Wanted: More Diverse Directors

Companies are looking beyond the corner office for women board members these days--and focusing more on experience than title

Corporate boards have long been interested in recruiting women directors. But while women from academia and government have landed seats, many potentially valuable corporate candidates were excluded because their résumés didn't list that one key credential: the title of CEO. Now, a trend among boards bodes well for high-level business women who haven't reached the top slot. Boards are focusing more on experience than title. This helps to broaden the pool of likely candidates as well as create a more diverse group of directors.

The boards are particularly interested in adding directors with expertise in technology or contacts in international markets. "When you take people who have different experiences and backgrounds, the group is more effective at problem solving," says Julie Daum, who is managing director of board services for Spencer Stuart, an executive-search firm.

Take Marsha Johnson Evans, a former Rear Admiral who was the highest-ranking woman in the Navy and is now the executive director of the Girl Scouts. She didn't go seeking a corporate board position. But when a seat became available on the May Department Stores Co. (MAY ) board three years ago, Daum found her in a search and called her. "While I don't have traditional business experience, I have management experience in a complex military organization," says Evans.

"A PRIVILEGE." Wider latitude in director searches and the push for diversity are two reasons women made up 21% of new board members last year, though they held just 12% of all Standard & Poor's 500 corporate board seats, according to Spencer Stuart. "Women either control or influence nearly all consumer purchases, so it's important to have their perspective represented on boards," says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that focuses on women in business. Now that nearly 25% of the nation's largest companies have two or more women directors, "there is clearly a move away from the token female member," says Wellington.

Serving on a corporate board has many advantages. Not only do members learn a great deal about another company, the experience enhances management skills and develops career opportunities. Then there's the prestige. "I think it's a privilege to sit on a corporate board," says Nina Henderson, former corporate vice-president of Bestfoods (BFO ) and a member of several boards, including Axa Financial (AXA ) and packaging company Pactiv (PTV ). But make no mistake: Board service is a lot of work. Between the time required for reading, meeting preparation, and travel, Henderson says she spends three weeks a year per board.

Interested? Although you don't fill out an application to become a director, you can increase the chance of being chosen. First, you need to be really good at what you do--preferably in a senior management position which has profit-and-loss responsibilities. Just as important, "you must be visible outside your own company," says Daum.

Before you attempt to go for the big boards, consider serving on nonprofit and government boards and commissions. Sitting on an advisory board, which gives nonbinding advice to a company, also provides invaluable exposure and skills. "Advisory boards can help participants build confidence to be an effective corporate director," says Susan Stautberg, president of Partner Com Corp., a New York firm that creates advisory boards.

Finally, tell everyone--from board members you know to your own CEO--that you're interested. "People talk, and you'll never know who may be in a position to recommend you," says Daum. Or who may think you're the perfect person to serve on their board.

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By Toddi Gutner

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