Improve Your Chance of Success When Applying for a Board Seat

Samantha Lorenzo is Athena’s Director of Board Recruitment. She has been partnering directly with boards to help them discover just the right match for their open board seat since 2018. She also has extensive experience working directly with Athena members, strategizing ways they can put their best foot forward when applying.

Applying to board opportunities is part luck, part science, part art. While Athena members benefit from exclusively accessing board roles only open to this community, many executives find their board opportunities through their network. Like anything that is even the least bit subjective, you’ll notice that you receive a wide range of feedback on your board pitch, your board bio or resume, as well as a range of other advice.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours working alongside members to help them stand out from a sea of other candidates, presenting themselves in their very best light for board seats. Likewise, I have worked with countless board directors and CEOs to ensure their interests are met, to try to gather feedback, and to guide them through the process. While so much of this is certainly art — the following is my attempt to formulate the process and get it as close as possible to science.

Focus on opportunities where you’re a clear fit

It happens regularly: members apply for almost any opportunity they see, thinking it’s a numbers game… thinking that, eventually, it will be their turn. This strategy is not only wasting your time — it can backfire.

First, you’re not clearly conveying your value and where your experience aligns with the opportunity. Second, if candidates don’t feel relevant to the client or are wildly unmatched for the opportunity, they may look outside of Athena the next time they need a board director. And finally, it’s going to be incredibly discouraging for you as you receive a lot of (inevitable) “passes”. Being rejected over and over is exhausting.

Make sure you have professional, polished board documents

Your resume, bio, and LinkedIn profile need to reflect your career experience and the holistic value you can bring to a board cohesively and concisely. You must present yourself not as an executive but as a board director. It’s important to highlight any existing governance experience, risk and compliance experience, and specific industry knowledge or business model expertise. Boards seek new directors who will help them rise to the next stage as a company — whether it’s entering a new market, evolving their product, or shifting organizational culture. Your documents must demonstrate your ability to make these “leaps” and deliver enormous value and perspective beyond your functional scope.

And, of course, be sure to include all the stats and highlights that you would include in your regular executive resume. Numbers that can show the story of how you scaled a business, built a company from the ground up, led a global leadership team, and so forth, are eye-catching and impressive. Demonstrate your ability to deliver a return on investment — and have the numbers to back up your story.

With regards to your LinkedIn profile: LinkedIn is the current go-to professional networking site. It’s common practice that recruiters, board directors, and colleagues check your profile before interacting with you or calling you for the next step in a recruitment process. Your LinkedIn must tell the same story as your other documents (but it can be in first person and share more personality and details about who you are, what you value, and how you’re unique).

And remember, your documents should also be in the latest formats — polished, modern, and in line with formatting. It’s not unusual to see members applying for a board seat with documents that are clearly 10 years or more outdated. It will show and be a disadvantage to you, especially when compared to candidates who have documents that are polished and in the latest format.

Finally, everything across your documents should be reflected in your board pitch, and vice versa. For example, if you are applying to a board seat for a fintech company and you state that you have vast industry expertise — but none of your board documents demonstrate this — it will immediately stop your progress with that particular opportunity. Everything must be cohesive.

Athena Tip: Consider partnering with a professional resume writing team. Athena’s team of professional writers can craft your board resume, bio, and LinkedIn update to ensure it adheres to the latest formatting guidelines and trends. Learn more in our resume best practices eBook.

For Athena members: Complete your Athena profile

If you’re a member of Athena, is your Athena profile filled out completely? Make sure you’ve selected the filters and options that reflect your areas of expertise. Be sure to include your full bio on the Athena platform, including uploading your latest resume and bio. Your Athena profile is how you are discovered by the board recruitment team, as well as by other members. The statements you share in your profile, and the filters you select via our drop-down lists, set the foundation for our board match process.

The pitch summary

We use a pitch summary in lieu of a cover letter. It should be approximately 250 words or shorter and written in third person. This is where you make the case for why you are the right fit for a specific role. This pitch summary gets shared to Athena’s database and shared with the recruiting company.

