By Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance
FORTUNE — While millions comb sites like Monster.com looking for greener pastures, there is one job opening they won’t find there: a corporate board position.
But if Fortune 500 boards did advertise online for candidates, the response would likely be overwhelming:
Looking for work-life balance? Work from home (at least part of the time). Set your own pay — $1,000 per hour and up. No threat of layoffs or workforce cutbacks. Part-time hours and multiple positions available. Excellent way to supplement your retirement income. No application necessary.
Jobs on corporate boards are filled every day. Although hiring has slowed down recently, more positions could be opening up soon. “Roughly two-thirds [of directors say their boards] are seeking candidates to replace retiring directors,” according to a Spencer Stuart survey. And “more than half of directors think that board turnover is too low” according to a survey by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University and Heidrick and Struggles.
True, working on a corporate board isn’t what it used to be. The hours are longer than a decade ago. But there are some really bright spots from the perspective of board candidates.
The bright side
Board directors’ hours were shorter in 2010 than 2009 (dropping 9%, according to the National Association of Corporate Directors) while pay was up (rising 6%, according to consultant Towers Watson). This boosted the hourly rate for Fortune 500 directors by nearly $150, from approximately $890 to $1040; that’s a 17% jump, certainly robust in this economy.
On top of that, prospects for increased pay look good. Director pay is expected to increase another 10% at Fortune 500 firms this year, according to Towers Watson. With similar work hours, that’s a 28% boost to directors’ hourly rate in just two years.
Great pay and flexible hours are certainly not the only reasons you’d want a board job. If you can nab one of these spots, you are likely to be really happy with the work. That’s what 96% said in a survey by Women Corporate Directors (WCD) and Heidrick and Struggles. (Consider how that compares to the low satisfaction rates among most workers today.)
If you are retired or working for yourself, board jobs have been opening up in recent years because many companies have adopted rules restricting CEOs and other executives from sitting on them.
And if you are not a sitting CEO, your chances of getting a spot are better than ever. In fact, contrary to previous wisdom, 79% of directors said that “active CEOs are no better than non-CEO board members,” according to the Rock Center’s survey.
Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, there is a dark side to this otherwise rosy picture.
What’s not too surprising is that experienced board candidates often get preference over newcomers. And even if these experienced directors have served on the board of a problem company, they are still very much in the running for that board seat you may desire. According to the Rock Center report, “While only 37% of directors believe that an ex-CEO of a company that experienced substantial accounting or ethical problems can be a good board member, 67% believe a director of a similarly-plagued company can.”
Another challenge in landing that board seat: you need to get noticed. According to WCD, 78% of board members don’t have to seek their first board position; most candidates are invited to interview and professional networks are critical to getting that interview. Still today, women tend to lack access to these networks, and directors surveyed cited this as the primary reason for women’s disappointing representation on boards.
Besides knowing people — and, more importantly, having the right people know you — you also need skills that other directors value, such as running a business or making financial decisions. But boards looking for new members are broadening the kinds of experience that they desire. Nearly half of directors believe there are areas of expertise missing on their boards today, according to the WCD survey, and almost 30% are looking to add new skills to the board, according to Spencer Stuart. Even with these changes, however, analytical and conceptual thinking skills are too often missing from these lists.
The term “chemistry,” or your ability to work collegially with the other members, is often used in board searches, and it can make or break the hiring decision. Even today, prickly devil’s advocates are not often sought to fill these spots.
And if you are one of the 22% who, rather than waiting to be discovered, actively searches for that first board position and eventually gets one, it can still take a while: 2.3 years on average for women and 1.7 years for men, according to WCD.
Look before you leap
Still, if you clear these hurdles, a board seat can be a very appealing job. But there’s the rub. Because with a job that great, will you be willing to leave it? Will you really be independent, speak your mind, and take on the tough challenges?
Even if you don’t sit on the compensation committee, will you speak up when you disagree with CEO pay or will you keep your mouth shut in the boardroom (and, as some board members do, complain to me instead)? Will you broach the really difficult subjects, ask deep questions, or wait to see if someone else speaks first?
You may think you are ready to sit on a board. And maybe you are. But think twice. How you do the job of overseeing a corporation and a CEO has the power to strengthen our economy or weaken it, to build trust in corporate America and our capital markets, or feed growing cynicism.
Not everyone has the moral courage to do the job. If you don’t, please do everyone a favor: don’t apply.
Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm.