As a female executive, it’s still incredibly difficult to break into the highest echelons of corporate America: Women hold just 15% of the board seats at public companies and control zero seats at the 5% of Fortune 500 companies that have all-male directors. That makes the insights of the few women who do manage to land a seat at those boardroom tables all the more valuable.
TaskRabbit COO Stacy Brown-Philpot and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of e-commerce startup Joyus, are two of those rare exceptions. At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Brown-Philpot, who recently joined the board of HP Inc. (HPQ), and Cassidy, who sits on the boards of TripAdvisor (TRIP) and Ericsson (ERIC), described how they scored their director gigs—and offered advice to those seeking similar roles.
The key takeaways: If you want a board seat, start by saying so to everyone you meet—particularly any CEOs and other business elite whom you happen to know. And once you’re in the running, don’t act like you’re interviewing for a regular job.
“The interview was more about who you are as a person than what you’ve accomplished,” Brown-Philpot said. “You don’t get into the room without the right credentials—those are assumed.” In landing her spot on HP’s board, it helped that she’d already met the company’s CEO, Meg Whitman, at a party at the house of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (and a former executive at Google, where both Brown-Philpot and Cassidy once worked).
But the person who ultimately referred Brown-Philpot for the position was someone she’d met at a conference seven months earlier—to whom she’d briefly mentioned that she was looking to join a board. “The more people you tell,” she said, “The more your name will come up when the opportunities come up.”
Cassidy had a similar story about landing a previous board role at J.Crew in 2009. She networked through a friend who was close to the retailer’s CEO Mickey Drexler, as well as her contacts at Google (GOOG), including executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who at the time served with Drexler on the board of Apple (AAPL). But a seat on any board is good experience, she said, whether it’s the board of a non-profit, a private company or a startup. “Everybody wants a ‘public board,'” she said, using air quotes while referring to publicly traded companies. “Keep in mind there are limited numbers of public boards. My point is, it’s something you work your way up to.” (Cassidy recently launched a database called the Boardlist for nominating women to boards.)
So, what happens when you are actually appointed to a board? Cassidy had some tips for that as well: humility and transparency. It’s important to remember that “you’re joining the board of a CEO who might have a much bigger job than you do,” she said. And if you disagree with management or have questions or concerns about the company’s plans, be upfront and call or email the CEO before bringing them up in a board meeting. “Is your job to surprise a CEO in his [or her] boardroom? No,” Cassidy said. “It truly is not about being the smartest person in the room, because then you’re pissing off the person you’re actually meant to serve.”
Fortune’s Pattie Sellers, who moderated the panel at the conference, featured both Cassidy and Brown-Philpot in her recent magazine story, “Why powerful women love Google, and why they leave it.”