Top ten tips by portfolio NED Jan Babiak Jan-Babiak-(1).jpg

How to get on listed boards

Jan’s Bio

Jan spent 28 years with Ernst & Young before starting her ‘portfolio career’ in 2010.  At EY, she held board level and global P&L leadership roles over Technology, Security and Risk Services; Climate Change and Sustainability Services; and Regulatory and Public Policy.  Her experience includes serving on the firm’s most prestigious clients in financial services, technology, energy, media, entertainment, transportation, government, retail and other sectors. 
Jan now sits on the board and Finance Committee and chairs the Audit Committee of Walgreens Boots Alliance, whose global revenues exceed $125 billion from retail, wholesale, distribution and its strong digital presence in the pharmacy sector.  She also sits on the Audit and Conduct Review Committee and the Risk Review Committee as an independent member of the board of the Bank of Montreal, which has assets exceeding $600 billion.  In early 2014, she joined the board of Experian plc, a UK listed FTSE 100 company and information technology leader with operations in more than 80 countries.  She previously served on the board of Royal Mail, during which time it floated and listed on the FTSE  100.  Between 2010 until its sale in August 2012, she was a board member and Audit Committee Chair for Logica plc, a then FTSE 250 technology company headquartered in the UK.

A couple of years ago Jan launched Project Starfish which has resulted in over 20 of Jan’s connections successfully joining listed company boards following her referrals.  Basically Jan systematically collects bios for board-qualified individuals and refers them to search professionals or board member connections when they seek her suggestions relative to a specific board nomination. 95% of her Project Starfish placements have been women.

Jan’s view and top 10 tips

The fact is women, especially those seeking their first board role, need to actively work to demonstrate that they are the right match, for the right board, at the right time as there are many more qualified candidates than there are board roles.  This is despite the fact that board positions usually pay a fraction of C-suite roles, which makes sense given they do not usually demand the 24/7 attention of a full-time role. The attraction is usually found in the diverse and interesting nature of the work, the benefits derived from shared learning gained from working with other high-calibre leaders, the extension of valuable network connections and, to some, the prestige associated with corporate board service.
When it comes to gaining a corporate board seat, women are often left behind for a variety of well researched and often documented reasons.  But qualified female candidates can take specific steps to make themselves more appealing – while avoiding common mistakes that limit the likelihood of success in this very competitive space.  Based on my experience in serving on boards and coaching executives who are preparing for board consideration, here are some of my top tips that can help talented, qualified candidates find the right board match.
Of note, the search process differs greatly between countries.  For example, most FTSE 250 and up board searches in the United Kingdom are led by or at least actively involve a search firm.  However, according to a number of executive search professionals that I have worked with over the years in the United States, the vast majority of US board positions are filled from the existing board's and management's network, without involving an outside search firm.  Indeed, when I ask US board members how they got their board seat, a reply usually starts with "I knew so-and-so and he suggested me" (though my favourite response was "I used to be married to the CEO's sister").  However, regardless of the country, when preparing a board bio the ten suggestions below usually apply:

1.    The bio should be about the last 24 years and not the last 24 months. You are not looking for a job, this is a business case for a board position not a CV. Your NED bio has to show why you are qualified for a board and its various committees and explicitly that you are seeking a board position. Focus on what will qualify you for a board. You will likely be on the board for nine years (or more in countries where there are no term limits), which means you will be dealing with many different issues and economic seasons (market growth, recessions, technology change, HR issues, acquisitions, debt restructuring, geographic expansion or divestiture, regulatory changes, etc.).  What you did in the last 24 months will only help you contribute in some of those situations.

2.    Assume they will read only the first page of your board bio unless you give them a reason to read on.  If you have experience as a paid corporate board member that is as important as your current or most recent c-suite role.  It is very important that you include very early on things like any relevant corporate in-house committee/board involvement/exposure, your sector experience, time-living abroad, language skills, c-suite P&L and/or functional roles, etc. especially if you have not held an independent director position--yet. Take care that you don't bury the lead. One woman I worked with, who had substantial experience as a CEO, didn't mention this critical fact until three paragraphs into her bio.  Spencer Stuart's 2014 Board Index notes 40 percent of director-recruitment briefs seek a sitting or former CEO – so make it easy to find by including this information in paragraph one.

