Last month I moderated a panel entitled, “Seeking A Board Seat.” Hosted by BioBreak in Philadelphia (a nonprofit organization that brings together senior executives from across the life sciences and venture capital industries), the goal of the discussion was to help executives not only figure out how to get selected for board of director positions, but also to determine which companies might be a best fit. During Thanksgiving dinner, I was describing the upcoming panel’s concept to my brother-in-law. He commented, “I thought companies picked the people who they want for their boards.” While true, this doesn’t mean you should just sit back and wait for the phone to ring. Conversely, you shouldn’t necessarily start reaching out to companies on an unsolicited basis. Serving successfully on a board typically requires the application of your acquired leadership skills in a slightly different capacity (i.e., more as a consultative guide). So if you think you are ready to join a board, before doing anything, you should first do a self-assessment.
According to industry icons Fred Hassan and Ken Banta, company boards primarily look at these two criteria: capabilities and character. As such, begin your self-assessment by looking at your capabilities and try to determine your special skills. For example, when Hassan was asked to join Time Warner’s board, it wasn’t because he had a deep understanding of the media and entertainment industry. He was invited (in large part) because his expertise in the regulated realm of healthcare could be applied to the increasingly regulated world of global telecommunications. Assess yourself not only as a sector expert but also as an executive with special competencies. Then map these attributes against various market needs. Next, compare yourself with other executives based on your proven track record. Hassan and Banta suggest engaging colleagues and mentors for help.
Regarding the character component of board selection, there are five areas where you will need to demonstrate special strengths: collaborating, earning trust, emotional intelligence, judging others, and raising questions. Identify moments in your career when you exemplified these character components and list examples that demonstrate your leadership success as a result of their application. Unlike most executive roles where leading involves a lot of “telling,” board members typically succeed by asking. According to Hassan and Banta, by asking thoughtful questions you will be better able to guide a CEO and other board members toward making good business decisions.
Shortly after Leonard Jacob, M.D., Ph.D., left his position as chairman of the board for Bradley Pharmaceuticals (2006), he was asked to serve as board chairman for Antares Pharma. Although he did review the company’s financials and the management team, he admits the first thing he looked at was the product opportunity. Thus, he advises that anyone considering serving on a board review the product first and then the leadership.
If you have not served on a board, David Pyott (former CEO of Allergan) says likely the first call you’ll receive will come via an executive search firm. As such, he says to make it known to firms specializing in board placement that you are interested, and provide criteria on industry preference, as well as geographic location. Finally, while serving on a nonprofit can be a great place to gain some board experience, consider reviewing Shelly Banjo’s Wall Street Journal article “Before You Join That Board…” so you can sufficiently weigh prestige and honor versus the commitment such service entails.