How to Prepare Yourself to Get on Your First Board

Jan 28, 2021
How to Prepare Yourself to Get on Your First Board

Startup Boards for CXOs Series: Post 2 of 11

Short of someone calling you up and asking if you’d like to be on their board, or asking you during a networking event, you might be wondering, “Well, how do I get on a board?” That’s a good question, because being a director on a board is often considered to be the pinnacle of American business, and many of the roles are filled with highly qualified people with extensive experience and strong educational pedigrees. Board service can be incredibly rewarding in multiple ways – financially, emotionally, and experientially in terms of your career growth. Because from a CEO and investor’s perspective the role of an independent board member can be critical for a young company, the people who are usually targeted for board roles are the people who have prior experience serving on boards. From an outsider’s perspective getting a board position seems daunting, clubby, and impossible. If you haven’t served on a board and don’t have those qualifications there are still plenty of opportunities for board roles. In this post I want to share the things you can do in your career to gain the experience (and positioning) required to get and succeed at that first board position.

The baseline of your career. To be considered for a corporate board seat, even if a raw startup, you need to bring something to that board table that isn’t already there. That means you need to be senior enough to have a breadth or depth of either functional or industry experience that is missing from the management team and other board members. It doesn’t mean that you have to have been a CEO or board member elsewhere (although some CEOs unfortunately set that as a requirement). I’ve had board members who are senior product managers or VPs as well as those who have been CEOs or CFOs.

Regular interaction with a corporate board. There are a lot of people who have regular interaction with a board without ever being a member of the board. Most senior executives in companies with boards will, at some point, have interaction with their board and possibly be called into a portion of (or even most of) every board meeting. CFOs will be reviewing financials with their company’s directors, CROs will be on the firing line to explain a soft quarter, and so on. This is valuable experience and even in those brief encounters, even though you’re not officially on the board, I bet you’ve learned a lot about how a startup board operates, which is tremendous experience in and of itself.

Formal advisory board roles. Another way to prepare for board service is to serve on a formal advisory board (I will write a whole separate post about that later on). Advisory Board roles are more common and are found in all sorts of organizations–not just corporations. Although advisory boards are not as prestigious as corporate boards (since they typically don’t have formal or legal responsibilities), the issues an advisory board faces can be every bit as complex, with large budgets, significant assets, and powerful stakeholders. And the impact you can have on a company and its management team can also be significant.

Informal advisory roles. Informal advisory roles are common and can be found in many organizations. While the “informal” and “advisory” nature of these roles implies that the role might be more figurehead than substantive, that’s not always the case. Highlighting the context, the scope, and the actions taken in an advisory capacity can tell CEOs a lot about you, your work ethic, and values.

Nonprofit board role. A board role at a 501c3 nonprofit corporation can be just as significant–if not more so–than a for-profit board role. Nonprofits can be local to global in population served, they can have budgets in the thousands or the millions, serve hundreds of people or tens of thousands or people. Depending on your experience, a nonprofit board role can be extremely valuable to startup CEOs. Board service is board service after all. Unlike corporate boards, occasionally nonprofit boards (or community boards) require some level of members or even financial support on your part to become a board member, but that is not true in all cases, and frequently they offer “give whatever is a meaningful gift to you” as guidance.

Community organization board or leadership roles. There are lots of significant experiences people have contributing to community organizations, either in a board role or a leadership position. Community involvement says a lot about an individual, about their commitment, about their values, and about their willingness to go the extra mile. Many contributions to community organizations make a big impact but often go unnoticed. Almost all of these boards – from the local Little League or Girl Scouts to the town Library – are working boards, where the volunteers on the board are both responsible for governance and some level of oversight but are also running programs.

Formal training around corporate governance. Finally, there are opportunities to learn corporate governance, board structure, and roles and responsibilities without holding a board-appointed seat. Many universities such as Northwestern, Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Santa Clara and others offer courses and seminars through their executive education programs and there are specific programs such as ACE. Of course, if you have completed training in an educational program that would be something to highlight, although I sometimes wonder whether these programs are truly valuable for startup boards, although it’s useful to be able to say you’ve been to one – I’ll have some more thoughts about this in a subsequent post on corporate governance.

