So You Wanna Be A Director

Companies are desperately seeking women to fill their boards. Interested? Here are some tips for getting there.

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What's one of the most hotly sought after assets for corporate boards these days? A female director. So you might think qualified candidates wouldn't have any trouble finding a slot. But many women with the types of résumés companies want don't know either where to start their search or how to market themselves to interested boards.

That's where OnBoard Bootcamp and programs like it come in. These cram sessions coach female board-member wannabes on everything from creating a search strategy to understanding corporate governance rules. Most important, they teach that becoming a director is a matter of trust and compatibility. "It gets down to one thing: If this board blows up like an Enron, will I want to be in a foxhole with these folks?" says Theodore Dysart, managing partner for Heidrick & Struggles' Global Board of Directors Practice.

Prepping for a board seat in today's post-Enron/Tyco/WorldCom world is more important than ever. Such issues as accounting scandals, inflated compensation, and backdated options have increased the liability exposure and scrutiny of all directors. Plus, a board seat is a bigger commitment than ever, requiring about 250 hours a year. These factors help explain why companies are restricting top executives from serving on more than one outside board.

Still, landing a seat at a boardroom table is alluring, especially for women, who make up only about 16% of directors of the top 200 Standard & Poor's 500 companies, according to Spencer Stuart 2006 Board Diversity Report. Dysart says even with all the negative publicity, corporate board slots are desirable because "they provide an intellectual challenge, camaraderie, attractive pay [up to $160,000 on average for the top 1,000 companies], and they're good for professional growth." As further evidence, officials with these four director development programs all say demand exceeds capacity.

In June, BusinessWeek (MHP ) got exclusive access to an OnBoard Bootcamp session in Manhattan. For two days, 10 senior-level women executives got the chance to pepper experts with questions about the ins and outs of becoming a director (five men also attended). They came from fields ranging from marketing to the military.

The answers came easily to the co-founders of OnBoard Bootcamp, Susan Stautberg and Carolyn Chin. Stautberg is president of PartnerCom, a company that assembles advisory boards and conducts corporate board searches. She also founded Women Corporate Directors, a network of 195 members of nearly 400 boards. Chin is CEO of Cebiz, a New York business consulting and investment firm, and serves on five boards, including that of software provider Commtouch (CTCH ).

The sessions are sprinkled with informal talks from directors and recruiters. Some advice about how to conduct a search can be summed up in these steps:

Before you do anything else, Google (GOOG ) yourself. If your name doesn't pop up, "you've got a problem," Chin says. Search firms and companies see media presence as a sign of candidate credibility. To "enhance your Googability," Stautberg advises writing articles and opinion pieces, and making sure that achievements, such as how you turned around a division, get public recognition.

Hone your "elevator pitch." You need to be able to sell yourself to a recruiter or board member in 90 seconds or less. Bootcamp participants had to briefly explain why they would make good directors. Those who went on too long were cut off. Chin and Stautberg tried to help participants put forth one credential that would make them stand out. "You will be boiled down to one or two words, so think about what you want to be remembered for," says Chin. A fashion executive, for instance, spelled out how her licensing experience could be used to forge new markets and build a brand.

If you don't have corporate board experience, serve on advisory or nonprofit boards. Corporate divisions will assemble advisory boards to brainstorm new ideas or work through specific problems. A directorship on an advisory or nonprofit board increases your visibility and can be excellent training for the step up to a corporate seat. It shows your capacity for working in a group, widens your network, and expands future opportunities. Near the end of the second day, Stautberg put forth a couple of open advisory board positions that participants could apply for. One was to help a well-known wholesale club with distribution for a new business venture.

Be an interviewer as well as an interviewee. Chin's favorite question to ask a CEO or board chairman: "What keeps you up at night?" It can tell you a lot about the company. You'll also want to research what skills the other directors bring to the table and what skills the board needs. If you have a strong financial background, you can't go wrong offering to be on the audit committee.

Make sure you're protected. During the interview process, ask companies the size and limit of their directors' and officers' insurance policies. But don't stop there. "Check to see if the company has been sued, and if so, for what," says Chin. Review coverage levels with an outside risk manager. If you're not satisfied, request that the company consider buying an additional policy to cover independent director liability.

Stautberg and Chin worked with participants to retool résumés and bios. Instead of one bio starting, "Marge was born in New York City...," it was changed to "Marge is an innovative, globally connected, conservation science leader and author...." They encouraged Bootcamp grads to keep in touch for consultation. Mari Carmen Aponte, a Washington lawyer now on the board of Oriental Financial Group (OFG ), a Puerto Rican bank, says her Bootcamp experience last year made her realize she needed more education. She has since attended an in-depth directors' course on compensation committees at Harvard University. Many business schools, including Stanford and Wharton, host directors' colleges where aspirants and sitting directors learn the basics of finance, governance, and ethics.

Ultimately, what gets you a board seat is your experience and verve, not your attendance at a seminar. But the prep can help you get in shape for the search.

By Toddi Gutner

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