Getting a seat on a corporate board can be tricky for women. The bar to qualify is high, opportunities are slim, and getting a foot in the door is sometimes tougher than it is for their male counterparts.
But now is the best time for women to capitalize on corporations’ need for a more balanced board, a panel of current female board members said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen summit.
“This is becoming part of the criteria,” said Kara Gustafson, treasurer and board member for PL+US, a nonprofit advocating for national paid family leave. “Many people are looking at: is this a diverse board?”
Gustafson along with Angela Gardner, Media, Entertainment & Digital Practice partner at Heidrick & Struggles; Leyla Seka, board member of Proofpoint and Girls Who Code; and Inhi Cho Suh, general manager of Watson Customer Engagement at IBM and DocuSign board member, shared their tips for women who want to get on corporate boards with the crowd in Laguna Niguel on Wednesday.
The women, all of whom have worked with or for executives of big public companies, had several pieces of advice. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Start with nonprofit boards
Nonprofit boards can serve as the entry point to corporate boards.
Organizations often are “craving” for people with expertise that can help spur growth, Gustafson said. And the experience women get serving on the nonprofit’s board can often help them make the case for themselves when they’re ready to vie for a corporate board seat.
“Serving on a nonprofit board may seem like an easier segue,” Gustafson said, adding that corporate boards can often feel “intimidating.” Women can “take that confidence and apply that to a corporate board.”
Nonprofit board members often have to deal with complicated and tight budgets, marketing and communications strategies, and diversity and inclusion issues. All of these skills will be critical to the same job on a corporate board.
“It certainly helps a lot,” said Cho Suh. “It shows you’ve managed the portfolio of nonexecutive and executive responsibility.”
2. Do your research
As Seka says: There’s a lot more to being a board member than sitting and getting paid four times a year. Board members have a high level of responsibility to look out for the best interests of the company or organization.
That’s why it’s imperative that aspiring board members do their research, Cho Suh said. Candidates should know who’s on the board, what expertise those members provide, what the company or organization needs, and be able to identify the gaps. You should also be aware of the often long commitments, sometimes 10 years or longer, that come with corporate board seats.
“You can do a lot of research in advance,” said Cho Suh. “You have to really think about time and people.”
And some of that research includes asking yourself why you want to be on the board, Seka said.
“Are you doing it for cache, for money, because you care?” she said. “Ask yourself that. That will help you target the companies you want to work for.”
3. Work your network
Just as professional networks are tapped for job leads, they should also be leveraged for board seats.
“The first thing you need to do is vocalize to your network that you’re interested,” Cho Suh said.
And that can be as simple as updating a LinkedIn profile, said Gardner of Heidrick & Struggles, a global executive search firm. Aspiring corporate board members should focus on highlighting that goal versus their current day job.
“It helps change the dialogue around your story,” Gardner said.
And if aspiring board members don’t have a network of relevant contacts, they can create a networking strategy. Seka suggests making a list of the five companies you want to target for a board set. Then begin networking with people who work there and be honest about your goal.
Sometimes casual conversations turn into introductions, dinners, meet ups, which in turn could result in a board seat.
That’s how Cho Suh ended up on the board of DocuSign—by having a casual conversation within her network about an interview she had for a board seat for another company.
“It ended up pivoting,” she said. “And I ended up on board at DocuSign. So have the conversations.”
4. Make the ask
The entire panel at the summit agreed on one thing: One of the most important things a woman can do is know your value and ask for what you want.
“Be super clear what is your value on that board what is the expertise you can provide,” Cho Suh said. “Be confident in that.”
That also means not being afraid to be forward with a request for board consideration after getting to know the company or organization. A blunt request from Seka got the attention of Girls Who Code founder.
“I emailed Reshma Saujani and said, ‘I want to be on your board,’” Seka laughed. “She didn’t respond for a while, but I’m on the board now.“
5. Be specific
Lastly, the women offered advice for avoiding a common pitfall: Casting too wide a net for the kind of board women want to serve.
None of the four pieces of advice will work without a clear and concise goal in mind and the ability to communicate that aspiration.
Search firms often specialize in one industry or vertical and are seeking board members who fit the bill for that specific job. If women say they just want to serve a corporate board without any guidance to what kind of board, they’re likely not going to get many bites.
If you’re too broad, “your network doesn’t know how to help you,” Cho Suh said.
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