Last month, BlueSteps hosted their annual board search webinar discussion, Top Tips for Gaining Your Board Seat. Moderated by the AESC President, Peter Felix, the webinar dispensed valuable advice to the 1000+ executives from around the world who registered.

Joining Peter was a distinguished panel comprised of Jeanne Sullivan, Special Advisor and Co-Founder of StarVest Partners, Lee Hanson, Vice Chairman and Partner at Heidrick & Struggles, and Margaret Pederson, President of Amirexx. Each of our four panelists also hold extensive and varied experience of not only placing executives on boards, but in being board members themselves.

The discussion focused on the key issue of how to gain a board seat, the challenges involved, and how to devise the best strategy for board success – a key interest for many executives across the world.

The panel also focused on the recent changes that have affected the way that boards conduct themselves. Factors surrounding the Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX) have changed the way management and boards perceive their responsibility, as stricter penalties for malpractice have led to a more standardized approach to recruiting new board members. The change in term/age limits on boards has also led to changes in the boardroom. The age limit for boards increased from 70 to 72, which means that there are less board positions, as directors are holding their positions longer than before.

What are executive search professionals looking for in their board candidates?

Most boards and search consultants today are looking to develop a well-balanced board, with a diversity of thought, experience, expertise and skills. They appreciate executives who demonstrate independence, functional skills, and in many cases, relevant geographical knowledge and international experience. Search consultants are hoping to find candidates who are compatible with the CEO, because due to the increased engagement between the board and the CEO, it is vital to have a healthy relationship with the CEO and be in agreement with their style of leadership.

Other attributes that search consultants seek in executive candidates is the ability to understand and contain risk.

As most modern companies seek to expand globally, having an understanding of the digital/mobile world is also a huge advantage.

Technology and social media skills are in demand, with lots of industries specifically searching for people with these skills. This may also be advantageous for younger people, or those earlier in their careers, to convince a board that they have something unique to bring to the table. Executive search professionals and boards are also keen to consider candidates who show great potential.

The panel also discussed the fact that in many countries, the search for a new board member will have to comply with stringent new rules regarding gender and diversity quotas, particularly in Europe. It has been proven that boards significantly benefit from having a proportion of female members. Social perceptiveness and the evenness of conversational participation are just a few highly sought-after skills that women are more likely to possess.

In terms of making sure that candidates possess the skills that they claim to, it was also stressed that references are always checked when recruiting a new board member. During this process, search professionals find out if the executive comes prepared to meetings, are effective and articulate, are solution focused, and have resources and partnerships that they can offer the board.

Are You Ready to Join a Board?

Board Director TipIt’s not only executive search consultants who should do their due diligence. Once one has joined a board, it’s not so simple to leave. Before joining, executives should make sure that it is a board that they definitely want to be a part of and something they feel passionate about.

So if you are ready to join a board and know that you have the time and commitment required, you should set about making a clear strategy for gaining a board seat. In order to do this, our panel advised that executives think about three key things:

1) what is your knowledge background,

2) what do you feel passionate about, and

3) do you like and respect the CEO of the company?

As part of this strategy, board candidates also need to pin-point exactly what they can offer the existing board, and what makes them a unique and attractive candidate.

If you have not had any previous board experience, obtaining a first board seat can seem like a difficult task, but making those around you aware of your board aspirations can be a first step towards success. It is often the case that recruiters are redirected by executives to other executives who are known to be looking for a position. Recruiters are particularly interested in executives who come highly recommended by people they respect, so the more people who know about an executive’s board aspirations, the more likely it is that they will be recommended.

Like with any career move, candidates will also be assessed heavily on whether they are the right cultural fit for the board, and if they are able to match company values. This can often be deduced by how the executive manages their responsibilities within their own company. Factors which may be a focus could include issues such as whether they retain female partners by giving them flex time, and other qualities that can be clearly measured.

When should executives start putting their board seat acquisition strategy into place?

Our panel highly recommends that executives do not wait until they are leaving for retirement. The most successful executives plan well ahead of this stage, ensuring that they make the most of their networks. Other advice included joining databases, particularly for female executives looking to engage in board work. There are a lot of databases and groups that women can now join to assist their aspirations, such as Catalyst, Women in the Boardroom and Global Board Ready Women, to name a few.

For those wishing to approach executive search consultants, our panel recommends that speculative emails addressed to search consultants are as targeted as possible. Search consultants are inundated with executives who send automatically generated emails containing a generic resume and cover letter every day. This type of impersonal email is often ignored. Executive search professionals are more likely to respond to emails that include lines such as ‘I noticed that on your website it says that you focus on…’

It is worth noting that while executive search professionals are able to present candidates to their client, the board, it is the board who make the final decision.


About BlueSteps
BlueSteps is the exclusive service of the AESC that puts senior executives on the radar screen of over 8,000 executive search professionals in more than 75 countries. Be visible, and be considered for over 90,000 opportunities handled by AESC search firms every year. Find out more at



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