Becoming a Director Is a Career Choice

Mary Agnes Wilderotter had a good job as vice president for sales at a small start-up technology company serving the cable industry. She had a good education and parents who encouraged her and her three sisters to be successful. “Ambition is part of femininity,” their mother taught them, and each daughter was expected to find her own path to success. Early on, Maggie Wilderotter decided she wanted to be a director.

That approach has worked well for the chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications (NASDAQ:FTR) who has served on 23 public company boards in the past 28 years.

According to Wilderotter, just as an ambitious individual develops a career plan that builds upon each successive job of increasing responsibility as a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of being a C-Suite executive or CEO, the search for a board seat should follow the same path. Some begin with a private or nonprofit board, moving to a small public company board and ultimately a larger public company board.

Today, Wilderotter chairs her own board at Frontier Communications and serves on the boards of Xerox Corp. and the Procter & Gamble Company.

It’s clear that there’s nothing casual about becoming a corporate director: It should be part of a larger career plan.

C. Kim Goodwin agrees. She joined Mellon Bank in 1987 and during her first week on the job, she was invited to attend a career strategy session for women and minorities. The Princeton graduate with an M.B.A. and a master’s of public administration from the University of Texas remembers seeing a diagram of a pyramid with “CEO/Board of Directors” at the top. She was surprised later to learn that she was the only course participant aspiring to rise to that level.

Like Wilderotter, Goodwin took charge of her career with the strategic goal of becoming a director. She sought more responsibility and harder jobs, which sometimes meant moving: from Mellon she went to Putnam Investments as senior vice president and portfolio manager, then to American Century Investments as managing director and chief investment officer, then to State Street Research as managing director and CIO. At that point, she decided to “check in” with three CEO’s who knew her well. Was a board seat a valid objective for her? Not only did they endorse the idea, but they became active supporters of her candidacy.

Goodwin understood technology, as she had consistently picked winning companies in this industry for her clients’ investment portfolios. While presenting on a panel with the former CEO of Akamai Technologies, George Conrades, Goodwin decided to make inquiries. She told the search firm partner who had organized the event that if Akamai were ever looking for a director, she would love to serve. Because of her initiative and simultaneous conversations at Akamai, the search firm formally proposed Goodwin for candidacy, and she joined the Akamai board at age 44.

Goodwin values what she has learned as a board member. She regards Conrades and director Martin Coyne as mentors and supporters. Coyne endorses Goodwin as “a model director who is well versed in business issues, well prepared and actively participates. Her financial, international, risk management and business experience adds considerable value to our board discussions.”

When Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management decided that alumni clubs were a great tactic in strengthening relationships with former students, Blythe McGarvie, then in her 20s, jumped in as one of the founders of the first club. “As program director, I did everything — arranging programs, speakers, helping with membership.” Her raised profile caught the attention of the university, which sought to recruit her to the Board of Trustees in 1985, a remarkable achievement for a 29-year-old. When she asked what brought her to the board’s attention, she learned it was her passion for her graduate school and willingness to contribute.

A recruiter asked her to consider a director role at a private company that wanted to add her retail experience to its board. She declined, saying she would wait for a public board seat. But the recruiter persuaded her to talk to the CEO.

“The recruiter was right,” said McGarvie. “Dick Wood is an extraordinary leader. Wawa Inc. is private, yet they operate with all the discipline of a public company.” She joined the board in 1998 and is still on it, serving as the company has grown revenue from $1 billion to $9 billion. “Like my first marriage, it was my first board and I’m going to keep it.”

Bob Hallagan, vice chairman and managing director of board leadership services at Korn Ferry International, says his best advice for directors looking for a second board seat is, “Be an extraordinary director” on your first board.

When Hallagan talks to CEO’s and chairmen, he often asks, “Who is your best director and why?”

“Those rated as exceptional directors are bright, engaged and accessible; they challenge management, but in a respectful way,” said Hallagan.

In light of difficulty in finding top talent for boards, Hallagan noted that more and more of his clients are doing long-term board succession planning. Anticipating future gaps in the board’s competency —  because of changes in business model or upcoming retirements — has paid off for clients. “As one client noted, you can always expand the board by one for a short period of time if it means not losing an exceptional candidate,” he said.

While CEO’s remain the most-recruited group, the talent supply is limited, according to Hallagan. His team is now going to highly successful companies, working with the heads of human resources and identifying high potentials. “They will be exposed to best practices, have histories of making good decisions, and through NACD [National Association of Corporate Directors] and other educational programs, we can help educate them on good governance.”

Human resources executives represent another new talent pool, said Hallagan. “Ensuring a company has the right CEO leadership and an environment that attracts top talent is a key driver of shareholder value,” he said. “This topic increasingly has to be a top priority agenda for boards, and HR executives can certainly add value.”

To the uninitiated, getting on a board may appear daunting, but Wilderotter is fond of saying, “You’ve got to fish where the fish are.” By that she means, those seeking director positions need to get to know the current board members of the company. She also says it’s crucial to know what you offer. “It’s not an elevator speech, but it requires that you know where you are going and how you add value. It requires research and thinking of the matrix of skills that the current board possesses.”

Once again, Wilderotter made the Fortune Magazine list of the “50 Most Powerful Women.” The magazine points out that nearly everyone on the list is “striving to reinvent her business,” but this group of executives is not sitting still.

The magazine noted that Wilderotter, at No. 40, “remains a respected corporate voice.” 

Authors

  • Karen Kane

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute