Getting on Board: Don't Wait Until Retirement

by Julie Graber | on 18 May 2020

One of the things I look at regularly is the number of women serving on corporate boards and executive teams. As a result of this work, I am often asked by other women for advice on securing a board seat. For women, that goal continues to be an uphill battle: only 20% of the seats on corporate boards for the largest public companies in the US are held by women, a number that has progressed slowly at best. 

The challenge I run into in advising these women is that they usually reach out to me once they are retired or when they've announced their exit from what are undoubtedly all-consuming executive positions. And unfortunately, waiting until then to think about corporate board service is often too late.

Once you’re retired, you’re off the radar screen. You aren’t active in the same professional networks. You’re not attending the same meetings or speaking at conferences. You’re not actively engaged in your field of expertise, causing many to assume that your knowledge and experience are out of date. Depending on your age when you retire, you may be closing in on a board’s mandatory retirement age; boards may wonder if it is worth the investment the company will make to onboard you if you will only be able to serve a limited number of years.

It’s not that I don’t get it. By the time women have reached the executive ranks in their field (or in academia), their plates are full. Given the limited number of women who serve at the very top, they are on everyone’s list. The research shows that the request to serve - as mentors, as speakers, on professional association advisory boards and special committees to increase the number of women in their fields - in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities - is significantly higher for women than it is for men. And that list of to-dos doesn’t begin to include family obligations. Who has time to worry about finding a board seat? 

Here’s my solution - start thinking about it now. Regardless of where you are in your career - what can you do now that will position you to serve on a board in the future?

What do you want your board bio to say?

Boards add members based on their skills and expertise, for specific and related industry experience, for access to industry networks, for specialized financial expertise - what will be your story? Even if you are focused on honing your generalist skills, is there an area of expertise you want to develop, or a type of project that you can become skilled at handling? What are boards looking for now - what might their needs be in the future?

What can you do to expand your network geographically? 

 It’s a hunch more than a fact but I think women in particular need to look for board opportunities outside of their local community. I did an analysis of women directors in my state and found that fewer than 40% of the women directors serving on the boards of companies in Ohio were residents of the state. Which means more than half of the women directors serving on our boards come from outside the state.

How can you develop your network geographically? 

  • If you company is active in multiple locations, are there projects or assignments that will give you the opportunity to work in those locations? Or ways to work with folks in those offices that will expand your network?
  • If you’ve been on the board of a local nonprofit, is there an opportunity to step up to a regional or national board seat?
  • If you’re a member of a professional association, are there opportunities to volunteer for committees or serve on conference planning teams that will put you in touch with members in other geographies (and not just US - keep in mind there’s demand for women board members internationally, especially in countries with mandatory targets/quotas).
  • If you're a member of a local chapter of a national organization, can you attend a meeting of a sister chapter when you're out of town?

Who can help? 

The easiest way to a board seat is still the old boys network (which does include a few good women). As you network with senior leadership (your company and others), know who serves on a corporate board and use the opportunity to ask them about their service (and let them know of your interest). Ask them what advice they’d give someone at your level to prepare for a board seat assignment in the future. Ask if you can circle back with them as your career progresses.

Even if you can’t serve on a corporate board until you retire, the time to lay the groundwork for that board seat is before you pack up your belongings, turn out the lights, and sign out for the last time.

Tags:  Getting on Board