Aching to get yourself named to a board of directors but don't know how to break into that elite crowd? Don't waste your time proving how smart you are or flaunting your listing in the social register. Instead, try another classic corporate strategy: brown-nosing.
In their new study, "The Other Pathway to the Boardroom," the product of a survey of 1,012 senior managers and CEOs at 138 major companies, James D. Westphal, professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin, and Ithai Stern, a doctoral student there, show that exhibiting "ingratiatory behavior" toward your chief executive does more to help you get a board appointment than does brandishing a passenger manifest from the Mayflower or an Ivy-covered sheepskin. Put simply, sucking up trumps a noble birth.
Surprisingly, Westphal and Stern also found that women and ethnic minorities — probably because they lacked as many elite social connections — were significantly more likely to use this path to the boardroom than their richer, whiter comrades. "The most efficient way to get more board appointments is to engage in political behavior," says Westphal, a prolific young professor who has contributed many landmark studies about corporate governance. "People feel a natural obligation to help those who have ingratiated them."
Ingratiatory behavior, the authors say, means using flattery, doing favors of some kind, or reinforcing a CEO's existing opinion. They were able to quantify the results in startling detail: In a 12-month period, challenging the CEO's opinion on a strategic issue one fewer time, complimenting the CEO on his insight two more times, and doing one personal favor increased by 64% the likelihood of an appointment to a board where the CEO was already a director. "I was surprised by the sheer magnitude of the effect," says Westphal.
There's something appealingly democratic in Westphal's findings: Sucking up, after all, is the ultimate equal-opportunity strategy. Yet the implications are worrisome for those who believe that a more diverse board is a more independent board. If brown-nosing propels directors — be they women or minorities — into their powerful roles, why would they act any differently afterward? Flattery, it seems, really does get you everywhere.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.