01 Jun 2006
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Getting on Board

Finding a seat at the table
by Deborah Blagg

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Membership on a corporate or advisory board seems like a natural fit for MBAs with solid managerial skills and career experience. But according to the experts, unless you are a prominent CEO, finding a seat at the boardroom table today requires considerable effort.

“People often hope a company will come to them,” notes Susan Stautberg, president of PartnerCom Corporation, which assembles and manages advisory boards. “Before Sarbanes-Oxley and the outcry for better governance, you might have been tapped just because you knew influential people. But now the demand is for executives with specific skills and impartial judgment.”

Stautberg and Carolyn Chin (MBA ’71) were featured speakers at a recent HBS Club of Greater New York presentation on board membership strategies. Chin, a consultant and professional options trader, currently serves on five corporate boards. Together with Stautberg, she leads a popular series of “On Board Bootcamp” seminars for aspiring board members. (The next is June 26–27 in New York City.)

Both women stress that launching a successful board career requires some preliminary research. “You have to be honest about your motivations and expectations,” Chin notes. “Know what you want and how much you are willing to invest.” Carefully weigh advisory board versus corporate board service. “Corporate board compensation is higher,” says Stautberg, “but the risks, responsibilities, and time commitment — 200–250 hours a year for corporate board members — are also higher.”

Chin adds that advisory boards can be a way to get around the Catch-22 of needing board experience before one’s corporate board candidacy is taken seriously. “By serving on advisory boards for large, brand-name organizations,” she says, “you can gain credibility to pave the way for corporate board consideration.”

As you organize your campaign, Stautberg says, “It’s best to cast a wide net. Networking is essential,” she emphasizes. “Who knows you and respects your capabilities? If you have a positive relationship with lawyers or accountants who work for a variety of firms, they can be very effective advocates.”

When your search narrows to a particular organization, use the interview process to discover as much as you can about its culture, priorities, and problems. “Find out how the company makes its money,” urges Stautberg. “Do you agree with its mission? What are the problems that keep the CEO up at night?”

A strong advocate for increased board member diversity, Chin cites a recent Catalyst study which showed that companies with boards that are diverse in terms of gender, race, and perspective have better overall profitability. “Look for skill and diversity gaps that you can fill,” she advises, “but make sure that the organization will value your contributions. Read the directors’ bios and talk with people who know them. Is it a rubber-stamp board, or do members speak their minds? Is this a place where you can make a difference?”

With aging demographics among current board members (nearly 10 percent of the directors of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies are 70 or older), Stautberg and Chin believe there will be many opportunities for Harvard MBAs to make a difference through board service in the next few years. “If you haven’t considered it before,” advises Chin, “now is a great time to start.”

— Deborah Blagg

To learn more about the On Board Bootcamp, visit www.onboardbootcamp.com.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1971, Section J

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