Jill Griffin is a board member of a public company, serving for many years atop Luby's/Fuddruckers Inc., which operates various restaurant chains.
She also is a consultant, serves as chairwoman for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and sits on the board of directors for a non-profit that seeks to mobilize young people to care for mothers who are hungry and in need. She has a series of hobbies, too, but nothing excites her as much as her role as a director of a public company.
And she believes you could – and should – join her in that activity. Like her, you can put your skills to their ultimate use, and benefit from the challenge. "It's like earning an MBA every year, you learn so much," she says.
Serving on a board probably seems out of reach unless you are a senior executive or retired from the C-Suite. But she says there are actually two paths to a board seat and that talented, ambitious people with a variety of skills are needed to supplement the traditional boardroom colony.
Yes, chief executive officers, chief financial officers and presidents of large divisions of public companies will always be in demand for board seats. Boards want individuals from that group who can chair or sit on an audit committee, advise on corporate governance, help set executive compensation, assist the CEO in planning his or her own succession and are adept at grappling with the profit-and-loss statement.
But she says if you are a professional with a deep knowledge of certain subjects, you can also be valuable to boards. She wrote a book in 1995 on customer loyalty, ahead of the wave, and that established her as an expert on the subject, ultimately leading to being approached for her board seat.
Other areas in which smaller companies in particular might seek expertise include digital technology, cyberfraud, social media, international market entry, employee engagement and retention, corporate governance, scientific knowledge for science-based companies and political navigation for heavily regulated companies.
In Earn Your Seat on a Corporate Board, she says you need to determine which of the two routes are your best bet: Always-in-demand skills or subject-matter board skills.
Next, you must pinpoint the best industry to serve. The likeliest, and perhaps most appealing, will be in industries in which you hold direct experience. But you may also be able to shift to adjacent industries hungry for your talent. In the interview, she cites a senior Continental Airlines executive recruited as a board member for Bristow Group, an offshore helicopter transport firm.
You also want to consider what size firm is the most appropriate.
"Most people for their first seat should look at mid-size, small, and microcap companies," she says, noting those are in the majority.
"You almost have to be a celebrity in the United States to get on a large board."
To prepare, you may want to serve on a non-profit board. But to take full advantage, work intensely with the CEO, particularly on financial matters.
"The closer you can be to where the money is and the decisions on money, the more valuable you will later be to a corporate board," she says.
Gaining entry to a board is by invitation. You don't knock on the door and tell them you're ready. That means building your brand, as she did in customer loyalty. And it's never too soon: "Millennials and new MBAs should be thinking about how to prepare for a board seat."
Build a board résumé, which will differ from one for an executive position, communicating your accomplishments and billing you as an agent of change. You also need an elevator pitch, a 30-second spiel that shows the value you can bring to a board, to promote your cause in the right situations.
If you get an interview, stay away from political, religious or other controversial topics if they arise. Prepare an explanation of why you want to be on the board.
Hint: It's not to beef up your résumé.
Further hint: This is not an executive position, so you don't want to show yourself as a hard-driving, get-it-done type, but as a collaborative person who will not micromanage the CEO or the senior staff.
Demonstrate how you can mentor and guide others.
Finally, establish yourself as what she calls "a category of one," The Person with The Right Skills for this board at this time.
Following these guidelines, she believes you can gain entry to the boardroom.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter