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How to obtain your first corporate board seat

You need a personal plan


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Many professional and C-suite officers are aspiring corporate directors, believing corporate board service would be worthwhile after retiring or concurrently with their present professional positions. The question is: How do you obtain your first board seat?

Finding a corporate board seat is not the same process as a job search. You do not apply; a board locates you. Thus, you need a personal action plan to obtain your first board seat. I suggest preparing a formal action plan, somewhat like a business plan, so you have the discipline to continue the challenging process, and a way to measure your efforts. Such a plan should consider the following:

Educate yourself about corporate boards and how they operate:

If you have not spent much time in your own company's boardroom, learn the basics about the duties of a board of directors. Attend the annual Global Board Leaders' Summit, sponsored by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), or a director "boot camp" conducted by many nationally recognized business schools. Take an NACD Director Professionalism course or attend courses offered by other credible education organizations. The corporate Board Bound Program of the Colorado Women's Leadership Foundation helps women with individualized plans prepare and position themselves to become corporate directors.

Establish your board value proposition:

Know why you want to be a corporate director; it shouldn't be for the money. Compose a description of why a company would want you as a board member. This will be your accomplishments and skills, not job roles. Be realistic. Are your board-oriented talents focused on an industry (technology, energy, etc.) or functionality (audit/financial, human resources, operations, etc.)? Be broader than narrower in your descriptions. Do you have unique skills needed by boards – such as cyber security or M&A strategy? Ron Brown, partner at search firm Heidrick & Struggles based in Denver agrees: 

"Often overlooked by board aspirants, but critical and obvious, is to have a value proposition for what you will contribute to the board in question. Too often, people think it's about themselves, and that their resume and willingness to serve is enough."

Start small:

Unless you already have a national presence, becoming known in Colorado is much easier than competing nationally. Identify smaller companies, such as those on the Top 100 Public Companies list, that are in industries in which your existing skills and experience would be beneficial. In addition, private companies that plan to go public will eventually need independent directors. The most recent MoneyTree report from PwC and CB Insights indicates Colorado companies received $670 million in venture capital in 128 deals during 2016. This capital raising shows that an active future IPO market still exists in Colorado. Learn what you can about these companies. Determine who their board members, major shareholders, and corporate service providers are, and devise a strategy to become known to them as part of your overall networking process. Companies in crisis may need new board members as well.

Prepare a board-oriented resume

Raise your chances of securing a board seat by having a current board-oriented resume. Compose a resume that highlights your work experiences that will be of interest and assistance to corporate boards, demonstrating your successful track record in your career field. Do not overemphasize technical skills as your search is for a board seat, not a consultant or employee position. 

Google your name to see what already exists on the web about you. Speak at local and regional industry conferences or publish articles about corporate governance or management subjects as enhancements to your resume. Distribute your resume to your professional network. File your resume with regional and local executive search firms, some of which have clients that would consider aspiring directors. Submit your candidate profile on the web-based NACD Directors Registry, where companies come to search for specific skills and experiences. Establish a robust professional profile on LinkedIn, embedded with director-related search terms, to make yourself easy to find by companies and search firms.

(Note: A search firm approached me with my most recent board opportunity based solely on my LinkedIn profile.)

Serve initially on other types of boards:

Advisory and large nonprofit board service is often the first step in obtaining a corporate board seat. Although nonprofit board service does not qualify as corporate board experience, such service is still helpful. You learn basic board governance processes and obtain networking opportunities with corporate community leaders. Advisory boards are different from corporate boards where directors have fiduciary responsibilities. Instead, they are advisors to the CEO, usually in technical or other specialized areas. Advisory board service builds your credentials at that company or in an industry in which you are knowledgeable and increases networking opportunities.

Network and build a community profile

The key to finding a board position in Colorado is your network.

I obtained each of my seven Colorado board seats by maintaining a high profile in the local business community, referrals and personal contacts. References play a large part in director searches. Let business associates and influential friends know of your interest in corporate board service; but, do not directly seek a particular company's board. Become acquainted with attorneys, CPAs, bankers, executive compensation consultants and other boardroom advisers. Share your resume with corporate directors who you know. Participate in organizations where venture capitalists attend. Join NACD, if you qualify, and participate in the meetings of the Colorado Chapter where you will meet serving directors as well as become educated on important corporate governance issues.

Your first corporate board seat is the hardest to find. A well thought-out personal action plan is your best way to obtaining a corporate board position. Once you gain your first corporate board seat, additional director opportunities will come easier. 

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Taylor Simonton

Taylor Simonton, CPA, is a retired PwC assurance and National Office SEC Partner and a past chairman of the Colorado Chapter of National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) As the recognized authority on leading boardroom practices, NACD with more than 17,000 director members helps boards strengthen investor trust and public confidence by ensuring that today's directors are well prepared for tomorrow's challenges. Taylor serves or has served on the board of directors of seven Colorado companies, usually as the audit committee chair. Contact Simonton about at tsimonton@NACD-Colorado.org or www.linkedin.com/in/taylorsimonton.

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