Women on Boards: Q&A on Turning Your Board Seat Ambitions into Reality

Three business women walking down a hallway in an office building, talking together and smiling

If you’re a woman interested in pursuing a board of directors position—whether at a corporate board table or with a nonprofit organization—you’ll need to put in the necessary time, work, and persistence to find and secure the right fit, according to Ellen Zane, MA, CEO Emeritus at Tufts Medical Center, and Laurie Pascal, MBA, MPH, Senior Lecturer on Health Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Zane and Pascal co-direct Harvard’s Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value program. In the following Q&A, they each offer their unique perspective on how to begin turning your board seat aspirations into reality. Zane speaks from the corporate board side, while Pascal gives insights into the non-profit board world.

Q: At what point in a woman’s career should she begin thinking about board membership?

Ellen Zane: Board work in the for-profit setting should be explored after one has considerable technical or leadership experience and has developed considerable expertise. Corporate boards are looking for people who have deep and distinguished accomplishments and can exercise sound judgment based on extensive experience.

Laurie Pascal: In the non-profit world, you are never too young to start thinking about a board position. Non-profit boards typically have many more committees than for-profit boards and need people with diverse experiences and who represent a range of ages. This means you can find more opportunities to sit on nonprofit boards overall.

Q: What are the benefits of serving on a board?

Ellen Zane: In the for-profit world, board compensation is one aspect but should not be the primary driver. In addition, your colleagues can broaden your life experience and can lead you to other interesting opportunities. Further, the topics you discuss within a board setting are fascinating. There is so much to learn and so much to gain from understanding how others approach work and company dynamics.

Laurie Pascal: I find non-profit board membership incredibly valuable. It’s a giving experience and also a learning one. In addition to bringing value to the organization with your existing skills, board service is also a way to enhance or build new capabilities such as reading financial statements, leadership, board governance, and industry knowledge.

Q: What skill sets beyond work experience and content knowledge can a woman cultivate to increase her value to a board?

Ellen Zane: To cultivate a for-profit seat, you’ll want to develop an “executive presence.” Your board colleagues want to associate with other members who are professional and knowledgeable and who are collaborative. How you look, speak, and present yourself all are important.

Laurie Pascal: Non-profit boards are seeking people who bring energy, passion, talent, skills, and an interest in their mission. This means that you can draw on a range of both personal and professional experiences that you can bring to an organization.

Q: How can a woman find board opportunities?

Ellen Zane: Networking is the most common path to a for-profit board seat. You should feel comfortable mentioning your interest in board work as you network, since you never know when the person sitting next to you at a civic or business event might be able to connect you to the right opportunity.

Laurie Pascal: Volunteer for organizations whose mission aligns with your values and interests so you can make key connections and demonstrate your worth. Network with other volunteers, leaders, and board members, and express your interest in the board so you can be considered when a seat becomes available.

Q: How long does it take to get a board seat?

Ellen Zane: The recruitment process for a for-profit board can be lengthy. Irrespective of your expertise, the timelines for a successful recruitment can take 6 months or more, which is how the process is designed. Be patient!

Laurie Pascal: Securing non-profit board seats can also take time, but it varies a great deal. One way to speed up the process is by being open to a variety of opportunities, rather than focusing on any one specific organization.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value, a two-day on-campus course that equips health care leaders with the skills, strategies, and competencies to secure a board directorship—and advance from there.