Take These Steps to Become a Board Member

Black woman leading a meeting
Black female boss leading corporate multiracial team meeting talking to diverse businesspeople, african american woman executive discussing project plan at group multi-ethnic briefing in boardroom

I recently started volunteering for a nonprofit enterprise and received a list of the organization’s board members. That made me wonder about people interested in getting on a board of directors and the steps they should take to do so.

I discovered that the process differs depending on the kind of board you want to join.

“It is important to note that not-for-profit board service and being recruited to join a for-profit board are based on very different selection processes and criteria,” says career coach Roy Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide” and a new board member of the South Fork Bakery, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides training and employment for special needs adults on the East End of Long Island.

“It is exponentially more difficult to secure a public or private company board seat,” says Cohen. “Unlike not-for-profit boards, directors of for-profit boards receive compensation in the form of cash and, occasionally equity, if the company is a startup or privately held. Finding a board seat is similar to finding a job; it takes a lot of work, you need to be qualified, and you have to demonstrate how the company will benefit from your presence.”

No matter the kind of board you want to join, there are a few questions to consider, according to Ian Kelly, vice president of operations for NuLeaf Naturals, who has spoken with board directors and CEOs in his quest to take on a board position soon.

1. What skills and qualifications do I have to serve on a board? You might have specific qualifications like an MBA; functional skills in areas such as marketing, finance, or HR; experience in a specific industry sector like health, communications, government or engineering, Kelly explains. “A network of acquaintances you have built up over time who can quickly supply you with information and [help] get things done” is another plus, he says.

2. What companies are looking for board directors?Tap your network of acquaintances — senior executives, past employers, management professors — in an industry you are familiar with. “You can get information from the internet and maybe even news channels about openings on various boards,” Kelly says. “But in my experience, it is mostly through professional networking that this kind of information gets broadcast.”

After you’ve done that basic homework, understanding the nuances of nonprofit vs. for-profit boards is key.

Nonprofit boards

Interested in joining a nonprofit board? Cohen recommends taking these three steps:

1. Consider the mission. “Ask yourself if the organization’s mission is aligned with your values and interests,” Cohen says. “If they are, then they will benefit and so will you.”

2. Consider the financial commitment. Is that something you are prepared to make? “Board service is all about helping to sustain the organization, especially now when many not-for-profits are struggling to remain afloat,” Cohen says. “Find out how much board members are expected to contribute at a minimum.”

3. Consider volunteering first. It’s a win-win: It will demonstrate your commitment to the organization and offer insight into the leadership and any issues or problems you might encounter as a board member, Cohen says.

For-profit boards

“Virtually all [for-profit] board positions are filled either through executive recruiters or through word of mouth and referral by other board members,” says Cohen, who lists several characteristics these companies look for in board candidates:

1. Governance experience. “Corporate governance is a system of rules, practices and processes that companies employ to control and direct their activities and to meet goals,” Cohen explains. “Most boards look for proof that candidates have either received training in governance, such as a certificate, or they have overseen governance as a part of their leadership. It is almost impossible to secure a board position without some governance experience.”

2. Leadership. Proven, substantial experience in senior management roles is key. “Since the role of board director is to provide oversight to top management, at an arm’s distance to the C-Suite, it is expected that a prospective candidate will have held similar senior roles in aligned industries or in complex organizations,” Cohen says.

3. Reputation. Is there any hint of impropriety in your background? If so, forget about a board position! “With respect to public companies, an individual with a dubious history — no matter what the circumstances may have been or if you were exonerated — will be rejected outfight from consideration,” Cohen says.

4. Insight. Companies are facing complex challenges, an unprecedented pace of innovation, and fallout from the pandemic. “As a result, many public companies are retiring more mature board members who simply don’t have the exposure or knowledge to keep up,” Cohen says. “Without the ability to offer up solutions and strategy there is no reason why a board would consider a candidate.”

5. Past successes. “It is not enough to have held leadership positions — you must be able to demonstrate a history of successful execution, follow through, and lasting results,” Cohen says.

6. Relevance. You’ll need what Cohen calls “a solid understanding of the company and the industry. “In order to cross the finish line, a board candidate should be someone who can hit the ground running and add value from the start — and whose learning curve is limited to getting up to speed on the company’s unique challenges and history,” he says.Take these steps to become a board member


(Article written by Kathleen Furore)