Many senior executives enjoy serving on corporate boards, and many successfully find a role. But it’s difficult to determine how to best apply your energy to ensure you find a board placement that fits your skills, schedule, and interests.
If you’re interested in serving on a board, the process can be intimidating. However, it is much more manageable to find a board role by breaking the process down into few key steps: finding the board type that fits your experience and needs, preparing the materials you need for your search, and marketing yourself.
Determine your best fit: Public versus private
The first step when considering board membership is to look at the type of board that matches your experience.
Public company boards, while certainly attractive, may not be the best target for newer candidates. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, there are now only 3,671 public companies in the U.S.—down from 7,332 in 1996 following heavy merger-and-acquisition activity. Public companies have larger boards, with an average seven outside directors, yielding a target universe of 25,000 seats and an average annual turnover of perhaps 3,000 seats.
What does this mean? As a practical yardstick, there are currently more than 19,000 NACD members. Don’t count on 90 percent being uninterested in boards and leaving a seat to you!
By contrast, according to Private Equity Info, there are 16,800 private equity portfolio companies, almost all with a board of directors. These boards are typically smaller, with just two or three independent directors, yielding a universe of about 40,000 board seats—67 percent more than public companies. This raw math should be an eye-opener for many executives looking to land a seat at the board table.
When thinking about public versus private, consider the following example: When PepsiCo (my alma mater, where I gained the best training and experience) needs an outside director, they will likely engage an executive search company. The hunt may then funnel down to sitting CEOs and chairs of other Fortune 50s. By contrast, private equity boards are less concerned with finding a marquee name and simply go out and find two or three terrific people—only 22 percent of private equity portfolio companies’ outside directors are sitting CEOs, meaning many non-CEOs in those seats.
I’m certainly not suggesting you can’t make it onto a public company’s board. Rather, it’s a game of odds, and it’s important to make the best use of your time.
Gather your marketing materials
Getting your marketing materials ready is a must before embarking on any campaign for a board seat. This includes five core materials:
- Board bio. This is brief, less than a page, and written “at 30,000 feet.” The bio should include a good head shot and “reek of power.”
- Board resume. In contrast to your usual resume, this relies less on the acquisitions you made, the plant you eliminated, or the 1,000 workers you led. Rather, it carefully threads in your softer qualities—for example, high-potential employees you hired who went on the become captains of industry, people you were asked to mentor or chose to take under your wing, or your genuine interest in coaching.
- Value proposition. This is your seven-second elevator speech on why a company should want you on its board, and not why you want to be on a board.
- Potential email introduction letter. If you choose to do an outbound email campaign, keep it short—half a page, max. Readership is inversely proportional to email length.
- The all-important LinkedIn profile: Your profile has to be “board sticky,” and your outside director ambitions need to be explicit. Listing NACD membership always helps as well.
The hard part: Market yourself
An outbound marketing campaign takes work, and there is no easy way out. Begin with making your board interest known to, say, 50 people you know well. While this might seem excessive, remember that each person might have only a 10 percent chance of hearing about a board need and also be in a position to nominate you.
Before you say you don’t know 50 such people, think about:
- Everyone you know on a board
- Every CEO you know
- All law firms you have engaged (personally or your company)
- Past and present audit firms and accountants
- All recruiters, even those not known for board placements (ask them to put you in their firm’s director database)
- All colleagues, including former subordinates, in high places
- Industry colleagues
- Peers in all of your peer groups
Next, network with as many private equity firms as you can. Every new deal means a board needs to be created, and that spells a need for two or three new independent directors. For example, Riverside Company bought 24 companies in 2011 — creating an immediate need for 48-plus outside directors.
Two key takeaways
If there are two messages here, they are that you need to carefully put together your messaging before entering the marketplace and that you should put some serious time into considering the private equity sector. After two tours of duty as a PepsiCo division president, I have found the private equity world to be extremely engaging, stimulating, challenging, and financially rewarding as a portfolio company CEO, an operating partner, and a board member.