How to Get on a Board

CFOs may seem like strong director candidates, but few actually make the final cut. How can they improve their chances?

Sliced another way, the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) found last year that 21% of public-company board members considered CFO experience critical — which sounds good in theory, but puts it a distant second behind CEO experience, which 48% ranked as critical.

One thing that hinders some CFOs from being top candidates is that few now serve on their own companies’ boards, given the push for fewer insiders and more independent directors. That limited boardroom exposure is also “what limits strong [business-unit] executives from sitting on boards,” notes Kolder.

Meanwhile, Hibner’s dilemma of whether to keep looking for a CFO job or just pursue board opportunities is the product of two opposing forces in nearly all board searches. On one hand, companies more than ever want someone who is still “in the chair,” says Kolder, because they “want to know that whomever they bring in is living through the same chaos they are.”

On the other hand, CFOs who have recently left a position may be more marketable if they say they are retiring instead of looking for another job. “Taking on a board seat is a lot of work on top of taking on a new job, so [companies] want the person to be settled in their new gig before joining a board,” says Kolder. Also, since that new full-time opportunity could end up being with a competitor, “you’d hate to get conflicted out and have to quit the board before you’ve really even served on it,” adds Reilly.

Becoming Visible

Even more important than job status may be the marketing strategy an executive uses to find board opportunities. “CFOs represent a uniquely talented group of director candidates,” says Joseph Daniel McCool, head of The McCool Group, which consults with companies and boards on their recruiting processes. “But having said that, CFOs need to be visible, not only in their organizations but within their own industry circles.”

There are both good ways and bad ways of being visible, of course. Having a job is a good way; signing up for a few select databases of aspiring board members might be another. The NACD, for example, maintains a database that is increasingly being tapped by boards, says Doreen Kelly-Ruyak, director of marketing for the group. “We successfully made 50 matches last year,” she says. The group expects that number “to increase dramatically as boards become more concerned with employing an independent process” for finding new members, she adds.

However, McCool warns against posting résumés too freely on online networks or databases to avoid being seen as a “wannabe” director. “CFOs need to be judicious in terms of who they’re sharing their résumés with and to not be seen as too aggressive in pursuing opportunities,” he says.

Indeed, Eileen Kamerick, finance chief of Tecta America, says her first board invitation came indirectly, when an auditing firm she had worked with was asked to provide the CEO of Westell Technologies with director recommendations. She has now been a member of Westell’s board for seven years. “There’s no way to really plan this; it’s a matter of being opportunistic and making your interests known,” says Kamerick, who also serves on the boards of Associated Bancorp and Bostwick Laboratories.

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