Columbia Business School, an AESC and BlueSteps partner, hosted an event on February 9, 2015 about board leadership. This was moderated by Karen Greenbaum, President and CEO of the AESC. The panelists included Patrick Prout, President and CEO of the Prout Group, Carrie Pryor, Managing Director of Greenwhich Harbour Partners, and George Willbanks, Managing Partner of Willbanks Partners, LLC.
During the event, the panelists revealed the process boards use to fill seats, the qualities they look for in candidates, and how to prepare you for board service. Click here to watch the recording or read below for the top advice given during the event.

Process for Filling Board Seats

Understand what the process is, and where the center of power lies. Generally the chair of the nominating committee is the decision maker when it comes to board seats, so the center of power usually lies with him or her. If you understand the process, you are better able to navigate your career. This will also bring you to recognize where the center of power lies and, in that, you can begin building those relationships and your own personal strategy.

The process: Searches are becoming more transparent, so you will know if a search firm is considering you for a position. Generally the process is as follows:

  1. The search firm will work closely with the CEO and/or nominating committee to identify what the role is and the type of person they require to fill it.
  2. The search firm will compile a list of potential candidates and contact them, asking if they are interested in sitting on that particular board.
  3. If you are interested, the search firm will give you information about the company, the job specification, pay, etc.
  4. Since the process has become more transparent you will often know how many people you’re competing against for the role.

Diversity matters. C-suite leadership, chairman, and board members are recognizing the importance of diversity both in the workforce and on the board. They are recognizing the value of diversity not only of gender, race and religion, but of experience and background. When it comes to filling a board, diversity is also becoming a part of the equation.

Qualities and Skills Boards Look for in Candidates

What drives the business? When it comes to choosing members to fill board seats, companies look for what drives the business – sales, marketing, technology, international vendors, etc. Therefore, they look for people who are cutting edge in those areas and can make contributions to the company.

A specific skill set. The best practice today is to have 10-15 members on the board; this means that each seat comes with a set of expectations and responsibilities that need to be administered and fulfilled, whether these are industry or function-based, etc.

Wisdom and good judgement. Boards are looking for people with wisdom and experience in passing judgement on strategic processes. They want someone who has experience in governance, who can look at the broader picture of risk, and is able to represent its members and shareholders.


  • Think about what you can bring to the table, where do your skill set and expertise lie?
  • How can you market and differentiate yourself from other competitors?
  • It goes beyond just having a particular skill set or expertise, you also need to think about the company and board culture – how would you fit in?

How to Become Board-Ready

Gain experience. You may know people who have started their own companies; expressing an interest in getting on their board can be a great starting point. Volunteer on a non-profit board; this will allow you to gain that initial leadership experience. Afterwards, you could move to member-driven boards, private company boards, and finally a public company board. Each seat will give you exposure to the board environment and will give you ample opportunity to network, showcase and project your skills, and connect with those power centers. 

Make yourself visible. Overtime, you'll built a large portfolio of expertise and board experience. The next step should be to make this known to the world. Some great ways to achieve this are through:

  • Linkedin networking
  • Publishing thought leadership articles
  • Having your bio link visible on your company/current board website

Some Final Advice

  • Don’t get frustrated; it can take a while to get on your first board.
  • It’s never too early to start planning for board service. You should decide early on where your taking your career and work on a career trajectory catered to those needs.
  • Network, Network, Network! 25%-30% of searches for board members are conducted through search firms, but that leaves around 70% of seats filled through knowing someone.
  • As a candidate, make sure you do your research to ensure the company isn’t sinking. You should also learn what the board’s culture is like and whether you are able to commit the time and energy needed for board service. Know both what you want from your board experience, and what the board wants from you—these should be aligned.


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