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Expand Your Leadership: Join a Corporate Board

As the global economy continues to tailspin and corporations adjust, seats around boardroom tables are opening up. Organizations are hungry from new leadership, strong leadership--maybe your leadership.

Networking, professional development, expanding your understanding of other organizations, gaining broader perspective, new connections for your company, the opportunity for growth and new leadership roles without leaving your own company--there are many professional reasons for serving on a board.

For senior executives looking to advance their careers to the next level, the timing could not be better. For those who already have achieved senior management status, serving on a corporate board is the next logical step. After all, the corporate boardroom is where real decisions are made, including hiring and firing the CEO.

But, for senior executive women in particular, how do you get there when you are on the outside looking in and there is no easy access - not a glass ceiling, but a "glass boardroom door" that women can't simply walk through? Statistics show that women are drastically underrepresented both in C-suites and on corporate boards. Yet statistics also show that gender diversity in the boardroom strengthens decision-making. Startlingly, women hold only 15.2 percent of the board seats at Fortune 500 companies--yet half of all American consumers are women.

The current economic shakeup just may offer the entry through which smart and capable women can emerge and gain momentum for board opportunities. Once your decision is made, how do you make it onto the radar screen of board nominating committees?

First, you need to understand the anatomy of a corporate board search. While it's true that many CEOs and nominating committees still recruit based on a "who we know" culture, increasingly, board searches are conducted by search firms in coordination with board nominating committees who cast a wide net. They consider educational and professional credentials, pertinent experience and skills, and the potential for a good fit within the corporation's existing "culture." Importantly, they consider the candidate's ability to transfer existing skills and the candidate's potential for having a positive impact on the organization. Nevertheless, there is still a "who we know" culture even when a wide net is cast. A positive reputation is key.

An initial slate of qualified candidates from appropriate industry segments is developed. At this time, board members still try to see, based upon who they already know, what they can learn about you. In conjunction with the existing board's knowledge of candidates, the larger list is honed down to a short list. Then the actual search begins. Only when the board nominating committee has narrowed the search down to a few candidates are interviews set up. Unlike executive search practices for employment, board nominating committees and board search firms typically do not tell candidates they are being considered until the final set of candidates are selected. Only when the final candidates are selected do they approach the individuals directly. Then the interview process could still take roughly six months. The final step is the selection of the single candidate.

If serving on a board makes sense for your career advancement, there are steps you can take to raise your profile and increase your chances for making it onto the radar of board nominating committees:

Find a realistic entrée. Consider serving on the board of a small company or non-profit organization within your local community or industry to gain board experience. Choose carefully and also consider the contacts you would make from other board members.

Hone your experience. Board search firms like to see candidates with significant operational experience and profit and loss responsibilities. If your current background does not include these experiences, think about other critical expertise you bring. International experience, government and public policy expertise, informational systems knowledge--corporations and corporate boards need knowledge in multiple areas. Consider what organizations you belong to -and if you could join organizations with a focus on board-level networking and developing board skills.

Become fluent in financial documents. If it has been a while since you took business classes, or if you never focused on finance, consider enrolling in a director development program.

Accentuate the pertinent. Remember: what it takes to garner consideration for a spot on a board differs from what it takes to be considered for employment. You want to emphasize your strategic thinking, proven results, crisis management skills, and industry knowledge.

Consider your image and reputation: What happens when you Google yourself? The internet provides rich information for nominating committee members about you.

Be realistic. If you have trouble making time to fulfill the suggested requirements for being board ready, consider whether you have the time to serve on a board at all. Timing is important.

"Change" is the word of the day, and corporate America needs better governance leadership. Now is the time for emerging and yet undiscovered business leaders--both women and men--to reach for the reins and prepare to improve governance by having the right diverse set of people in corporate boardrooms.

Note: This article was co-authored by Eleanor Whitley, Director of the WBL Foundation which works to increase the number of senior executive women from the health care industry on for profit boards.

By Lynn Shapiro Snyder

 |  April 24, 2009; 10:58 AM ET |  Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Next: For GM, Culture Should Be Job One

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