3.    Assuming you have 'permission' from your current employer to sit on an outside board and you regularly work with search firms in your executive position, then consider asking for an introduction to colleagues in their board practice.  As you are a paying client, they are very likely to honour this request and you will create an opportunity to put your talents squarely on the radar screen of those working to fill board roles. 

4.    Show your breadth. You are rightly proud of your experience in a functional area, such as HR, so you think you should focus your case for being on the board on the value of your compensation expertise.  Probably not the best approach. When seeking a board role, it is more important to clearly demonstrate how your wider management experience will provide benefit across the board (no pun intended) on all or most agenda items while adding real depth in one or two areas such as compensation. This applies equally to experts in technology, operations, legal, marketing, etc. who are seeking board roles.  It is not helpful to have a one trick pony taking up space when most boards are trying to get the most value from the board while limiting the size of boards in the interest of efficiency and agility.

5.    Be mindful of overstuffing your resume. Are you one of those leaders who is in a career transition and feeling lost without your title? Have you filled the first page of your resume with grand titles for the LLC that you set up, elaborately describing consulting gigs and making a big showcase of the not-for-profit leadership roles you hold? Search professionals and nominating committees will likely stop reading before they get to the experience that really makes you a good board match. Plus, they sometimes think all that activity makes you too busy to take on board work.

6.    Have a boldness but not arrogance about yourself.  Too many bios take the first half page to rave that the subject is a unique and rare combination of strategic visionary, inspiring leader of people, market genius, with unlimited energy and drive, etc.  This is usually skipped over and discounted completely as the reader recognises that the writer is not an objective source.  Leave the raving and superlatives to your referees and keep solely to the real facts that will catch their attention in your bio.

7.    Focus on your role in governance rather than management. You are a successful entrepreneur and you would like to sell yourself as a board member on your incredible ability to get into the details and fix all of management's problems. Unfortunately, this approach gives the appearance that you don't understand the difference between management and governance; good board members know that board work is usually "noses in, fingers out" leaving management to run the company. What CEO wants a board member who thinks it is their job to run the company?  Cordia Harrington, founder/CEO of the Tennessee Bun Company, is a perfect example of an entrepreneur chosen for a board because she understands this difference. That perspective, combined with her extensive and relevant experience in food production, distribution and service industries, made her the ideal candidate to join the board of Zoe's, a casual restaurant that has grown from 19 to more than 140 locations in 16 US states.

8.    Don’t focus on your charity board experience in an interview. It is not the same as being on a listed board and usually not considered to be differentiating or even relevant experience.  If they think you don’t know the difference, you will seem naive.

9.    Be active in your search. So many talented, qualified potential board members believe their board-relevant talents are self-evident and don't understand why the phone isn't ringing.  Search firms and board members seeking qualified candidates to add to board slates are more likely to find you if your network knows that you are actively seeking a board position.   Remember, you probably don't look like most board members demographically (e.g. white male, sitting CEO, mid-50s, and member of same country club as others on the board) so others may not think of you in this way unless you put the idea in their heads.  

10.    Do your research, develop a strategic plan and begin executing against that plan like you would with any other business endeavour.  Make it clear that you are looking for a corporate board when networking both on and offline, including an up-to-date LinkedIn profile that states your interest in adding a corporate board role to your portfolio.  Prioritize your efforts based on your objective, and focus on networking opportunities that will provide the best "bang for the buck."
Obtaining a board seat may not be easy, but with the right credentials and some smart positioning, candidates can find ways to set themselves apart in this competitive landscape.  It can take years to secure your first position and often only those with resilience succeed.  There are others who are very lucky and to their own surprise find themselves on a corporate board.  Then there are those that try to give ‘Lady Luck’ a hand.  I fall in the latter camp, I had a plan.  I was focused, mission driven and communicated directly and indirectly with my network about what I was seeking and how I could made a contribution as a board member.  I was lucky that it worked.
In whichever camp you sit, I wish you good luck and, when you find it, I invite you to adopt actions such as those in Project Starfish to help others along a path to success.

Date: November 2015