Not all CEOs will weigh all of these experiences the same. Some might be dismissive of nonprofit or community boards. Others won’t. But you have to do what you can do and put your best foot forward regardless, and the right CEO or company who does value that experience will be able to notice it.

Once you have identified your experiences and placed them into the categories, then you can begin to articulate your involvement and impact in greater depth. Unlike a typical business resume with a list of bulleted points, a board-focused resume should provide more context in narrative form. So, instead of saying that you were on an advisory board at your local YMCA for five years, you’d say something like this instead:

Advisory Member, YMCA, 2015 to present. Work with a local YMCA ($5 million budget) to promote the mission of “building a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” Our local YMCA is the epicenter and foundation for serving a diversity of people in our community. When I joined the board our local YMCA had 20 employees and 100 volunteers. I started a New Initiatives Committee to expand our reach and we now have 35 employees and over 300 volunteers. I worked with local banks and state agencies to secure funding to build a greenfield residential program that houses 30 people in individual and community living arrangements. We started a shelter for battered women, and provide housing for people who are homeless or in transition. We created several onsite resource centers including a counseling center and legal resources center both staffed by pro bono professionals. We serve over 1,500 families and provide daycare and after school programs for 175 underprivileged children. Our facilities are used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other community groups. We work closely with other community nonprofits, local law enforcement, and social services.

Providing a narrative of your board and leadership experience will help CEOs understand the skills that you can bring to their company, regardless of corporate board experience. It goes without saying that you should include the relevant details like your involvement with the organization (length of service, committees you served on), the scope of the work you did, and the results you achieved. Seeking out or responding to board opportunities that match your experience set – where you know the organization will benefit from what you bring to the table – makes the whole process a little easier. For example, my first few outside board seats when I was really early in my career were with community and educational institutions who needed help thinking about digital transformation and what the Internet could do for them, and I was one of the few people in 1995 who had hands-on experience running an internet business. It’s certainly not required to create a different board resume from your normal resume – but that’s something I’ve seen a number of candidates do, and it’s not a bad idea (and a modest investment of your time) if you’re trying to get your first board seat, unless these suggestions also make sense to you to include in your regular resume. It’s a great idea for your LinkedIn profile to highlight all these types of experiences, too, and LinkedIn gives you different categories of experience in which to put them.

Bolster makes it easy to showcase your board readiness, but there are other organizations you should look at, too, like theBoardlist and Him For Her. We’re seeing that startups are increasingly turning to board-focused organizations in order to get help filling independent board seats with qualified, diverse candidates. If being a board member is on your bucket list, there’s no reason not to join and build profiles with multiple organizations like these. As Willie Sutton famously said, you rob banks because that’s where they keep the money!

Of course, even after you’ve decided that you’d like to pursue board roles, there will likely be a period of months (if not years) until your first interview or full board assignment. This waiting game can be the toughest part. A lot of board seats are referral-based, and unless your network is already quite extensive, you’ll likely need to reach a little further outside of your immediate connections to get noticed. One thing that might be helpful here is to create a one-sentence goal statement that’s easy to remember in different contexts. That way, when board conversations come up by people with influence over board placements, you’ll stay top of mind. It might be something like, “I’m looking to join the audit committee on a late stage, pre-public board in the finance sector.” Don’t be afraid about making your intentions perfectly clear. Consider any groups of people in your extended network who might be in “board influence” positions — such as VCs, angel investors, or current independent directors — and learn about ways that you might add value to their companies. Last but not least, if you sit on boards already, consider how to be an advocate for potential independent directors looking for their next board seat.

Above all else, get started! Volunteer with groups you’re passionate about, network with people who serve on boards and let them know of your interest. Getting a board position is entirely doable, and persistence pays off.

- Matt Blumberg, January 28, 2021