How to Get on a Board as a Female First Timer

Jul 29, 2019

It's usually men who get a seat at the table - and women who have previously served.

Enter any corporate board room across the country, and you’ll be confronted with a similar scene: Men. Lots of them, most of them white.

And if you do see a woman or two — females held 17.7 percent of board seats at Russell 3000 companies last year, according to a report — it’s very likely that this is not their first rodeo as a director. To wit: Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer both made headlines when they were appointed to Amazon’s board this year, and both have previously served as directors.

“Boards want people who’ve been there, done that,” said Alexander Lowry, host of “Boardroom Bound,” a podcast for newbie directors. “They want people with C-suite experience who know how to guide an organization.”

Obviously, breaking onto the corporate board scene as a first-timer female is no easy business, but there are ways to set yourself up for a better crack at it, while we wait for some institutionalized regulations — like California’s law banning all-male boards — to help make things right. Here are some of the ways to get the experience corporate boards look for:

Start with a nonprofit or a startup. Board seats at small-to-medium nonprofits and startups are easier to get. If you’re lucky, you can specify the function you want to serve so it aligns with whatever committee you’re aiming to join as a corporate director. Tracy Warren, co-founder and CEO of medtech company Astarte Medical, started out as a board observer at a startup. “An observer role allowed me to learn the role of directors without the liability and responsibility,” Warren said.

Get friendly with fundraising and financials. “Seek out voluntary or trustee positions within charities close to your heart as this can provide an excellent training ground for your first corporate board level gig,” said Zaid Gulraiz, a senior researcher with executive recruiter Berwick Partners. And, whether it’s at your own firm or another organization or even your side hustle, make sure you understand how a P&L works and can do a proper assessment of an organization’s financial position. “Build financial or audit skills to fill a gap in committees on the board,” Warren said, adding that these are typically challenging roles to fill.

Promote yourself as a thought leader. Specific expertise in your market segment is key, and you have it, you’re just not showing it off. It’s time to lean into your personal brand! Examples could be posting a Medium piece related to your field, participating in mentorship programs, doing trade association talks and penning op-eds on a relevant subject. “Boards look for depth of expertise in a functional area relevant to their business,” according to Lisa Walker, a managing partner at executive search firm DHR International.

When in doubt, take a class. Courses and certification programs available through the National Association of Corporate Directors and similar organizations are helpful, Walker said, adding, “you should prepare to be on a board.”

Alright, so once you have the requisite skill set, what’s next?

Network, network, network. “Breaking through the barriers to entry at the board level can be difficult,” said Melissa Flanagan, COO for chemical manufacturer Prince International Corporation. “The best way to mitigate this, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is to build your professional network. Every meeting, every business trip, every day at the office is a chance to network and build up your circle.” Flanagan said that’s how she scored her board position at the Association of Supply Chain Management. And, of course, there’s LinkedIn — do not be shy about it. Message someone in a company you admire about something they did that impressed you. Ask them if they have time for a cup of coffee. There are also networking organizations exclusively for women like Chief that are definitely worth checking out.

Spread the word. Make sure everyone in your network knows you’re looking to be a corporate director and ask them to spread the news. “You might be the best candidate, but if no one knows you want a seat at the board table, then you probably won’t be thought of, so you need to share your desire,” said Lowry.

Contact executive search firms. There are executive search firms — as well as nonprofits — who specialize in placing women in corporate director roles. Check out Ellig Group, Spencer Stuart and the Forté Foundation, for starters.