Want a seat on a board? Rewrite your resume

Folders and pens on meeting table
Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Dear Annie: As executive vice president of human resources at a midsize manufacturing company, I’ve served on a few local volunteer organizations’ boards of directors, plus one national nonprofit board. I get a lot of satisfaction from working with these organizations, and I’ve made some valuable contributions to their growth.

Now, I think I’m ready to make the leap to a directorship at a for-profit company, but I’m not sure how to do that. I have some networking contacts to whom I’ve mentioned my interest, and a couple of them have passed my resume along to the nominating committees they are in touch with, but so far I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Do you or your readers have any suggestions? (I am female, if that makes any difference.) — Ready and Willing

Dear R.W.: Your being female does make a difference, but more about that in a minute. First, anyone hoping to land a board seat these days has to come up with “a clear value proposition,” says Ralph Ward, a longtime observer of corporate governance trends and publisher of online newsletter Boardroom Insider.

“Director searches have recently become a lot more specific and targeted,” he notes. “So you need to think about what kind of company, in which industry, and why you in particular. ‘I can bring M&A due-diligence expertise to a midsize tech company,’ for instance, is a lot more compelling than simply, ‘I want to join a board.’”

Let’s suppose you’ve already figured out what kind of board you’d be best suited to sit on, and why. The resume you gave your networking contacts, if it’s the same CV you’d use to land another executive job, is not likely to do you much good. It may even work against you.

“The typical accomplishment-heavy executive resume can bury the board-specific nuggets under a pile of other achievements that are irrelevant to what nominating committees look for,” says Ward. “But most seasoned senior managers do have lots of the right qualifications. It’s a matter of spelling them out.”

Start with your nonprofit directorships, since you have some. Along with the dates you’ve served, mention “anything showing a trajectory of growth, especially any committees or one-off accomplishments that show your skill in finance, strategy, turnarounds, fundraising, or any other specific area that’s relevant to the kind of board you want to join,” Ward says.

Next, zero in on the corporate experience that can help you the most, which comes in two types. The first is “board interaction experience, which shows that you’re familiar and comfortable with the boardroom environment,” and includes almost any project where you had occasion to work closely with directors.

“As a manager, were you the liaison for material and briefings on a legal situation or a potential acquisition, for example? Did you sit in on board meetings to offer your expertise on a particular issue, or were you regularly on the phone with a committee chair?” If so, spell out your role “with as much detail as can be divulged,” Ward suggests. “Specificity impresses.”

The second kind of experience you need to emphasize is what Ward calls internal company governance. “I’ve spoken to any number of corporate executives who want to sit on a board but lament their lack of boardroom background,” he says. “But it turns out they had served as a company rep on a joint venture committee, represented the company with national or international trade groups, worked with the firm’s banks on a major financing, or negotiated with labor unions.”

It all counts. “Sitting around a table to successfully work out high-stakes decisions and agreements is what ‘boardsmanship’ is all about,” Ward notes. “Again, include as much detail as you can.”

Once you’ve thought back and pinpointed which achievements in your career so far fit one or the other of those categories, says Ward, “go through your current resume with a highlighter and mark the relevant items.” Then delete everything else (except the barest mention of executive titles and dates), and expand the parts you’ve highlighted.

A couple of other suggestions: First, if you haven’t already done this, talk with your boss. “Some CEOs or other executives don’t want their direct reports distracted by a directorship at another company,” Ward notes. “Others don’t mind. But the two of you do need to have a heart-to-heart about it. He or she might even be a great resource in helping you land a board seat.”

And second, if you happen to speak with recruiters, “don’t forget to mention that you’re interested in a board seat,” says Ward. “Headhunters don’t make much money on board searches, versus big-ticket CEO searches for example. Finding directors is a loss leader for them. So if you can drop a viable board candidate” — that would be you — “in their laps, you ‘ll not only be doing them a favor, but you’ll have a real advantage.”

Speaking of advantages, you’ll be happy to hear that this is one situation where being female is likely to work in your favor. “Getting more diversity, and more turnover, on big-company boards has been a priority for the past few years,” Ward points out. After decades of being all but shut out of boardrooms, “qualified women now have, if anything, a bit of an edge.”

That’s even more true in Europe than it is here, by the way. Since many governments abroad have imposed actual quotas on female board membership in public companies — 40% in Norway and Germany, for example, and a 30% “comply or explain” rule in the U.K. — there’s “a big need for businesswomen who can serve,” Ward observes.

“It’s a real opportunity for American female executives, especially in global companies, who have strong executive seasoning and language skills.” Just something to keep in mind. Good luck!

Talkback: If you’re a director of a public company, what helped you land your first board seat? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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