Women to women: 10 tips for how to get on a corporate board

Studies show women are under-represented on corporate boards in New Jersey — and around the country. And it’s not because of a lack of interest from women to serve in these roles.

But wanting to — and getting a chance to — are two different things.

This is perhaps the reason why a panel on the subject was so heavily attended at the recent Metro Women’s Leadership Summit at the Newark Airport Marriott.

Here are a few tips the panelists — all of whom sit on boards — offered women in the audience about how to get a spot:

  1. Do the right thing, act the right way, all the time: You will get noticed

People are always watching. If you’re a doer, if you are passionate, if you are an expert and you are good at what you do and you build your skillset and carry that skillset powerfully and confidently, people are watching. And you never know what that next opportunity is going to present itself.

If you give your best, every day, people are going to see it. But you have to be genuine and honest in the skillset that you have. You cannot B.S. your way through stuff. And, if you have to, be honest with yourself and round out your skills. All throughout my career I’ve had self-awareness of what I am good and what I am not good at — and what I wasn’t good at, I made sure I got good at. Because I didn’t want to get caught off guard.

— Michele Siekerka, CEO and president, New Jersey Business & Industry Association

  1. Learn how to network and create true relationships while doing so

People always say to me, ‘I went to an event and I gave out 50 business cards today.’ I say, ‘OK, so now you need to go out and buy more business cards — but what did that do for you?’

How about you pass out two, you follow up, you schedule lunch and you get to know those two people.

The depth and breadth of relationships are so important. You need true relationships. Know people in different aspects of their lives and let them know you in different aspects of your life. That’s how your network really progresses.

— Siekerka

  1. Build your credentials as you grow

We need to be to better advocate for ourselves. Seek out (profit and loss) positions, seek out the positions even if it means a lateral move — or a move backward. Seek out those positions, because they matter. Too often, women only are being selected to be the chief human resources officer or legal counsel. They are not in the position to be able to move up.

— Barbara E. Kauffman, chief operating officer, Newark Regional Business Partnership

  1. Build sponsors, not just mentors

Studies show that women and men both take advantage of mentorship opportunities, but women have a tendency to stay in mentorship relationships for a much longer period of time than men. The studies also reveal that, while we cling to mentorships, we don’t create sponsorships and/or coaching relationships.

Create your own personal board of directors. I think that should be an amalgamation of individuals — I have five on my personal board — and only one is a mentor. The other ones care about my potential, the product of my brand and the impact of my ability. What’s great about that is they do not suffer fools easily, nor for very long.

You should also know the majority of them; they picked me, I didn’t pick them. Success has many followers, failure is an orphan. When folks see that you are very serious about your career and you have developed expertise in your field, they will be attracted to you naturally.

— Michellene Davis, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer, RWJBarnabas Health

  1. Learn how many types of boards are out there, and start small — and with ones that fit your skillset

I think it’s very important to think through all of the kinds of corporate boards one may be interested in. Certainly, there are the publicly traded boards, but that’s not all. There are privately held boards, family-owned corporations and very large companies that might not be brand names in your home.

And there are prestigious government boards, state boards and university boards. Those are boards that have very high visibility and impact lots of people. If your name is associated with the good work of the board, you are in the vaporware of headhunters looking to place board members. Most publicly traded companies have at least one academic or philanthropic presence.

— Pam Miller, CEO and president of Summit Global Strategies

  1. Don’t build yourself to be perfect for a board, build yourself — and then find what board fits you.

Men do this all the time: They think through what they want and then they pattern their network accordingly. I think that’s so inauthentic.

You can get to the same place by doing what you do well, by being very authentic about the things that you believe in and by getting the visibility associated by your excellent work.

— Miller

  1. Let people know you want to be on a board

What I find after I do a panel (with other top executives) is that they will say, ‘I want to do something else with you. What else can I do with you? How can I work with you more?’

I very nicely say, ‘I’d like to be on another corporate board.’

The truth of the matter is that the headhunters are calling them. A lot. I want them to say there is a fantastic candidate in New Jersey that I want you to give some consideration to.

— Davis

  1. If at first you don’t succeed, well … you know the rest

Go for things that your background fits. But know, if you’re not selected, don’t take it personal, and every ‘no’ is not forever.

The good news is, there is a lot of statistics and research that says having women on boards helps. There is a higher level of consciousness about this.  People say they are looking for women and diversity. And it’s great that they are conscious of it, but sometimes it just stops there.

Keep pushing. Every ‘no’ is not forever.

— Rita Sallis, senior adviser, Blueprint Capital Advisors

  1. When you get on your first board, prepare yourself for the next one

Chairing an audit committee. Chairing nominating and governance. Chairing compensation. Those skillsets are tremendous. It’s not about what position you have today, but what skillset you can bring to a board.

— Siekerka

  1. Help others once you have reached the goal

When (recruiters call me), I may say my plate is full, but I know these five women who are absolutely dynamic. They come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, they are experts in their fields — they are white, they are black, they are Latin, they are Asian — and they bring to your corporation the very best of what you are looking for. They are ready to position your company not just to succeed for today, but they know what the consumer and the workforce of tomorrow is looking for. Those are the conversations that I’m trying to spur more of.

I’m trying to connect these dots which, for whatever reason, has not happened historically.

— Davis

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