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How to Join a Corporate Board

Executives who aspire to board service, or are just beginning to serve on boards, must start their journey with realistic expectations. Forget about the Fortune 500. Start small and local is the advice given by Lynn Utter, BBA ’84, president and COO of Knoll North America.

“Early in my career I began serving on advisory boards for my alma maters, UT and Stanford. Then, a few years later I joined nonprofit boards, including the Mile High United Way’s Board of Trustees and the Committee of 200 Governing Board,” Utter explains. “About five years ago I was recruited to serve on for-profit boards and eventually ended up accepting a position as an outside director for WESCO International, a publicly traded Fortune 500 company.”

But just being willing and able to serve does not mean you have what boards are looking for.

“It is not sufficient to assume that if you are smart, have solid business experience and are well educated that you are a good candidate for board service,” Utter says. “You need a track record of operational experience in the C-suite and of having contributed to entities outside of your primary day job in a meaningful fashion.”

When looking for new members, some boards will seek out an executive with a specific skill set; or, if they are looking to diversify the board, they may target a female or a minority. In many cases, boards retain search firms to do the digging for them—a trend that has increased because of the uptick in demand for independent directors. As such, it is crucial for executives interested in serving on boards to network themselves with search firms.

“Every major headhunting firm, and many smaller ones, now has a board practice. I encourage anyone interested in being a director to sign up with a firm like that,” says William H. Cunningham, a professor of marketing who currently serves as a director for Lincoln Financial, Southwest Airlines and John Hancock. For an in-depth look at the state of corporate boards today, read our article "The Hot Seat."

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