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What founders should know about board service

Understanding how to prepare strategically and differentiate yourself is key to successful board placement.

In brief
  • Board service can be an exceptional opportunity for founders to share and gain crucial business knowledge.
  • Desired attributes for board members include adaptability, experience with organizational culture change, resilience, tech savvy and specialized knowledge. 
  • Understanding the governance agenda, articulating the value you bring, and networking to validate your contribution and express interest are essential.

Board service can offer founders at every stage of the entrepreneurial journey an array of benefits, including the opportunity to glean new business insights, build their network and provide value around their passions. At the same time, boards are becoming interested in tapping successful entrepreneurs to harness their innovation, technology and business growth skill sets.

To differentiate themselves and secure a coveted board appointment, founders must think and prepare strategically from the outset of the board journey. With this in mind, let’s explore leading practices for founders seeking to join the board of another company.

Understanding the board agenda

Boards today are particularly eager to recruit directors who bring deep knowledge in critical business areas. For public board service, it’s important to understand what boards are prioritizing. The focus should be on adaptability and resilience, says Cecyl Hobbs, an executive director with Russell Reynolds Associates who advises organizations on an array of board matters. “That’s everything from the economy to capital raising to talent and skills to cyber to technology and innovation,” he says. In the private board realm, agility and experience with profitable growth and transformation are highly sought after. “How much of a Swiss Army knife can you be, and how available can you be to a founder?” adds Alexis Hennessy, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles who specializes in board recruiting within the tech industry. 

While experience with these hot topics is considered highly desirable, expertise in a specific industry is not always required. For example, a lack of direct private equity experience should not be considered an automatic deterrent for founders who are interested in joining the board of a portfolio company. “You don’t need to have been in the business of private equity to have PE experience. If your company has been privately held and had investors that were either venture capitalists or private equity firms, I think that counts,” offers Lily Chang, a senior advisor with private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners who also serves on multiple boards. For many of these companies, skills in broader areas such as supply chain, operations and go-to-market strategy are often considered more valuable in board candidates.

Defining your personal brand and activating your network

Chang suggests that founders who are curious about serving on a board start by considering a few key questions: “Think about why you want to do this. Is it a good reason? And what do you really bring to the table? What is that superpower?” She also notes that for working founder CEOs, serving on a board can provide exceptional on-the-job training around leadership, strategy and governance.


The conventional wisdom for all prospective candidates is that it’s best to seek an external board seat after serving in a full-time professional role where they have ascended to a leadership position and are well regarded. Those who intend to seek a second board placement should also wait at least a year after taking on their first one. Further, it’s not advisable to pursue board service with a company that is in competition in any way with one’s employer, and service on one public company board typically precludes service on others due to permissions and capacity constraints. As a result of the time commitment, many companies have a policy in place that limits a sitting executive to service on one public and one private board.


Founders who are ready to move forward as a board candidate should begin by serving on not-for-profit boards, initially with smaller community boards, and then move up to large association or college alma mater boards. They should also invest in learning the ropes of corporate governance by taking courses and becoming board governance certified. Then, they can earn the right to make their intentions known among friends, colleagues and their networks, as these connections can be a major driver of board placement. They also should prepare a board bio, which is a departure from a standard CV that lists what you’ve done, what you’ve managed and what your operations are. A board bio, in contrast, leads with hot skills. And while candidates should definitely highlight their superpower, they also may want to be candid in the board bio about any gaps they may bring to the table. “It’s a clarifying document,” Hobbs says.


Distinguishing yourself as a board candidate

Promising board candidates will be selected to interview with the board, and this stage of the process requires a lot of preparation. For public company board interviews, reading quarterly and annual filings, listening to earnings calls and reviewing analyst reports are all table stakes, Chang says. “If it is a business that is at all outward facing, go visit locations or call people in your network who know this business and can give you a point of view,” she adds. Likewise, candidates on the private company side also should review all relevant and publicly available company materials, including information on company leadership, financial performance and board composition.


Another key differentiator for board candidacy is the nature of the interview. According to Hobbs, it is “much more of a two-way dialogue and seeking to be a conversation among peers as opposed to a conversation of a hiring manager and an executive.” He also shares that two candidate missteps he often encounters during this phase are treating the board interview like an executive interview and not clearly articulating the value you can bring to the boardroom and organization and why you want to serve. A lack of proper preparation for the board interview is also a common error in his experience.


Hennessy notes that candidates who are in contention for a specific board seat should also consider a few key questions early in the search process: “Can I make an impact in a meaningful way? Do I like the CEO? And if there are other board members, is there a good chemistry there?” She also suggests that board finalists address tactical issues early on, including their availability for designated board meeting dates and any potential conflicts with their current employer.


As founder CEOs navigate the board ecosystem as a candidate, understanding their “why” and being clear about the differentiators they bring to the table will help distinguish them against a competitive field of their peers. Those who develop the right mindset, prepare diligently and can clearly articulate the value they can bring to the boardroom will be best positioned to drive positive impact for both themselves and the company they serve.

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