Exploring Opportunities for Women on Boards: 7 Tips to Help Jump-Start Your Efforts

Woman presenting to board of directors

If you’re a female executive in the health care field looking toward the next phase of your career, you might want to explore opportunities to secure a board directorship. This can be a natural progression to take your extensive management and leadership experience to the next level, according to Ellen Zane, past president and chief executive officer of Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital and co-program director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value.

When you secure a board membership, you are also taking an important step to help enhance the skills and perspectives brought by female representation. A report by Deloitte, an international professional services organization, in conjunction with the Alliance for Board Diversity, found that in 2020 just 26.5 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies were held by women. This is despite the fact that companies with more women on their boards financially outperformed their counterparts during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research published by BoardReady, a not-for-profit strategy firm helping companies achieve board diversity. Other studies have similarly found that increased female presence improves a company’s value and performance, which benefits everyone. Zane points out that the many strengths women bring to the table include good listening skills, empathy, forward-thinking and strategic decision-making.

That’s why she and Co-Program Director Laurie Pascal, MBA, MPH, and Senior Lecturer in Health Management at the Harvard Chan School—as well as the former VP of Business Development & Planning and VP of Radiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—encourages and prepares qualified women to pursue occasions to increase their presence in the boardroom.

Growing Opportunities for Women on Boards

The good news is that over the past few years, board opportunities for women, as well as for underrepresented minorities and younger people, have increased. Zane also points out that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, most boards now meet remotely at least part of the time and are likely to continue a hybrid format going forward. This makes it easier for women to participate while juggling other responsibilities.

But she and Pascal both stress that before investing the time to solicit a board position, it’s important to truly understand what board membership entails, so you can make a thoughtful decision about whether to pursue this direction—and if so, what type of board will ultimately be the best fit for your interests and experience. For instance, Pascal says women need to know what board service requires and how it works, including the legal, operating and regulatory differences among different types of boards and companies. They also need to understand the differences between for-profit companies (including private-equity and venture-backed firms) and not-for-profit organizations.

Understanding Different Types of Boards

While all board directors have governance and fiduciary oversight responsibilities, one of the biggest differences is that private companies will pay you to serve on their board, while not-for-profit board members typically serve on an unpaid basis. In addition, most not-for-profit boards also expect their board members to participate in philanthropy for the organization in order to ensure the organization’s longevity.

While there is a considerable time commitment expected for all board service, serving on not-for-profit boards can sometimes involve more committee meetings and off cycle calls as the enterprises are more dependent on board expertise for their operations. For-profit boards tend to draw a clearer line between governance responsibilities of the board and the operations of the company in which the board does not get directly involved.

Not-for-profit boards are also often less flexible, requiring members to attend more meetings and get more involved hands-on in different areas.

Further, if you prefer to be strictly in a governance role, then a private company is a good choice. On the other hand, if you want to roll up your sleeves and be a doer, Zane says, then small, for-profit startups and not-for-profit organizations can be a better option depending on the needs of the enterprise. Every company is different, and part of your due diligence is to determine what the needs are for the company you are considering, she adds.

Steps to Guide Your Search for a Board Directorship

Regardless of the type of board opportunities you want to pursue, Zane and Pascal share the following common steps to help you be more successful in your efforts:

1. Prepare a board bio to spotlight your strengths.

While your multi-page resume, curriculum vitae or list of publications may be a very comprehensive way to show your career history, when seeking board service you will need a brief and more engaging summary of your experiences. This overview should capture your career highlights and the strengths that make you unique. Remember, you are not applying for a job per se. The board bio should emphasize how your judgment and executive seasoning can make a difference for the company.

2. Bring serious managerial experience to the table.

While many people may be interested in board membership, the most valuable candidates are typically those who have 10 or more years in a leadership role that includes making strategic decisions and directing substantive operations. (However, Pascal stresses that less senior people with in-demand skills such as cyber-security may also find new opportunities, so there are some exceptions.)

3. Understand the fine line between governance and operations.

“One of the hardest things for people who come from leadership roles to grasp is that they are not running the organization when they serve on the board. Being on a board is a team sport and members have to work constructively with fellow board members and with management to enhance shareholder or stakeholder value in ethical ways,” Pascal says.

4. Be creative in identifying what unique strengths you can offer a board.

“We have heard from numerous attorneys who say they know a lot about the law and governance and think they will uniquely benefit a board. But companies have legal counsel or easy access to outside counsel and don’t necessarily believe they need that expertise from their board,” Zane says. “They want your judgment to help them think about all of the moving parts and the direction a company is going to help guide them in the best way forward.” By reframing what you can offer to fill in existing gaps on the company’s board, you will greatly increase your opportunities.

5. Keep in mind that both positive and negative experiences can bring value.

Zane says that if you have had difficult or even negative experiences (e.g., bankruptcy, cyber attacks or activism), these experiences can bring valuable insights to a company. Therefore, don’t shy away from sharing that information.

6. Recognize that not every board seat you are offered will be the right fit for you.

Take the time to consider an offer and don’t be afraid to turn it down if it doesn’t align with your goals or availability. “Do your due diligence,” Zane says. “Ask to see financial statements and meet other board members and senior members of the management teams. Your match with the board can make all the difference in having a positive experience.”

7. Take advantage of the value of networking.

While your networking style may be different during the COVID-19 pandemic, networking is still an essential part of finding opportunities. Be persistent in connecting with groups that share your interests or introduce you to new people who may further your efforts, such as the National Association of Corporate Directors. Many groups may be meeting online instead of in-person now but can still provide a great way to get noticed and make important connections.

Exercise Patience in Your Search for a Board Seat

Keep in mind that there is no silver bullet to securing a board position. Zane says that the process can typically take several years—or even longer—before you secure your first serious opportunity. Therefore, be prepared to be patient and do a lot of groundwork before the right opportunity knocks at your door.

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Sources:

Pascal, Laurie MBA, MPH, Senior Lecturer, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former VP of Business Development & Planning and VP of Radiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, co-program director, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value.

Zane, Ellen, past president and chief executive officer, Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital, co-program director, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value, a leadership program for women aiming to sit on a health care board of directors.