At NACD, we regularly hear from senior executives looking to expand their careers by serving on a corporate board. Their challenge? They do not know how to take the first step on that journey. The recruitment process often can seem opaque, and occasionally intimidating, for those who are just getting started—but it doesn’t have to be.

In early 2021, NACD Accelerate participants attended a virtual session that covered how to best position themselves for board service. If you are a senior executive interested in joining your first board, the following actionable tips revealed during that members-only session can guide you on the path to directorship.

1. Know It: Understand the Recruitment Landscape

It’s no secret: the path to your first board seat is not always a straight line. There are limited board seats available each year, and many board roles are won through personal and professional networking. According to the 2020 US Spencer Stuart Board Index, there were 413 new independent directors placed on S&P 500 boards during the 2020 proxy season, reflecting 8 percent of all S&P 500 directors.

Identifying your first board seat can be a challenge, but it is not impossible. The journey to your first board seat will require a committed effort and an open mind.

Candidates are best positioned for success when they understand what boards look for—and how to demonstrate their value effectively. When recruiting, boards primarily focus on four key areas of a candidate’s experience:

The industry in which the candidate has experienceThe revenue of the candidate’s day-job companyThe candidate’s functional role at their companyAny special skills the candidate may have, such as experience with human capital, analytics, or digital transformation

Below are tips on how to leverage these four areas of focus in your board search.

2. Learn It: Get Relevant Experience

Though senior executives are well on their way to understanding certain aspects of board work through their day-to-day roles, boards want to be sure that their candidates are prepared with the knowledge required to step into the boardroom and add value on day one.

At NACD, we recognize the need for a pipeline of strong, diverse, and highly qualified professionals to serve as tomorrow’s directors. That’s why we created NACD Accelerate: a unique two-year program that creates a pathway for executives with little to no experience in the boardroom to prepare for board service. Executives in the Accelerate program receive the tools, resources, and exposure that are key to launching a successful career as a director—including the opportunity to network with NACD’s elite director community and become NACD Directorship Certified®.

In addition to Accelerate and NACD Directorship Certification®, joining nonprofit boards is an effective way to enhance your résumé. To find open nonprofit board seats, you can look at postings on LinkedIn, VolunteerMatch, or your local chamber of commerce’s website.

Think about your skills and interests: What are you passionate about? How can your talents add value to a nonprofit board? The answers to these questions should guide your nonprofit board search and service. Nonprofit board roles can give you the small-group and committee experience that for-profit boards are looking for in their director candidates.

Private company boards also offer opportunities to broaden your directorship skill set. Private equity firms are continually looking to place directors on the boards of their portfolio companies. Knowing the value you can bring to the boardroom will help you stand out to boards looking for specific experience.  

3. Name It: Find Your Unique Value Proposition

So, you have relevant experience—what’s next? Develop and refine your unique value proposition, which is—at its core—an elevator pitch detailing the value you would bring to a board.

Your unique value proposition should be succinct and mention those four key areas that boards focus on when searching for a new director. Because of cross-industry recruitment, ensure that your value proposition is free of jargon and acronyms that may not be understood by someone in a different field. Incorporate leadership language—even if you don’t yet have board experience—thinking about your time leading organizations, departments, or teams. (The NACD Accelerate curriculum offers access to programming and resources that help aspiring directors present their experience and knowledge in compelling, effective ways.)

And don’t forget: defining your value proposition is never done. Review it regularly and update it as needed. Business and governance language changes over time—consider how infrequently you heard and saw the term “ESG” (environmental, social, and governance) five years ago compared to today. Ensuring that your language is up to date lets boards know that you are committed to continuing education and keeping up with boardroom trends.  

4. Build It: Create Your Board Résumé, LinkedIn Profile, and Board Profile

In today’s digital world, clearly conveying your value proposition through your board résumé, LinkedIn profile, and board profile is critical to your success.  

Board résumé. To grab readers’ attention, your résumé should start with a headline quickly summarizing who you are and that value proposition you’ve articulated. Because boards recruit using many different criteria, it’s important to include as much detailed information about your experience as you can, going back at least 10 years. Distill your value through a leadership lens. Board work, executive work, and education are all critical pieces of a board résumé, in addition to notable certifications, memberships, community involvement, awards, published work, and speaking engagements. The best board résumés humanize the candidate; consider including three to five pieces of personal information about you, such as your hobbies, foreign language proficiencies, family information, or volunteer activities.

LinkedIn profile. After updating your board résumé, you can copy your experience into the relevant fields of your LinkedIn profile. Be sure your value proposition is clearly articulated through your headline, “About” section, and experience.

Board profile. Similar to a speaker bio, this document should include a headshot and is used like a marketing tool to promote your candidacy. The board bio is generally a one-page overview of your experience in a narrative style, starting with an overview of who you are and what prospective boards should know about you as a candidate. Be sure to include any board service, honors, and speaking engagements.

Though finding your first board seat can be a daunting process, entering the market with a strong understanding of the recruitment landscape, board-specific education experiences, and well-crafted candidate materials can make all the difference.

If you are an executive with little to no experience in the boardroom and are ready to take the first step in your directorship career, consider NACD Accelerate. For questions, contact a member of our team at accelerate@nacdonline.org.

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