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Best Practices to Achieve A Board Seat

Boards are getting much attention lately. Unfortunately, there are still few women on boards. Through my own board journey, I've learned a lot. This article highlights my personal board approach and shares the top 10 tips crystallized along the way. My path has been greatly assisted by everyone who came before me, so this piece is part of my way to help pay it forward. Here's my salesperson spin on the best practices to achieve a board seat.

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This week we celebrate International Women’s Day. A day to celebrate all the amazing women in the world. A day to support women who are trying to accomplish more amazing things. A day to prop each other up, provide mentorship, spread allyship, and share stories.

Currently, I’m focused on board work. Boards are getting significant attention lately. There is much talk about women on boards, but there are still few women who actually sit on them. International Women’s Day is also a day to acknowledge and recognize that there is still work to do. In honor of International Women’s Day, here are some learnings from my personal board journey.

Three years ago, I started a new phase of my career. I wanted to be on corporate boards. People told me getting on a board was a long, tough endeavor. They said the process was much harder than finding an operational role. Especially for women. People were absolutely right!

As my board journey began, I figured the best way to start was to jump in with two feet. Over the past few years, dozens and dozens of other women have shared their own board experiences with me. Everyone has a different path. So much of finding the right board is finding the right fit where you can be your authentic self.

I’m a salesperson. I always have been. Sales is in my DNA. Thus, I approached achieving a board seat as a salesperson would.

Here’s a little bit about me for context. I have always been in sales. From childhood, I was the one selling candy bars and cookies. My four summers in college were spent selling educational books door-to-door. I have sold products for multiple industries – training, mortgages, and software. My longest tenure was at Tableau Software, where I started as Tableau’s 10th employee and first salesperson, joining one month before we launched version 1.0. During my 12-year tenure at Tableau, where I was Executive Vice President of Sales, we grew the business from $0 and 10 employees through an IPO and global expansion to a multi-billion dollar public company with 3400 employees and ~$850m in revenues. I retired from my operational role at Tableau at the end of 2016 with the expressed interest to transition my career to include board work. I currently sit on four corporate boards: one public (Fastly) and three private (Lucid, Amperity, and Even.)

Through this process, I’ve learned a lot. For those of you who aspire to eventually be on a board, whether public, private, or non-profit, you may find some of my lessons learned useful. My journey has been greatly assisted by everyone who came before me, and these tips hopefully will help pay it forward.

Here are my top 10 tips for achieving a board seat:

Know Your Personal Mission

Each person has a north star. A personal mission and purpose. Ensure that when you are looking for a board seat, you remember your personal mission. What is important to you? What kind of companies speak to your passions? What is your ideal company culture? What are your core values? Focus on companies that align with your personal mission. Always remember your north star.

Be Clear on Story and Value

What is your story? What are your value propositions? Your story can’t be vanilla. It must be yours and only yours. Include your differentiated value propositions. What makes you stand out? Since people emotionally connect with stories, tell your unique story in your own voice. Pull out themes and experiences that showcase who you are and illustrate how you can help. Nail your personal elevator pitch. This isn’t just a list of bullet points. This is who you are. Your story should communicate the essence of you. And your story should pop!

Build Your Board Bio

Your Board Bio communicates your unique story and differentiated values. Your board bio is different than a resume. Resumes highlight the what and how. Board bios showcase your why. Your bio should have a good introductory paragraph that sums up who you are, not just what you’ve done. Identify your strengths, including how and why you are an expert in your key value areas. A bio includes a headshot, is written in third person, and should incorporate key words that recruiters and boards search for, such as leadership, transformation, P&L, global, strategy, etc. Advice for writing a board bio is analogous to the advice we give our kids when writing their personal statement for college applications. Differentiate yourself from everyone else in a memorable way. Your board bio is a document that showcases and celebrates you.

