C-level executive

2. Will have the most success in the industry where her experience lies

3. Should be a financial expert (standards set by the SEC)

This is conventional wisdom because these are the most obvious criteria for a director. Yet the number of directors needed far outstrips the supply of people who fit this narrow description. Bright, successful, and motivated people who are interested in board service should consider these examples:

  1. George Benson, President of the College of Charleston, is on the board of AGCO, Crawford and Company and Primerica.
  2. Pat Mitchell, a former journalist, now the head the Paley Foundation, was on the board of Sun Microsystems, Inc., Bank of America and is currently on the board of AOL.
  3. Paul Lapides, a faculty member at Kennesaw State University sits on two public company and several private company boards.

You have probably heard of Pat Mitchell, but not George or Paul. Why were they selected? Two reasons. First, they are smart and possess a breadth of knowledge. Second, they stood out for positive reasons.

At a recent meeting of directors, I spoke with them about how they find qualified colleagues. All of them said they prefer to find directors through their networks. Even when a search firm is engaged, they want to verify a candidate’s credentials through the knowledge and experience of peers, where possible.

When I speak to individuals who seek a board seat, they often assume that the network of relationships among directors is closed. This is completely untrue. Indeed, many people are delighted to refer a talented person who their colleagues would not know otherwise. Your job is to get noticed for the right reasons. Don’t be difficult to find!

Close the Gap

You could wait for the phone to ring, but that has a small chance of success. Rather than wait, there are things you can do.

  1. Don’t over-react to conventional wisdom. Most directors are not now nor have they ever been a CEO.
  2. Tell your colleagues and professional associates that you are interested in serving on a board.
  3. Be articulate about your value. What results have you helped to achieve?
  4. Interact with directors as a peer. No need to be subservient.
  5. Don’t wait for others to come to you.  Participate in professional groups.
  6. Read to stay apprised of the issues in governance.
  7. Comment on articles and blogs that discuss governance issues.
  8. Speak the language of business with fluency and breadth. Avoid being the expert in a single arena, no matter how important.
  9. Get help to create a powerful biography.

Boards need smarts, bravery, candor and integrity, no matter the industry or company situation. They are also looking for people who want to serve. Make it easy for them to find you.

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