Color Genomics CMO Katie Jacobs Stanton and Intuit product and technology operations chief Merline Saintil speaking at the 2017 Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Stuart Isett/Fortune
By Andrew Nusca
November 14, 2017

Want a seat at the boardroom table? You’re not alone.

Many senior businesspeople have considered joining a corporate board of directors—but often, they don’t know where to start or how to engage once they do.

Leadership can make or break a company and bolster a career. So how to land a seat and make a splash?

Three executives gathered at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. to tell a packed room of businesswomen their boardroom stories. They included Merline Saintil, who in addition to her operations role at Intuit serves on the board of Banner Corp.; Color Genomics CMO Katie Jacobs Stanton, who serves on the boards of Vivendi and Fortune parent Time Inc; and Jennifer Dulski, who heads the Groups/Communities unit at Facebook and served on the boards of Tegna and Move Inc.

Here’s what they said.

Get out there and network

“Eighty-seven percent of placements will be through your network,” said Saintil, who sits on the board of a $10 billion publicly-traded bank based in Washington State. “So my first piece of advice is: Tell everyone. Once you get that connection, then you need to perform.”

Saintil is the second woman and only person of color on a board with an average age of 63. “I wouldn’t say I belonged,” she said, “but I’ve never given anyone the power to tell me where I belong.”

Ask for what you want (then ask yourself why you want it)

Stanton, who joined the board of French media giant Vivendi at a time when France was establishing a rule requiring the boards of companies to be 40% women, said introspection is key.

“Really ask yourself why. Really, truly ask yourself why you want to be on a board,” she said. “It is a lot of work. I totally encourage it. You have your own reasons why. It is a relationship, a commitment, you’re entering into.”

Dulski, who had to give up her seat on the board of Tegna (a spinoff of the publisher Gannett) when she joined Facebook, said many people advised her against joining the board of Move, a real estate website, saying it was an also-ran in the category. “I made the decision on whether I could learn something” and make a difference, she said. “I learned way more about being the third-place player versus the first-place player.” And two years later, Move sold itself to News Corp.

“Look for how you can create relevant experiences,” Dulski said. “A lot of it is about the network. Look to your network to build out experiences.”

Prepare your ‘board bio’

It’s not the same as a traditional resume, Saintil said.

“My board bio is one page,” she said. “It has a picture. it has my philosophy or a thought leadership quote. It’s nothing like a resume. It’s not like interviewing for a job. They already know everything about you. It’s about talking about the summary of your experiences and what will make you a valuable board member.”

Stanton put it another way. “What is your superpower? All of you have one,” she said, gesturing to the audience before her. “The boards are looking for digital or security or whatever it may be. They need you as much as you need them. So know your superpower. And know what everyone else’s is, too.”

Keep in mind that boards of directors recruit using a matrix, Dulski said. They’re trying to fill acute needs. “Getting your foot in the door and proving you can do it is all that matters. So figuring out which boxes you check is really important. I guarantee you every board out there is looking for digital natives. All the functional experience matters.”

Most board recruiting happens through recruiters, she added: “You just need to get on their radar.”

Know your role and commit

“Your role is to lead with inquiry,” Saintil cautioned. “It’s not to tell people what to do.” Potential and active board members should know the difference and understand the fiduciary responsibility of the role—guiding and, contrary to the title, not directing.

It’s also a substantial time commitment. Public boards, for example, meet at least once a quarter. “It’s real time out of your job,” Dulski said.

Plus, serving on some boards requires travel. “You are not working when you’re in that room,” Dulski said. “It’s not like you can check your email. You’re 100% there,” thinking about protecting the company from risk and mulling strategy in terms of helping the executive team ask the right questions. That’s why Dulski said she once declined serving on the board of a Fortune 100 company in Austin, Texas—they met five times a year and the commitment was too much for the San Francisco Bay Area exec.

Saintil agreed. “You need to understand that commitment,” she said.

Know your boardmembers

“Your very first board, you often feel desperate,” Saintil said. “It’s your first one. Taking the time to vet the board—ultimately it could be a time sink. So love the board you’re going to join.”

Dulski agreed. It’s important to remember that everyone at the boardroom table once had their first day on a board. “The truth is, they really want you to succeed,” she said. “If you remember that, it’s quite easy to add value.”

And, Stanton added, it’s worth remembering that the chairman or chairwoman or the board is truly there to steer the ship. “Finding those kinds of [supportive] people lifts you up and helps you learn,” she said, “and think, ‘I got this, and I’m going to bring this back to my day job.’”

Don’t stop once you’re in the door

“Own your own on-boarding,” Saintil urged the audience. Most companies have a process to acclimate a new board member, but even if they don’t or it’s not offered, take the CEO out to coffee.

“Educate yourself so you become a more valuable member of the board,” she said.

Remember to pay it forward

One of the best things about serving on a corporate board of directors is taking those learnings and bringing them back to other parts of your life, the executives agreed.

“These boards have been an opportunity to bring new things back to my organization,” Dulski said.

“It’s helped me ruthlessly prioritize” outcomes and time, Stanton added.

Besides, Dulski said, there’s more to life than work.

“People don’t go to their deathbeds saying, ‘I wish I had been on that one board,’” she said. “I feel happy to have been on boards. But it’s not defining.”

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