Boards were already undergoing some big changes in the decade that just passed, from selecting directors with different skills to focusing more on strategy. Then COVID-19 hit, followed by an eruption of protests over racial injustice—two events that blew open the challenges boards had to navigate and the kind of director firms needed.
According to Jane Stevenson, vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice, boards are looking for more directors who are experts in sustainability, cybersecurity, supply chains, and other areas, and in the process are considering a much broader spectrum of backgrounds and profiles. That includes diverse candidates, of course, and more first-time directors.
But some of the old rules still apply. “Boards are not changing their selection criteria,” says Stevenson. Whether for a multinational or a start-up, some of the rules for breaking-in are fairly similar:
Focus on service.
Oftentimes, one’s interest in becoming a director is about creating another notch on the leadership belt, says Stevenson. But boards can smell director candidates who are in it for themselves and not the company before they even log in to Zoom. Instead, focus on service. Boards not only want to know how you can help them steer the company, says Stevenson, “they also want to know that is your main interest.”
Get board ready.
Pretty much every business school offers some kind of certificate program for aspiring directors. “Take one,” advises Ayana Parsons, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services and Consumer practices, “but then take it one step further.” Look into becoming a board observer—someone who can attend and participate in board meetings but isn’t allowed to vote—at your own company, for instance.
Deliver on diversity.
The pressure on boards to appoint directors from underrepresented groups is more intense than ever. And while they are obviously prioritizing appointing more women and racially diverse directors, they are also looking for candidates with a proven track record in building diverse teams. As boards seek to incorporate diversity metrics into incentive awards and get more involved in talent decisions beyond the C-suite, “showing how you cultivated equity and inclusion is extremely valuable,” says Parsons.
Not everyone can be a director of a Fortune 500 or even Russell 3000 company. Despite age and term restrictions designed to increase director turnover, vacancies are still limited. Stevenson says aspiring directors, particularly first-timers, shouldn’t dismiss private or nonprofit boards. In terms of attributes and committees, they largely mirror their public-company counterparts. “They are a great place to get exposure, presentation experience, and visibility into the preparation needed from a director perspective,” she says. And the service will make you more attractive when the right public-company directorship comes along.
Find your special sauce.
While boards still prize operational and financial experience, they are increasingly looking for new directors with specialized skills. The pandemic, for instance, underscored the need for directors with supply chain expertise or experience with a digital transformation. Corporate strategy experts are in demand right now, says Parsons, as are deal specialists as companies emerging from the pandemic seek to buy growth, go public, or sell out. Other hot areas include cybersecurity, risk mitigation, and regulation. “Boards are looking to fill vacancies with directors who can solve specific challenges,” says Parsons.