Wisdom, warmth, and humor flowed on Thursday morning when three dis­tin­guished pan­elists sat down in the Egan Research Center to dis­cuss strate­gies for women who want to join boards of direc­tors of public, pri­vate, and non­profit com­pa­nies. Mod­er­ated by top exec­u­tive coach Priscilla H. Dou­glas, CPS’70, MEd’74, the ses­sion helped audi­ence mem­bers explore not just what com­pa­nies look for in board direc­tors but how they can pre­pare for roles in these posi­tions and assess what open­ings might be right for them.

Joining a board is a two-​​way rela­tion­ship,” said Michael Jeans, board director of AMICA Insur­ance and former pres­i­dent and chairman emer­itus of New Direc­tions Inc. “It’s about giving as well as receiving. It’s not ‘Here’s what I want’; it’s ‘Here’s what I can bring to the board.’”

The event, part of the Women who Inspire Speaker Series, was titled “Recruiting Beyond the C-​​Suite: How Do Win­ning Com­pa­nies Recruit to Max­i­mize Board Effec­tive­ness?” It was co-​​hosted by the Boston Club, an orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to diver­si­fying lead­er­ship at For­tune 500 com­pa­nies, and 2020 Women on Boards, a national non­profit cre­ated to raise the per­centage of women on cor­po­rate boards to 20 per­cent by the year 2020.

Douglas—a member of the Cor­po­ra­tion at North­eastern and board director of Leader Bank and the Mass­a­chu­setts Tech­nology Collaborative—guided the pan­elists through a series of provoca­tive ques­tions addressing the rec­i­p­rocal rela­tion­ship that is board mem­ber­ship. Here are some of them.

How do you get on a board?

Net­working, the pan­elists agreed, is one of the pri­mary ways to get on a board—and net­working, they stressed, means not sending out numerous emails but devel­oping and main­taining ongoing rela­tion­ships with everyone from exec­u­tive recruiters and lawyers to col­leagues from past and present jobs.

11/19/15 - BOSTON, MA. -  Scenes during the Women Who Inspire Speaker Series event: Recruiting Beyond the C-Suite: How do Winning Companies Recruit to Maximize Board Effectiveness? held in the Raytheon Amphitheater at Northeastern University on Nov. 19, 2015. Panelists included: Michelle Stacy, Board Director, iRobotCorp, Tervis Tumbler, Young Innovations, Inc., Corvine, Michael Jeans, Board Director, AMICA Insurance, Ellen Richstone, Board Director BioAmber & eMagin, and moderator Priscilla H. Douglas, Ed'70, MEd'74, Executive Coach & Author P.H. Douglas Associates.  Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A panel of board direc­tors addressed a full house at the Egan Research Center in the latest Women Who Inspire Speaker Series event. Photo by Matthew Moodono/​Northeastern University

Eighty per­cent of board seats are filled through net­working,” said Michelle Stacy, board director of iRobot Cor­po­ra­tion, Tervis Tum­bler, Coravin, and Young Inno­va­tions Inc. “Every con­nec­tion you make is a poten­tial place where you might get a board appointment.”

Indeed, Stacy said, some­times com­pa­nies, hearing about you through that net­work, will come to you “because they see a strategic fit—you have the exper­tise the com­pany is looking for.” That’s how she came to join the board of iRobot, she said: The com­pany needed her con­sumer back­ground, which she’d gained in sev­eral posi­tions, including as pres­i­dent of Keurig, a $2 bil­lion divi­sion of Keurig Green Mountain.

Con­sider: What is the exper­tise strate­gi­cally, busi­ness­wise, that you’re bringing and find the net­working bridge that goes in that direc­tion,” she said.

How do you network?

Ellen Rich­stone, board director of Vioamber, eMagin, Pro­teck Val­u­a­tion Ser­vices, and Pax­er­amed, sug­gested taking your cue from cor­po­rate exec­u­tives themselves.

Think about it from a gov­er­nance per­spec­tive,” said Rich­stone, who is the former CEO of Entre­pre­neurial Resources Group and former chief finan­cial officer for sev­eral public and pri­vate com­pa­nies. “Com­pa­nies go through a com­plex matrix process in choosing board mem­bers: What do we need in global skills, industry exper­tise, now and going for­ward?” Then, she said, they look at those cur­rently on the board and do a “gap” analysis—what exper­tise is missing? Next they develop a “pipeline” of pos­sible can­di­dates. “The pipeline,” she con­cluded, “comes back to networking.”

What is the work of a board?

While the pan­elists were careful to stress that every board is dif­ferent, they noted some gen­er­al­i­ties regarding com­mit­ment: Five to six board meet­ings a year as well as indi­vidual com­mittee meet­ings, some of which may involve travel, and about 400 pages of mate­rial to read before board-​​director meet­ings. Prepa­ra­tion is cru­cial, said Stacy. “You are on your own. At the meeting, you must dive right into dis­cussing the key issues.”

Jeans cited a survey from the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Cor­po­rate Direc­tors, noting that board ser­vice, on average, is 250 hours per year.

It’s a job,” said Rich­stone, adding with a laugh, “but you have no staff. You really have to eval­uate the needs and your time.”

Every con­nec­tion you make is a poten­tial place where you might get a board appoint­ment.
— board director Michelle Stacy

The type of issues boards cover run the gamut. Jeans, in his role on AMICA’s audit com­mittee, under­lined the impor­tance of risk man­age­ment. “I make sure the right ques­tions are asked,” he said. This con­cerns not only finan­cial aspects, he added, but rep­u­ta­tion risk, cat­a­strophic risk, and the risk of losing key talent.

Stacy brought up the impor­tance of suc­ces­sion plan­ning: How will the com­pany move for­ward as roles in the C-suite—the senior-​​executive positions—change? “You may be asked as well to spend time with people in the C-​​suite, to under­stand their skills,” she said.

How do you pre­pare to be on a board?

An audi­ence member won­dered how she might go about acquiring the skills to serve on a board, given that she was not yet a senior exec­u­tive. The pan­elists pro­vided a range of suggestions:

  • Serve on the board of a nonprofit or a small private company. There you can learn about decision-making, how to interact with board members, and ways to make a board dynamic. “As a byproduct, someone may know of a corporate board looking for someone with your skills,” said Jeans.
  • Serve on an advisory board of a company or an organization.
  • Strive in your workplace to reach the highest level of responsibility. If you can’t be a CEO or a chief operating officer, get to the point where you run a division or are a subject matter expert, perhaps a research-and-development or marketing pro.
  • Educate yourself by attending learning sessions at the Boston Club and from NACD materials.

Closing the dis­cus­sion, Jeans pro­vided three key ques­tions to ask your­self in assessing any board posi­tion: “Are you learning? Can you have an impact? Are you having fun?”