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I’m ready to serve on a corporate board. How do I get picked?

Board seats are rare and coveted, says Maynard Webb. Aspiring members need to cultivate the right relationships now.

I’m ready to serve on a corporate board. How do I get picked?
[Photo: Danielle Cerullo/Unsplash]
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Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. I’d like to join a public company board. How do I do that?

—A top executive at a breakout company

Dear Executive,

Serving on a board is a noble cause and often viewed as the capstone of one’s career. I like that you are thinking about it now, while you are still an operating executive—the board role will make you better in your job.

If you’ve never even been asked about a public company board seat, you’re probably not on the short list of the top recruiters and the top companies. It’s possible you get passed over for these positions because you don’t yet have public company board experience—they don’t want someone learning on their dime. We need to figure out how to change that, but first it makes sense to understand the scarcity of these opportunities.

If you apply some quick math to the problem, you can see how few board seats are available. Let’s take the Fortune 500, and the average board size of 10 seats. That gives us about 5,000 spots, but given that one seat is for the CEO and often one is for another insider we are down to about 4,000 spots. But—unless a company is in the process of swapping out an entire board—most of these seats are already filled. I would say there are probably only around 500-1,000 seats that are potentially available in any year.

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My point here is that since there are only a few seats you have to position yourself as a very suitable candidate. This is not one of those “If you dream it, it will happen” scenarios. If you aren’t already getting calls and pings with some regular cadence, here’s what you need to think about to make you a better candidate for board positions:

  • What is your unique secret sauce?
  • What is your brand? How well known are you outside of your company? A lot of people think they will be good board members, and they wait to be discovered, but that is not the recipe for obtaining a board seat.
  • What are these companies looking for that you can uniquely fill? If you are a CFO you have a much better chance because every company has to have an audit committee chair. A lot of times if you’ve been a good CEO that’s a plus because boards like to have other experienced CEOs in the room. Also, it has never been a better time for women and diverse candidates to get hired on boards because more companies are investing in becoming more diverse and inclusive.
  • Hone your executive presence. Can you have conversations with people and hold their respect? There’s a gravitas that comes with the role. Show that you are capable of that.
  • Hang out near watering holes. If you are looking to join a late-stage company, build relationships with VCs and offer to help them. They are all looking for good board members. Do your homework and find out which specific recruiters are doing the majority of public company board placements. Find a way to get to know them and have them get to know you.
  • Be careful which board you join, because even if you do a great job as a director, if the company doesn’t do well, it will reflect on you. Know what you are getting into and why. I know people often consider joining a nonprofit board or an advisory board as a first step, but the reality is those won’t count toward your board experience with a big company. Sure, they are good things to do, but if someone is looking to hire a public company board member, what you did for an advisory board doesn’t matter much to them, mainly because the jobs are different.
  • If you really want this, commit to going from thinking about it to being intentional about it and set a goal. Perhaps it should be something you plan to get done by Q1 of next year. With that, you take this from wonder and wish to action. You have to be intentional about what you want in order to achieve it.