A few years ago, HBS Executive Education unveiled the program Women on Boards: Succeeding as a Corporate Director, designed to introduce executives to the process of joining a corporate board. Since that first session, hundreds of female executives have participated in the program to better understand the board selection process, best practices, and critical skillsets to help them succeed.

After the first program ran in 2016, participants decided the class was too strong to allow their connections to dissolve once the program was over. They decided to form their own organization, WomenExecs on Boards (WEoB), designed to support, educate and inform one another of board opportunities. That powerful organization now has over 220 members—all women who completed the WOB program.

Each year, members of WEoB return to HBS to share their board wisdom. Below are a few of their tips on finding the right board seat for you—and navigating the selection and onboarding process.

Four female executives sit on a panel with name cards displayed in front of them while inside an HBS classroom

Step 1: Refine Your Targets

You don't just want to join a board—you want to be an outstanding board member. Make sure to find a company where you can really add value.

  • Start with your own industry, and then consider what types of companies might be adjacent to that and would benefit from your expertise.
  • Identify the kind of company you want to work with—large, small, public, privately held, early stage, mature, and so on.
  • Think about what matters most to you as well as what background, experience, and competencies will be valued by the company.
  • Be realistic about whether you are a good match for at least some of what the company is seeking.

Step 2: Prepare Your Personal Elevator Pitch

You will need materials that describe who you are as a potential board member. In addition to your resume, bio, LinkedIn page, and email cover letter, you'll need a personal elevator pitch that will help you effectively convey your strengths and what you bring to the table.

Describing yourself and your search for a board position can be trickier than you think. For example, if you are looking to join a board when you stop working, avoid using the word "retired." Instead, explain how you are transitioning into a new phase of your career. If you're still in a full-time corporate role, be sure to carefully tailor how you describe yourself to make it clear that you are seeking board service—not another job.

Step 3: Use Search Firms the Right Way

Networking is the most common path to a board seat, but search firms handle about 20-25% of board placements. Keep in mind that your current search firm contacts may work more with executive opportunities than with board opportunities, so be sure you are talking to the right people within the firm.

Step 4: Find a Network to Support Your Board Journey

Tap into your network to identify peers who can give you objective, honest input regarding your aspirations, your materials, and your personal elevator pitch. Your network can also help you connect with potential board opportunities. The WEoB group is one such network that many women have found helpful. Seventy-seven percent of their members sit on a board, and eighteen percent sit in a chair role. The group has many alliances—with other networks, search firms, educational networks, and more—along with different resources that can help women find the right corporate board.

Step 5: Research Each Opportunity Thoroughly and Prepare for the Interviews

When an opportunity comes, you want to find out as much as you can about that company. Start with their website to learn about their mission, values, vision, and history, and then dig deeper to explore the firm’s market position and challenges. As you would in any job interview, you should show that you’ve done your homework and understand the organization. If the company is in a different country, learn about the nuances of the business environment and the culture. Your network can help you find someone who can educate you on these topics.

Your first interview may be with a recruiter. Prepare to articulate why you are interested in the role and adapt your pitch to explain how you will add value to this particular organization. If the first conversations go well, subsequent interviews will provide the opportunity to ask in-depth questions regarding what the company is looking for, how the board operates, what the selection process will be, and the timing.

Before you get too far into the process, consider any potential conflicts of interest. If you are still working, be sure to get clearance from your management on accepting a board position.

Step 6: Evaluate the Deal: Assess Time, Money, and Risk

During your interviews, you will be asked about your other commitments to ensure that you will be able to comfortably meet obligations for board meetings, preparation, and committee work. Sitting on a board is not just a once-a-quarter obligation, so make sure to understand how the committee structure works, how many meetings take place between board meetings, etc.

When conversations are moving in the right direction, ask about the details of the compensation package as well as directors and officers insurance. Compensation will vary by type of company and stage of development. For public companies, this information is public. For private companies, use your network to find out if the proposed compensation is in the right ballpark for the industry. Early-stage companies might give only stock or a blend of stock and cash. If you are receiving stock, identify any restrictions on it. And remember—as with any contract, terms can be negotiated.

Step 7: Prepare for a Productive Onboarding Experience

Joining your first board is an important transition. Most companies will provide you with an onboarding plan. You should also develop a personal onboarding plan, so you are truly ready to hit the ground running. To come up to speed, you will be connecting with company leadership and absorbing data—lots of data—on the company's offerings, competition, business environment, stakeholders, and performance. Invest the time in organizing the information you gather so you can easily refer back to it.

As part of your onboarding, get to know your peer directors. Spend time with each of them to develop relationships. And develop a board buddy—someone in your work life who can give you direct feedback and a sanity check when needed.

Step 8: Maximize Your Contribution

Whether it's your first board meeting or your fortieth, there is no substitute for preparation. Read all the materials before each meeting to prepare for the topics you think are important to discuss. If there's a big, gnarly problem on the agenda, you may need to do some pre-meeting legwork—or pursue some post-meeting conversations to ensure you understand the issue.

Delivering value means more than just giving your opinion in the boardroom. You will need to stay current with industry trends and connected with other executives and directors who are wrestling with similar problems. That's why your professional network is so important to your role as a board member—your network is part of what you bring to the table.

Be intentional about how you are going to participate in meetings. Prepare questions that are truly important to you and let go of the less important issues. Above all, listen—really listen—to other board members, company leadership, and other stakeholders. Careful listening will enable you to support the company in thinking through issues, paving the way for better decisions and bigger successes down the line.

Interested in joining a board or enhancing the value you bring as a board member? Explore our board governance programs.

About the Author

Vicki Good is the Senior Portfolio Director of the Advanced Management Program for Harvard Business School, Executive Education.