Executives typically find their way into boards in two ways: they’re tapped by an executive search firm or recommended by a current board member. As shareholders and lawmakers increasingly turn their attention to board diversity, the skills needed to serve on a board, as well as the talent pool and pathways in have widened.
New board appointments saw growth among leaders with experience in cybersecurity, technology, marketing, and talent strategy. Not only are these skills in high demand, but tapping executives who possess then can also contribute to the diversity of board rooms—a major concern for corporate heads.
Merline Saintil, the founder of a newly launched mentorship program that aims to place Black women on boards, says, historically, many executives of color haven’t seen board leadership as a feasible career progression. “The answer I typically get is ‘I didn’t realize I could do this,’” she told Fortune.
But directorship is not just an existing opportunity—it’s a growing one. Boards are expanding in size, in a bid to add more diversity, and experiencing higher rates of turnover as current members retire or move on to other professional opportunities.
So, how does one chart a path to the board? The Modern Board spoke with several first-time directors to learn how they landed their appointments.
Identify your end goal
For Rinki Sethi, chief information security officer at Twitter and a director at cyber security software company ForgeRock, the possibility of joining a board was not on her radar until she was contacted about an opportunity. “I was far from ready at that time,” Sethi told Fortune. “But since then it kind of whet my appetite for it.” Ultimately, she didn’t receive an offer but the opportunity sparked her interest and she began exploring ways to serve on a board.
Lara Caimi, chief customer and partner officer at ServiceNow and board member at Confluent took a different approach. She first identified her long-term career goal and is leveraging her role on boards as a stepping stone to her larger ambition: becoming a CEO.
“As I had gotten confident and built really strong relationships with my peers and realized how influential I was in the company, it was like, ‘Wait a second, I could be a CEO!’,” Caimi told the Modern Board. Sitting on a board allowed her the opportunity to diversify her leadership experience and view the board-CEO relationship from the other side of the table.
Leverage your network
Stephen Bailey, CEO of ExecOnline and a board member at Match Group, acclimated himself to the rhythms and “altitude” of directorship by serving on multiple nonprofit boards before joining a corporate board. In the nonprofit world, he says that he learned the skills needed to be a productive board member: asking the right questions and “understanding that, ultimately, it’s management’s job to execute the business.”
Similarly, Caimi moved into a new role with P&L responsibility to prepare herself for directorship and expressed her board interest to ServiceNow’s directors. “All of this board recruiting stuff doesn’t just come your way,” she says. “It really comes through these networks…all the best advice and all the best leads came through that.”
Seek out opportunities for impact
The ability to immediately contribute to a company’s growth was a key driver behind Archana Agrawal’s decision to join MongoDB’s board in 2019.
“It felt like not only was I able to fill the role that they wanted in the board, but also as a first time board member, it gave me the ability to hit the ground running because of my familiarity with go-to-market models and developer orientation,” says Agrawal, chief marketing officer at Airtable.
She joined the board of Zendesk in July 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid sweeping social movements. But the experience taught her how to react to crisis and the importance of having agile leaders.
“Intuitively, I always knew how one could contribute as part of a board,” she said. “But to see a group of individuals come together and engage so deeply with management…This has, frankly, been a learning experience.”