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Applying to Board Seats: What You Need to Know About Rejection and the Journey

The road to your first board seat can be long and feel discouraging.

An Athena member recently told me: I’ve been working toward a board seat for a few years. I’ve applied to several board opportunities, but I’ve been rejected for each one. I don’t know why I was rejected — I wish I could know more. I’m starting to feel like I’m never going to get a board seat.

Landing a board role is hard. For most of us, it will be way harder than landing any job we’ve ever achieved.

If you really want it and you put in the work, potentially over years, it is there for you. Don’t give up. Along the way in this journey, I’ve seen not failures, but other wonderful opportunities presented that each individual would not have initially imagined. Our senior career is not a ladder. It branches out into a beautiful tree with many interesting paths toward impact that we can follow simultaneously. At worst, you will find yourself with a portfolio of impact — if not a board seat. But, don’t give up. You can make your board goals happen.

Landing a board seat takes time and a lot of preparation. While it may seem that we often hear about the roles that just come to people, it is extremely rare for a board role to land in someone’s lap or even within a year or two of deciding one wants it.

Rather, success with this goal requires setting your sites on it long before you are ready. It takes strategy. And, it is usually the result of momentum built over time from the consistency of multiple approaches, as well as the internalization of your unique value and how you share it with the world. Board seats are unlike any job you’ve ever applied to and far less plentiful, which makes achieving one that much trickier. It’s about the right combination of a powerful and wide network, proper positioning and proper activation of your network, and vigilance to ensure you are in the right place at the right time. The longer you wait to begin the journey, the more concentrated your effort to achieve it will have to be.

Transparency in an otherwise secret system: a double-edged sword

The journey you are on can be made all the more difficult by the many rejections and lack of feedback along the way. This is a challenge Athena faces alongside our members every day.

In the landscape of board opportunities, Athena presents our members with something quite rare: every single opportunity that comes our way, we share with our members. There is no templated approach where only certain members get shown certain opportunities; there is no behind-the-scenes matchmaking or recruiting process. Truly, every opportunity is open to every member.

It’s in this way that Athena is unlike any other platform in existence today. Our goal is to ensure women are not shut out from the process, and to reveal new opportunities that may not otherwise be accessed through any other channel. We believe that our members should apply for any opportunity for which they feel they are a fit! We want members to make the case for why they should be on a board — to help us see their value for a specific board, even if we don’t initially see it or understand it ourselves.

The bad edge of the sword: transparency without feedback

When you apply to board seats through Athena, you see everything you have applied to, everything you’ve been presented for, everything you’ve won/lost, and so on. It’s all there for you to see, right on your dashboard. You can see all the stats, but not always the “why”.

Feedback for board opportunities is excruciatingly difficult to obtain. Like how job candidates can feel locked out of a system, applicants for board opportunities can feel the process is just as opaque; in fact more so. And, with a lack of feedback we can easily end up concluding that we just aren’t going to be a fit for anything.

I understand how frustrating that can be. At Athena, we consistently press for feedback on every board candidate. However, the trend we see is that boards will provide feedback only for those candidates they are very seriously considering. For all others, unfortunately, they are just not making the time.

It would be easier for Athena to operate the way most other systems do, in secrecy about what the opportunities are and who is being considered. But the people that approach hurts the most are the 90% of us who don’t fit neatly into the seemingly fixed criteria of a spec. We believe you need to be able to speak for yourself, challenge our match percentage, or even the spec itself. This is why we are willing to accept that you will see what you are ultimately rejected from in addition to where you are considered. Unfortunately, the downside of having a voice in the system is that more often than not, you will not get feedback for the “why” of rejection.

What you can do: put every strategy to work

For board seats, the rule of thumb is to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. There is no magic solution to fast-track your way to a seat. Rather, you need to put a combination of strategies into place all at once. Athena is one of several strategies you can employ:

  • Recruiters are a must. They should be in the loop that you’re seeking a board seat.
  • Registries are low-hanging fruit. Getting onto registries like Nurole, Equilar, Diligent and others is table stakes; (Athena can ensure members are signed up to each of those at your request.)
  • Coaches can provide targeted support. Board coaches specialize in working with top executives to craft custom go-to-market plans specific to your board goals. These coaches work one-on-one with you to privately help you polish and practice your way closer to a board seat. Strategy, understanding and speaking your value, thinking through the types of boards you should be targeting, understanding the unspoken system — these coaches add enormous value to your board search.

Lean on your network

Above all, your network is critical. You’ll want to purposely focus on expanding it with the right kinds of connections. It’s work, it takes time, and it’s not something that everyone enjoys — but it will pay off.

Your network is going to be the thing that saves you when you’re exacerbated about lack of feedback; it’s going to be the thing that opens doors that you didn’t even know existed; it’s going to be the thing that gets you the interviews and the face time with people who can further your board search.

But, when those chances do eventually present themselves, you’ll still need to be well-prepared to speak to your value, present a sparkling board bio, and know what to ask and what not to ask in your interviews (back to that holistic approach).

Oh, the places you will go! The journey is more valuable than the destination. 

We call it a journey for a reason. The path to the boardroom can zig-zag, it can be unpredictable, and it can certainly take time. It’s deeply personal and takes a lot of confidence to conquer. Don’t give up. Keep going. Raise your hand. Advocate for yourself. Network like you mean it.

The result will most likely be what you set out to achieve, but along the way, you will discover and create many other very interesting and exciting outcomes, from new careers to finding vocational freedom to creating third acts. Maybe you will become a CEO, an entrepreneur, an investor, a board member, or several of these at once! I see it time and again.

Invest in the journey, and your destination will be bigger than you’d imagined.


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