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First-time board members discuss their path to landing a coveted seat

February 18, 2022, 12:30 PM UTC

Serving on a board requires a considerable investment of time and energy, but it can prove fruitful, providing members with professional and personal growth opportunities, and an influential network of like-minded and business savvy leaders.

Executives typically find their way into boards in two ways: they’re tapped by an executive search firm or recommended by a current board member. As shareholders and lawmakers increasingly turn their attention to board diversity, the skills needed to serve on a board, as well as the talent pool and pathways in have widened.

New board appointments saw growth among leaders with experience in cybersecurity, technology, marketing, and talent strategy. Not only are these skills in high demand, but tapping executives who possess then can also contribute to the diversity of board rooms—a major concern for corporate heads.

Merline Saintil, the founder of a newly launched mentorship program that aims to place Black women on boards, says, historically, many executives of color haven’t seen board leadership as a feasible career progression. “The answer I typically get is ‘I didn’t realize I could do this,’” she told Fortune.

But directorship is not just an existing opportunity—it’s a growing one. Boards are expanding in size, in a bid to add more diversity, and experiencing higher rates of turnover as current members retire or move on to other professional opportunities.

So, how does one chart a path to the board? The Modern Board spoke with several first-time directors to learn how they landed their appointments.

Identify your end goal

For Rinki Sethi, former chief information security officer at Twitter and a director at cyber security software company ForgeRock, the possibility of joining a board was not on her radar until she was contacted about an opportunity. “I was far from ready at that time,” Sethi told Fortune. “But since then it kind of whet my appetite for it.” Ultimately, she didn’t receive an offer but the opportunity sparked her interest and she began exploring ways to serve on a board.

Lara Caimi, chief customer and partner officer at ServiceNow and board member at Confluent took a different approach. She first identified her long-term career goal and is leveraging her role on boards as a stepping stone to her larger ambition: becoming a CEO.

“As I had gotten confident and built really strong relationships with my peers and realized how influential I was in the company, it was like, ‘Wait a second, I could be a CEO!’,” Caimi told the Modern Board. Sitting on a board allowed her the opportunity to diversify her leadership experience and view the board-CEO relationship from the other side of the table.

Leverage your network

Stephen Bailey, CEO of ExecOnline and a board member at Match Group, acclimated himself to the rhythms and “altitude” of directorship by serving on multiple nonprofit boards before joining a corporate board. In the nonprofit world, he says that he learned the skills needed to be a productive board member: asking the right questions and “understanding that, ultimately, it’s management’s job to execute the business.”

Similarly, Caimi moved into a new role with P&L responsibility to prepare herself for directorship and expressed her board interest to ServiceNow’s directors. “All of this board recruiting stuff doesn’t just come your way,” she says. “It really comes through these networks…all the best advice and all the best leads came through that.”

Seek out opportunities for impact

The ability to immediately contribute to a company’s growth was a key driver behind Archana Agrawal’s decision to join MongoDB’s board in 2019.

“It felt like not only was I able to fill the role that they wanted in the board, but also as a first time board member, it gave me the ability to hit the ground running because of my familiarity with go-to-market models and developer orientation,” says Agrawal, chief marketing officer at Airtable.

She joined the board of Zendesk in July 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid sweeping social movements. But the experience taught her how to react to crisis and the importance of having agile leaders.

“Intuitively, I always knew how one could contribute as part of a board,” she said. “But to see a group of individuals come together and engage so deeply with management…This has, frankly, been a learning experience.”

P.S. – Please take The Modern Board reader surveyWe’d love to know your thoughts on this newsletter! If you’re able, we would greatly appreciate your feedback in this two-minute survey to help us better serve our readers.

Aman Kidwai
aman.kidwai@fortune.com

Headlines

A principled leader. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of the dairy company Chobani, has established a reputation as a people-first leader for years. Speaking on the Leadership Next podcast, Ulukaya explains how he goes above and beyond for employees, why he’s so passionate about hiring refugees, and his efforts to convince other business leaders to do the same. Fortune

Rise of the CESGO. From Royal Caribbean to Verizon, a growing number of companies are hiring a C-suite leaders to manage ESG. And perhaps for good reason: Research shows that its best to hire a C-level executive for specialized roles that directly influence a company’s business strategy. HBR

The wealth effect. High-earners are playing an oversized role in stoking inflation. Per Fortune economy reporter Shawn Tully: "The sudden spike in their nest eggs and their cash-out refis keep the cohort spending at rates far faster than before the pandemic struck. And because that elite group accounts for such a huge share of overall consumption, it's also a leading, and widely ignored, force in driving inflation.” Fortune

Betting big. JP Morgan predicts that the metaverse will become a $1 trillion market opportunity in yearly revenues, and is putting money where its mouth is. The company is opening a bank in the Metajuku mall of Decentraland. And no, these are not made up names—Decentraland is one of the most popular metaverse platforms, writes Fortune’s Yvonne Lau. Fortune

A full reopening. Microsoft plans to fully reopen its Bay Area and Washington offices on  February 28th. Employees will have 30 days from then to adjust their routines and “adopt the working preferences they’ve agreed upon with their managers,” said Microsoft CMO Chris Capossela in a memo.The Verge

Spooked investors. Stocks tumbled on Thursday, following a warning from President Joe Biden that military action by the Kremlin appeared imminent. The Dow had its worst day of the year, falling 622 points, or 1.8%. The S&P 500 fell 2.1% and the Nasdaq slid 2.9%. CNBC

One good idea

A company (or team) retreat!

After two years of remote work, Salesforce is readying itself for in-person collaboration. Enter Trailblazer Ranch: a 75-acre, 140-room campus in Scotts Valley, California, where employees can gather, reconnect and “immerse in Salesforce’s culture.”

For companies that don’t have the budget for something this grand, a team retreat will do.

Numbers that matter

11%

The number of environmental and social shareholder proposals submitted by Russell 3000 companies increased by 11% in the first half of 2021, according to a survey by The Conference Board. “Expect a greater number of environmental and social shareholder proposals to be submitted and more of them to go to a vote with greater support."

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