by Maryfran Johnson

Playing the “long game” of networking to earn a board seat

Feb 13, 2020
CareersIT Leadership

Landing your first board director role is often a multi-year effort. Be prepared to expand the diversity of your connections while building your breadth of business experience.

group of executives collaborate board room board mentor advisory board colleagues networking by alp
Credit: AlphaSpirit / Getty Images

John Murray vividly recalls the first time he asked a recruiter friend about how he could get a seat on a public company board of directors. “He laughed me right out of the lunch,” recalls the former financial industry CIO, who most recently served as CEO of Paypro Corp. in New York.

The recruiter bluntly pointed out that Murray had zero board experience and was merely running technology operations for a division of a public company. “Why would I even consider you?” the headhunter wondered. Rather than taking offense, Murray took his friend’s advice to look for board service opportunities among smaller, privately held companies instead of public ones. He eventually served on two private boards between 2012 and 2019.

Welcome to the “long game” of networking required to attain a board seat. It’s often a multi-year effort, relying heavily on establishing a base of experience and an ever-widening circle of senior business executive connections that lead to the right introductions.

“It depends on who’s counting, but more than 60% of all board seats are won through personal and professional networking,” confirms Rochelle Campbell, director of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) board recruitment practice.

Set your eyes on a different prize

The most lucrative, sought-after seats are among the approximately 4,200 public companies in the U.S., but those boards turn over “only 1.2 to 1.3 seats a year,” Campbell says. “There are very few public board seats available, and most of them are going to networking relationships, not to recruiters.”  

Yet there are about 50,000 private companies nationwide, and that’s where CIOs, chief digital officers and other senior IT leaders have the greatest chance to join the ranks of corporate directors.

As one of the leading board recruiters in the country, the NACD’s Campbell and her team work extensively with CIOs, CMOs and top HR executives among the association’s 22,000 members. “About half of our (recruiting) business is for private companies, and they’re really primed to bring more diverse skillsets on board. These companies need that level of expertise.”

That’s what worked for Murray, whose consulting and technology implementation work for private companies led to invitations to join their boards. “There are tons of small, privately held companies out there, and they face real talent challenges,” he notes. “Say you’re the CTO of a midcap, $200 million private company today. There may be a $40 million private company that would love to have your help. Go make yourself useful.”

Invest in growing your network

“It’s very hard to get your first board seat,” notes Melanie Steiner, chief risk officer for PVH Corp. She was appointed in July 2019 to the board of US Ecology, Inc. (Nasdaq: ECOL). Steiner estimates she spent 12-18 months of intense networking to land the board seat, approaching the search “like a little side job.” She socialized with sitting board members and chatted up recruiters, CEOs and other executives across her network. “I had a lot of coffees,” she recalls. “You really have to put the time in.”

That kind of thoughtfully planned networking is arguably the most critical component for any executive interested in eventually joining a board. “You need to understand your value proposition,” says the NACD’s Campbell. “It’s about getting to know people who will remember you.”

One of the NACD members who worked recently with Campbell’s recruiting efforts is Cora Carmody, former CIO of Jacobs Engineering and founder of the nonprofit STEM organization Technology Goddesses.

Carmody joined the association last year and took part in its Governance Fellowship program, an in-depth virtual course on key board topics such as risk management, committee structure and cybersecurity. “It’s a great education on board duties, of course, but [the program] gives you almost instant credibility with companies” considering board candidates, says Carmody, who currently runs her own consulting company. “The networking aspects have been amazing,” she adds.