A Chance to Direct

CFOs often have the skills to be a board member, but that doesn't mean it's easy to find a seat.

CFOs have plenty of incentive to join a corporate board: they can expand their professional network, gain a better understanding of different business models, and perhaps bring a broader perspective to their own companies.

The pay isn’t bad, either. Last year the median pay for independent directors at Fortune 500 companies was $182,102 (excluding additional fees for sitting on particular committees), according to Equilar, a compensation-research firm. At companies below $1 billion in revenue, directors earn between $40,000 and $140,000, according to BDO.

In 2003, when the Sarbanes-Oxley Act required companies to have at least one “financial expert” on their audit committees, CFOs became hot commodities in director searches. But now that companies feel they’ve checked that box, executive recruiters say the pendulum has swung back in favor of sitting CEOs, with requests for CFOs now becoming rare.

That said, it can happen. Here are some things you can do to increase your chances:

Network. It helps to become more visible within your industry, by, for example, taking leadership roles in industry associations. You can also make yourself known as a candidate more directly by listing yourself on a few select databases of aspiring board members. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), for example, maintains a database that is increasingly being tapped by boards, says Doreen Kelly-Ruyak, director of marketing for the group.

You can also approach recruiters, although bear in mind that many smaller companies don’t use them, heightening the need to network. But don’t go too far. Experts warn against posting résumés too freely on online networks or databases because appearing too eager to win a post can work against you. 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.

Bolster your credentials. Director-education programs are offered in various locations around the country, and provide not only education but further networking opportunities. The NACD and several leading business schools (including UCLA Anderson School of Management and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) offer courses for both established and aspiring directors.

Gain entry-level experience. Serving on a nonprofit board can be a good way to both learn about life as a director and (are you seeing a pattern here?) network with people who may know of corporate openings.

Wait for the pendulum to swing again. CFOs may be helped by the Securities and Exchange Commission’s increasingly strict disclosure requirements about directors’ backgrounds, which have prompted boards to become more exhaustive and objective in their searches. If that trend continues, “you’ll see a little less focus” on a candidate’s marquee value, Kelly-Ruyak says, and “a little more focus on skills and expertise.”

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