Very interesting conversation with a current board audit committee Director and a former Big4 partner last week. He currently sits on three boards: two public, one private. We had a far-reaching conversation on the role of an independent director, and his thoughts on how to get on a board of directors. Given his long career in public accounting and having faced many challenges, I was surprised to hear him say that landing his first director role was “the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my professional life.” Wow. What are the implications of this if you are a sitting CFO with board aspirations? Or a retiring partner from an accounting firm?

Landing a CFO position vs your first seat on a board

Making the leap to CFO is one thing; it can happen for a variety of reasons, either by planning your career very carefully, working hard and proving yourself. Or, as in many cases, it can be a battlefield promotion because of a business change or departure of an incumbent. It’s not a slam dunk to land your first CFO role, but getting your first director role is a degree more difficult for a number of reasons: the battlefield promotion is probably out. The role is not a natural extension of your current day to day duties. The dynamics of a board are completely different than that of an executive team. So just what’s the ticket for landing a seat on a board?

Strategy for making the leap

For frequent readers of my blog the answer won’t surprise you. The strategy for making a big leap in your career, whether you are looking to land your first director role or your first CFO role for that matter, is really very much the same. You need to create a game plan to get in front of “people of influence” and consider taking a bit of a risk. (hint: executive recruiters are not the people of influence!)

When no one is calling

In the case of this former partner, the aha moment was acknowledging that the likes of Apple and Google weren’t calling for him to join their boards. In fact, nobody was. He had been in a relatively strong position of influence, helping major public technology companies on important business strategies. As a sought after opinion leader, he was accustomed to getting calls from CEOs and investors. Once retired from that position, it came as a shock to him that no one came seeking his council any more. This turn of events could be disconcerting and even depressing for some in this position.

Putting together a plan… who ya gonna call?

So he put together a plan, which sounds simple, but requires a certain amount of discipline and confidence to undertake. He began by identifying people in his former sphere of influence, including investors, board members, CEOs, and former partners. He then started reaching out to these folks to make his intention clear about joining a board. The initial response wasn’t what he wanted: he was invited to join a public company with business complications and a strategy that was not all that exciting. As he said, “It certainly was not an “A” company.” But by trusting his source who led him to this opportunity, he ultimately joined the board. As with anything in life, things suddenly become more attractive once you are involved! A second directorship followed after a couple of years at the invitation of a fellow director. Once his second seat with a more attractive company was secure, his phone starting ringing more often, and he was able work out of the initial seat.

Ready, set, go boarding

So put your most influential and trusted professionals in a cohesive spreadsheet. Select the top10. With persistence, patience and professionalism, get a face-to-face meeting with those 10 influencers. Make clear what your goals are and why you are a compelling asset. Have your elevator pitch down to three or four concise sentences. Ask each of the 10 people for specific referrals within their network. Also, very importantly, offer your assistance to help them solve a problem on their desk.

Next up, a bit about the Audit Chair role as independent director and the relationship to the CFO and other members of the Board.

As always, happy to chat about the next steps in your career. If you would like to discuss the ideas in this blog further, please contact me at: Dave@arnoldpartners.com.