Define Top Ten Lists

There are many companies and organizations out there. Before you start looking and interviewing for board seats, think through what you are seeking. I recommend three Top 10 lists:

  • Top 10 Board Criteria (i.e. Private/Public/Non-Profit, Industry, Company Stage, Geography, Functional Expertise, Board Composition, Culture, Category, Size, Strategic Priorities, etc.)
  • Top 10 Values You Bring (Flush out a list of 10 values, expanding your top differentiated values)
  • Top 10 Ideal Companies (Good to write down a wish list. The college application analogy works here too, so you may want to have multiple top 10 company lists – Target, Reach, Someday)

Build Your Plan

Act with intention. You need a strategy. Make a plan. Don’t just sit around and wait to be discovered. Your plan should not be to write your board bio and sit around and wait for the right board to come find you. Who you are will help determine your best strategy. Embrace your story to come up with your own unique approach. Like a project plan, build a plan and execute on it. Your plan will have many components and will include networking, relationship building, board education, writing your board bio, and doing everything else listed in these tips. Build a list of action items and to do’s along with a timeline and project plan for what you can control. Then go do it!

Develop Your Brand

What’s your brand? Your personality? Your purpose? Develop this all into your personal brand. What is the product you are selling? You! Be thoughtful and purposeful. Be consistent with the message. Show your own unique personality. Be intentional with what you say, what you post on social media, how you market yourself professionally, how you act… During the recruitment process, ask yourself if these boards and companies showcase and develop your brand. If not, you are in the wrong discussions.

Make Yourself Known

You need to stand out from the crowd. Be memorable. In order to do this, you must get out there! Getting out there is much more than talking to a few recruiters. It’s more than networking and relationship building. You need to be proactive. Unfortunately, getting on boards is largely about who you know and who knows you. Hopefully, this won’t be the case forever, but it is the current situation. Most companies add new directors who are already known or connected to the board or executive team. Solely knowing you is not even enough. People must also be aware that you are actively seeking board seats. Your name should be top of mind when board conversations arise. So how can you make yourself known? For illustration, here’s what I did. Remember, I’m a salesperson, so I engaged this process with a sales approach to drive awareness and build pipeline. I met with legions of board directors, dozens of venture capitalists and investors, and many board recruiters. I spoke regularly at CEO Summits, CFO Forums, executive panels, Go-To-Market events, and as a guest speaker at universities and conferences. Co-chaired my college and business school reunions, joined multiple women on board organizations, enrolled in board education programs, published articles, did podcasts, developed and taught a business school course in my area of expertise, and became active on social media. As a result, I made many connections which led to an inordinate amount of coffees (ironic  since I don’t even drink caffeine!) Hundreds and hundreds of meetings. Including meetings with 80 CEOs. The main takeaway here is that it takes effort to make yourself known. Market yourself. Get the word out!

Be Authentic

You, yes you, are joining the board. Be true to yourself. Be who you are. Not who you think you should be. Or who you think the board wants. Be yourself. Embrace who you are. Sometimes I talk to women who so desperately want to be on a board, they will talk to anyone who reaches out. People recommend just get on your first board, and the rest will come. This may be true to a point, but you do need to find the right fit. You wouldn’t take any job. So don’t just take any board seat. Be choosy. You want a board where you can be your authentic self. Where you are true to your personal mission, you can offer great value, there is a good cultural fit, and you are excited about the opportunity. Find the right board, not just any board.

Have Patience

Be patient. This is not a sprint. It’s more like a marathon. Factor this patience into your planning. Getting a board seat isn’t like getting an executive role. The process is different. You will have a plan, but the plan isn’t completely in your control. This isn’t like an operational project plan where if you follow all the steps, you will finish the process and achieve the desired board seat in a specified time frame. Why can getting on a board take a while? Operational needs always take priority. Board seats rarely keep the CEO up at night. Plus, there are so many constituencies involved in adding a board member. Building a board is a big puzzle, and board members fill a complex matrix of skills and committees. Getting on a board could take literally years. Be patient.

Own The Process

As you embark on this board journey, remember you are in charge. Be proactive. Don’t sit back and wait. You need to do everything within your power to make achieving a board seat your reality. Take control. Own the process.

Good Luck!

This article was first published on LinkedIn on March 6, 2020: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/best-practices-achieve-board-seat-kelly-wright

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