The key lies in the details. Your pitch must share specific points or examples of how you align with the requirements noted in the “Qualifications Sought” section of the opportunity posting. Do not cut and paste from other applications; do not cut and paste from your resume; and avoid being generic. This is your opportunity to stand out and make your case — take the extra few minutes to make it thoughtful. The goal: have the reader get excited about you. Have them see that you are a great fit and motivate them to want to learn more.

Make sure every pitch:

  • Is in third person
  • Includes relevant company names and your titles at each company
  • Shares the size and industry of the companies you’ve worked for/with
  • Is approximately 250 words
  • Speaks to past board experience
  • Speaks to your relevant operational and functional experience

Treat your resume as a living document, adapting it for every role

When applying to board seats, being generic does not work. For most roles you apply for, you’ll need to modify your resume to highlight the areas of your career and expertise that are most relevant to the role. You are going to be presented to the company along with numerous other candidates — think about how you can stand out and make a strong impression in just a few seconds’ time. Assume the reader of your summary and resume is scanning your documents among dozens or hundreds, pressed for time. They must see immediate signals that you are a strong fit.

Also: Remember that boards may rule you in or out for a role based on just four factors: do you have relevant business model experience? Scaling experience? Have you achieved the goals they are working toward, and have you been instrumental in driving that scale? These are the key points that boards are often looking for as they scan your summary.

For Athena members: For board seekers, other helpful Athena Salons include:

  • Reverse Search: Understand how to position your board targets, from “safety” matches to stretch goals. [LINK]
  • Value Proposition: Learn how to create short and pointed summaries of the specific value you deliver to a board. [LINK]

Sample pitch: Let’s edit a board pitch together

Read this sample board summary. What do you think of it? Is there room for improvement?

Joan has extensive experience and specialized SaaS across go-to-market functions. Led business development, sales, marketing, and launched new markets in Europe and China. Joan is also multilingual. Her strategic insights on how to leverage customer success for rapid product development cycles, how to build and accelerate pipelines, and how to build channel revenue have been foundational for growth and scale.

Here’s what I would suggest for a modified summary… (Note: names and companies have been changed for privacy.)

Joan is the VP, Go-to-Market Strategy at SAP and former President of Travelocity. Extensive experience in specialized SaaS, offering technology platforms solving specific problems (Travel and Expense management at SAP; Employee Engagement at Travelocity). Led business development, sales, marketing, customer success and has launched ten new markets in Europe, for SAP, and in China for Alibaba when she lived in Asia years ago.

Her strategic insights on how to leverage customer success for rapid product development cycles, which helped turn around an under-performing product at Travelocity, then helped lead to a unicorn private equity transaction only two years after Joan joined with a revenue base well below $50M. Has experience from a small tech start-up where she led business development and marketing at Pitchbook, to IPO at Box, to Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and SAP where she learned from the inside what F500 buyers seek. Built and accelerated a pipeline through the channel to set a foundation for growth and scale, which she applied to European launches and added $15M of revenue by year two. Joan’s team advises Microsoft’s US-based partners who offer specialized services in digital transformation, including AI, virtual reality, across industries.

During COVID, her team helped partners adjust to digital fatigue in the marketing and sales efforts and adjusted business models for profitability. Joan speaks conversational French, Spanish and Mandarin.

This is a much more powerful pitch. It explains a lot more about what she’s able to do and what she would bring to the board and more about the companies where she’s worked.

Note: it’s okay to put your summary in bullets. Bullets (versus a traditional paragraph) can be eye-catching, efficient, and truly just easier to read.

Have a question about applying for a board seat?

We want to help you through the process. Learn more about membership here. We also dive deeper into the process in the Athena Guide to Land a Board Seat.

Existing Athena members with questions about the process can contact us through the gold chat icon on the Athena website. In the meantime, view and RSVP upcoming Salons on the Path to the Boardroom here.

Originally published at https://athenaalliance.com on June 9, 2022.

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Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com