How to Get on a Corporate Board

As I travel to different parts of the country for speaking engagements and conferences, I’ve noticed a growing trend. An increasing number of women have been asking me about what steps they can take to land a board seat—particularly on a corporate board.

It’s a timely question, since the latest research on women and boards released in February showed only a very small increase in the percentage of board seats held by women. A new report from Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity found that in 2016, women and minorities occupied less than one-third (31 percent) of board seats in Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile, the usual pattern continues of white men continuing to claim the vast majority (over two-thirds) of corporate board posts.

The study did reflect some modest growth for women over the last four years—particularly for Caucasian women and African American women (up 21.2 percent and 18.4 percent, respectively, since 2012). Yet for all the talk of diversity and inclusion at the upper ranks, the tides aren’t turning fast enough.

As Ronald C. Parker, chairman of the Alliance for Board Diversity said in The New York Times about the latest data: “With the current rate of progress, we aren’t likely to see the number of minorities and women increase to our target of 40 percent representation until the year 2026. This is not acceptable. Corporations need to do more to keep pace with the country’s changing demographics.”

While companies need to do much more to create a culture that promotes inclusive leadership, there are steps that women can take in parallel to increase their chances of gaining a coveted seat on a corporate board. Here are some strategies discussed in more detail in my most recent book, Make Room for Her:

  • Bust your own myths. Many women inadvertently hold themselves back from their own board potential by believing outdated myths, like thinking they need to be part of the “old boys’ network” to be viable for a board position. This isn’t true. Instead of feeling excluded from the network, put in some sweat equity building your own. Personal connections with senior executives are what you need to facilitate your progress toward a board seat. Begin with your own professional network, and request introductions toward senior-level decision makers in your field, including existing board members. You can also meet the movers and shakers by participating in professional associations for your industry, and cultivating relationships with professional recruiters.
  • Get on the right escalator. In Make Room For Her, I emphasize that it’s important to get on the right “escalator” in your corporate career. While staying status quo in your current position might be comfortable and appealing in the short term, if you’re targeting board membership, you need to know what direction you want to go and then take appropriate steps to get there. For example, having a job that has P & L responsibility or a role that allows you to strategically grow the business are key qualities that position one for a board seat. This may require you to look at your career path differently and opporutnies that you are currently pursuing.  Once you’re ready to move out of your comfort zone and can see yourself as a board member, then it’s time to stop letting others determine your career path. If you’re on the wrong escalator—one that won’t set you up with experience and exposure for greater leadership opportunities—be willing to step off of it. As you transition to the right escalator, you might consider volunteering for a nonprofit board, serving on a local startup board, or participating for a board training program to help better position yourself for board candidacy.
  • Leverage your personal power. In conjunction with positioning yourself for board leadership through your network connections and boosting your qualifying skills, it’s important to tap into your personal power and grow your influence within your organization. By enhancing your professional profile through self-promotion and seeking greater visibility, you will be positioning yourself as a subject matter expert in your industry. You can do this by:
    • Translating your industry or job-related knowledge into value for others.
    • Thinking beyond your technical or functional knowledge to broaden your overall business insights and experience.
    • In key meetings, determining where you can bring value to specific leadership initiatives.
    • Finding opportunities to be quoted in industry press—according to 2020 Women on Boards, those conducting board searches often turn to media to see who is being quoted as an industry expert.

In short, to get noticed and ultimately selected for a corporate board, you need to be known within your industry as well as qualified for the role. Since qualified executive women are generally less well known than men in the same industry positions, they may get overlooked. By taking the steps above, you’ll be doing what you can to get on the radar screen for nominating committees and advance your board candidacy.

Rebecca is an internationally acclaimed and sought-after keynote speaker, leadership expert and contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post.

Learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s leadership solutions and how they can build and sustain gender balance across your organization. Accelerate your female talent through SHAMBAUGH’s customized In-House Leadership Programs for women and our signature Women in Leadership and Learning (WILL) Program. For more information visit:

Rebecca is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky FloorLeadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.


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Rebecca Shambaugh

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