Why do you want to serve on a for-profit public company board? That crucial question is top-of-mind as I reflect on the excellent advice given at Women in the Boardroom events. (I’ll share just a few highlights with you in this piece; I might have to start a blog soon because there are so many more!)
It sounds basic, right? But as panelist Janet Dolan points out, sometimes in our rush to reach the holy grail of board service–prestigious public company boards with fat retainers and big-name directors–we neglect to think about our motivation.
People who attend Women in the Boardroom events are revved up to serve, and that is terrific. But once you gain a board seat, there are no shortcuts to excellent service. One national study says the average time commitment for public company board service is 300 hours per year, per board.
“If you’re doing it for the money or just to say you did it–I would advise you not to do it,” Dolan says. “You need to know what you bring to the board.”
Do your homework, Dolan continues. “Really understand what people are looking for in board members. Have your one or two bullet points, or your elevator speech, ready to talk about at all times.” Panelist Karen Osar echoes the point: Boards are looking for certain areas of expertise, and you need to know yours, succinctly.
You need to network, many panelists say, and here is a smart idea that can help focus your efforts. Get the list of publicly-held companies in your city; your local business journal is a good source. Find the companies that have one or two women on their boards, and consider those sitting directors to be the perfect people to get to know. Then target those companies that have no women on their boards.
Wouldn’t it be great if you were the first?
Panelist Leslie Frecon highlights another aspect of board service that is not my strong suit: patience. “Some of my best and absolute worst moments have been in the boardroom. But they have all been good developmental experiences for me,” Frecon says.
“Your rank or your position doesn’t define you and doesn’t matter” on a board, Frecon says. “What matters is your ability to influence and persuade through your logic and communication skills, and to do it over time. So you learn patience, perseverance and the ability to work collaboratively.”
Panelist Leslie Green puts it this way: “I love the intellectual challenge of it. There’s nothing like board work in terms of the way your mind has to work.”
What do I take from their words? That board service is a great opportunity to keep the brain ticking, for one. My belief is you can never stay in one place, or you’ll get bored and die! (Yes, I do feel that strongly about it. I’m not just being dramatic.)
I am attracted to Frecon’s idea that you gain the respect of others through time. As a director you’re not being that entrepreneur who is “go, go, go” every minute, but you’re being patient and listening. That doesn’t come naturally to me, but I find myself evaluating more these days with my business, and it does pay off.
The final piece of advice ringing in my ears comes from several panelists at Women in the Boardroom events, including Laurie Benson, Jeanne Voigt and Suzanne Hopgood. When asked how to know if you’re ready for board service, they respond as a chorus: Just do it.
“I think you’re ready a lot sooner than you think you’re ready,” says Jeanne Voigt. “As an entrepreneur, I always do things before I’m ready, but it’s OK. I stumble and I make mistakes but I learn.”
How many times as women do we second-guess ourselves? I say, have confidence in your abilities. I’ll never forget the story I heard in Chicago, in which a reporter wanted to interview a mother of four about her experience breast-feeding her babies. The woman said she wasn’t an expert. So her husband chimed in. “Ask me,” he said. “I know all about it.”
Suzanne Hopgood recalls when she was asked to chair the board of a New York Stock Exchange company, and then to become CEO when the CEO said he would walk if she were elected. “I thought it was the chance of a lifetime,” Hopgood says.
But then she had second thoughts: “Let’s see: I’ve never been a CEO. They have 8,000 employees. They’re in Texas, and I live in Connecticut. I thought, I’m completely unqualified to do this. And then I said, wait a minute. If I were a guy, I’d be asking how much are you going to pay me, and I’d be saying that’s not enough!”
She took the post and performed brilliantly, of course. I am betting all of you have what it takes to do the same.