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Let's talk about women and corporate boards. For starters, women who aspire to reach to upper echelons of corporate power need to start asking how they can achieve that goal. And women who are already sitting at the board table need to illuminate how they were able to get that far.

Lifting the veil on what it takes to rise to the board level will help women understand how to tailor their career choices to make the climb.

Women should "dream big" and lay the groundwork early in their career if they aspire to be a director on the board of a major corporation, said Debra Kelly-Ennis, president and chief executive of Diageo Canada in Etobicoke, Ont.

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This could include taking courses to enhance their understanding of role and responsibilities of boards, or cutting their teeth as a member of a not-for-profit board, where others can see them in action.

"You must be qualified in a number of areas, including having a strong understanding of corporate governance, finance and accounting, and business strategy, to name a few key competencies," said Ms. Kelly-Ennis, who sits on the public boards of Pulte Homes and Carnival Corp., as well as Dress for Success, a global charity focused on putting women back to work.

"Knowledge of succession planning is also important, with today's companies looking for both active CEOs and successors to chief executive officer and chief financial officer positions," she added.

Barbara Stymiest, chairwoman at BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion, suggests that women seek opportunities to manage a division, a business unit or a volunteer organization, which can act as a springboard to more senior roles.

Ms. Stymiest, who is also a director at food giant George Weston Ltd., the Royal Ontario Museum and financial processing firm Symcor Inc., among other boards, emphasizes that skills play a critical role in securing board positions.

Nominating committees look for candidates with chief executive experience or equivalent skills, she noted, and candidates need to know how to work effectively with their boards in a way that adds value to management.

While "your résumé matters," Ms. Stymiest also emphasized the critical importance of a strong network to land a board role.

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"There is absolutely a proven and strategic methodology to being appointed to public- and private-company and not-for-profit boards both in Canada and in the U.S.," said Lisa Heidman, senior client partner at the Bedford Consulting Group, a global executive search firm.

The key is your network. "The connected and trusted sponsor network remains dominant and powerful, and is still how most board members in North America are appointed today," Ms. Heidman said. "Your next board role is absolutely within your network, and more likely within your network's network."

Ms. Heidman, who acts as an adviser to senior executives on board placements across North America, encourages those she coaches to connect the dots between their experience and the specific needs of the company. It is important to then communicate this to your network contacts. This advice applies to the seasoned directors seeking fresh appointments or those who are new to the role.

"The days of the phone ringing – for even the most sophisticated, experienced and qualified board members – are over," said Ms. Heidman, noting that those who effectively communicate their skills and their unique value land board placements time and again.

Zuzanna Kusyk, director of global wholesale services at Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto, plans to look for her first board role in the next few years.

To set the stage, she has volunteered on a not-for-profit board and is enrolled in the Global Professional Master of Laws program at the University of Toronto, which focuses on international business law, to bolster her academic credentials.

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Ms. Kusyk understands that you have to be proactive to even be considered for board roles. "You have to seek out an organization yourself that reflects your background and values."

In addition to obtaining the essential credentials, she believes candidates need to raise their profiles so they are seen as valuable additions to a board. "It's important to make your personal brand of success known to others," Ms. Kusyk said. "There is no point in hiding your light."

Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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