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So You Want to Join a Board

By Fred Hassan and Ken Banta

Fred Hassan is a managing director at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus and previously served as CEO of Schering-Plough, Pharmacia, and Pharmacia & Upjohn. He is the author of the book Reinvent: A Leader’s Playbook for Serial Success.

Many senior managers desire — and are qualified — to join a board. And many companies around the world would greatly benefit from infusions of fresh talent and insight into their boards. Yet all too often board positions go to people who are already serving on other boards. So how can you, a promising potential new director, realize your aspiration?

First, let’s look at the reality. Boards can be conservative and clubby institutions. They tend to select new members who are proven quantities — typically, members of other boards. This is understandable but not good: The syndrome can lead to board timidity, herd mentality, and an aversion to innovation, which can hurt or even kill an enterprise.

Despite these barriers, you can do a lot to unlock the boardroom door and become that force for change on a board that is so often needed. Here’s how.

Begin by understanding that boards select on two basics: capabilities and character.

Start with capabilities. Assess yourself not only as a sector expert but also as an executive with special competences and map those attributes against the market’s needs. What are your special skills – digital marketing know-how you learned in fast-moving consumer goods? Or perhaps expertise in managing clinical trials you learned in biopharma? Or is it your knowledge of how to work with regulators in highly regulated industries?

Next, candidly evaluate how you compare with other executives, based on your proven track record. Ask colleagues and mentors to help. Be ruthless in eliminating anything except where you truly excel. Matrix the inventory against the findings of the scan above.

You have just composed your new CV for seeking board positions. These are the capability and experience assets that boards are seeking in the areas where you have greatest strength. One of us (Fred) was invited to join one important board seat (Time Warner) in large part because his expertise in the highly regulated realm of health care could be applied to the increasingly regulated world of global telecommunications.

Now comes the harder part: character.  There are five character basics where you need to demonstrate special strength:

Judging others. This is different than simply the good judgment expected of senior managers. As a board member some of your most important tasks consist of judging the CEO’s mettle. Can she handle the job, and is she handling it well? Is she choosing the right Level 2 talent? Is she translating strategy into excellent execution? Is she earning trust on a 360-degree basis? So look for moments in your career where your judgment of others has made a winning difference.

Raising questions. Unlike most executive roles where leading involves a lot of telling, board members succeed by asking — because they rarely can just tell. Successful board leaders ask questions such as “Why is this the right strategy, if the environment has changed?” “If these are your challenges, why is this Level 2 person on your team?” This is how you guide the CEO (and other board members) toward making the right calls. So inventory those moments when your leadership success has been proven by your questions.

Collaborating. Boards are collectives. You must show that you can play on the collective team through persuasion, teamwork, and compromise. Develop telling examples of where you succeeded not by managing your team downwards but by leading sideways with your peers.

Earning trust. When boards are selecting new members, they want to believe that they will be able to trust that person when things get rough. How can you demonstrate it? Prepare stories — including ones from your personal life — where you earned others’ trust and it paid off. In addition, create a list of the supervisors whose trust you earned and another of those whose trust you may have failed to gain. Reconnect with those on the latter to see if you can rebuild a bridge. We know one highly capable top executive in technology who looked like a shoo-in for board positions. But she has been effectively blackballed because a former supervising CEO has declared her untrustworthy.

Emotional Intelligence, or “EQ.”  This quality, so essential to becoming a CEO, is also the single most important quality required to earn a board seat. Self-knowledge, empathy, and humility are the critical ingredients of EQ. One recently selected director of a large corporation essentially won the position by starting his interview with the board chairman, not by talking about business matters; rather he described how he resolved a personal issue affecting one of his reports.

To win a board role you must see yourself as a product, and market yourself — discreetly. Boil your proposition down into one or two sentences. Then seek out speaking and writing opportunities and use each one to prove your proposition, demonstrating each time the elegant fusion of your capabilities and your board-level character strengths. For example, in writing a piece about how you handled a strategic challenge, also build in the way you socialized your solution in the organization to get your way accepted.

Boards frequently go through headhunters. Each of the major search firms has specialists who focus on recruiting people for board positions. Find out who they are and get to know them. Ask their advice on how to improve your profile. Search consultants love unearthing capable new talent. Make it easy for them.

Finally, don’t forget about your most valuable marketing asset: your current CEO. She will regularly have opportunities to volunteer names for board positions or respond to a fellow CEO’s inquiry about you. So ask her advice on how you might join a board. With humility, lay out your combination of capability and character. If she appears ambivalent, you may want to rethink your plan. But if she lights up and asks how she can help, a board seat may soon be in your future.


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