Landing Board Seats: A Practical Guide
By Mike Lorelli
If you’re interested in serving on a Board, the process can be intimidating. The good news – it’s much more manageable when you break the process down into a few key steps:
- Decide which Boards best fit your experience and style
- Make your marketing materials ‘Board sticky’
- Market yourself
What type of board are you best suited for?
Many people who have aspirations for Board work start by making a list of which public company Boards they would enjoy. While that’s a good place to start I would urge you to first acquaint yourself with the facts. According to a 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, there were only 3,671 public companies with over $500 million in revenue in the U.S., down from 7,332 in 1996. During that same timeframe private equity quietly exploded and today there are roughly 33,000 portfolio companies, 85% with Boards. Venture Capital, to complete the picture, has approximately 8,000 portfolio companies with Boards in place for about 85% of them.
Implication? Fish where the fish are. Private equity is a good place to hunt. You don’t need to be the sitting CEO of another Fortune 25, or a retired military general, to be a good candidate for a private equity Board. that typically have only two, or at most three, outside directors, vs. public companies that may have seven. But still, the private equity math is compelling. When my alma mater, PepsiCo, needs an outside director they will likely tell their search firm that they only want to see sitting CEOs of other Fortune 50s. In contrast, private equity boards are less concerned with finding a marquee name, and more interested in finding two or three terrific people. Only 22% of private equity portfolio company’s outside directors are sitting CEOs.
I’m certainly not suggesting that you can’t make it onto a public company’s board. Rather, it’s a game of odds, and there are only 24 hours in a day. How do you want to spend the time?
Making your marketing materials ‘Board sticky’
Getting your marketing materials ready is essential before embarking on any campaign for a Board seat. This includes five core documents:
- Board bio. This is brief, less than a page, and written ‘at 30,000 feet.’ The bio should include a professional headshot and reek of your impact.
- Board resume. In contrast to your usual resume, this relies less on the acquisitions you made, the plant you eliminated, or the 1,000 workers you led. Rather, it carefully threads in your softer qualities—for example, high-potential employees you hired who went on the become captains of industry; people you were asked to mentor or chose to take under your wing; and your genuine interest in coaching.
- Value proposition. This is your fifteen-second elevator speech on why a company should want you on its board, not why you want to be on a Board. Think about a ‘they proposition,’ not a ‘me proposition.’
- Email introduction letter. If you choose to do an outbound email campaign, keep it short—half a page, max. Readership is inversely proportional to email length.
- The all-important LinkedIn profile: Your profile has to be ‘board sticky,’ and your outside director ambitions need to be explicit. Listing any board experience, including non-profits, makes it sticky.
The hardest part: Marketing yourself
An outbound marketing campaign takes work, and there is no easy way out. Begin with making your board interest known to, at least 50 people you know well, who are in the right circles. Each of them knows 500 power-people like you. What are the odds of your name being on the tip of their tongue when they hear of a Board need? Zero unless you make sure they are aware of your interest. Before you say you don’t know 50 such people, think about:
- Everyone you know on who sits on a board
- Every CEO you know
- All law firms you have engaged personally or through your company
- Past and present audit firms and accountants
- All recruiters, even those not known for board placements (ask them to put you in their firm’s director database)
- All colleagues, including former subordinates, in high places
- Industry colleagues
- Peers in all of your peer groups
Next, network with as many private equity firms as you can. Every new deal means a board needs to be created, and that spells a need for two or three new independent directors.
Two key takeaways
There are two key takeaway messages I want to leave you with.
- You need to carefully put together your messaging before entering the marketplace
- You should put some serious time into considering the private equity sector.
After two tours of duty as a PepsiCo division president, I have found the private equity world to be extremely engaging, stimulating, challenging, and financially rewarding as a portfolio company CEO, an operating partner, and as a board member.
Mike Lorelli is an Eleven Canterbury Executive Expert. He is presently an Operating Partner of Falconhead Capital, and on the Boards of iControl, Cannabiniers and the Connecticut Chapter of NACD. He served two PepsiCo division president roles before segueing to private equity.