How to build a ‘board bio’
From The Wall Street Journal’s CMO Today
For those seeking a director role, a carefully crafted biography focused on potential contributions can be an important tool for success.
Board service can be an enriching career move for any seasoned executive, but the widespread underrepresentation of women and marketing leaders on corporate boards today means opportunities often abound for female CMOs in particular. Developing a board-oriented “bio” can be an important step toward taking advantage of those opportunities, and it was also the focus of a recent webinar sponsored by Deloitte.
“A strategically crafted board bio is key to translating your career and life experiences into a story that best positions you for board opportunities,” said webinar host Debbie McCormack, managing director for Deloitte LLP’s Center for Board Effectiveness.
A board bio is like a resume, but with some essential differences. During the webinar, entitled “Building Your Board Bio,” McCormack and Merline Saintil, chief operating officer at online emotional support service seven Cups, discussed some of the top distinctions and considerations.
Understanding the board’s role
A fundamental step on the journey toward service as a board member is understanding the role of the board. First and foremost, the board’s role is to act as a fiduciary protecting the interests of stakeholders and the company assets while overseeing strategy, risk appetite, and capital allocation. Governance is also a core responsibility, and it includes ensuring director independence, compliance with regulations, and delegation of authority, as well as managing board assessments and board composition and recruitment. “Good governance is something that needs to happen both inside and outside the boardroom through robust discussion and constructive debate with management, investors, and other stakeholders,” McCormack said.
Another critically important part of the board’s role is finding the right CEO to steer the company and developing a succession plan in case something unexpected happens. Succession “can be an uncomfortable discussion, but it’s just good governance,” said Saintil, who currently serves on the boards of directors for two organizations: Bank holding company Banner Corporation, which she advises on cyber risk and key technology trends, and Nav, a venture-backed company that helps small businesses build, protect, and leverage their credit data. “We dedicated a recent board meeting to succession planning—not just for the CEO but for the next level of management as well,” she added.
On average, directors can expect to spend 250 to 300 hours per year fulfilling their board obligations. Educational programs are available to help aspiring and acting directors better understand and keep up with their responsibilities. Examples include Directors Academy and Stanford Law School’s annual Directors’ College conferences, added Saintil, whose own ongoing educational efforts have gained her certification from the National Association of Corporate Directors’ Cyber Risk Oversight program.
Skills and competencies
In general, organizations seek directors who collectively create a diverse and comprehensive mix of competencies and perspectives; important dimensions can include industry expertise, technology acumen, and international work experience, as well as personal characteristics such as ethnicity and gender. On their proxy statements, companies typically include an explicit description of what each board member brings to the table.
Companies present this type of data in different ways, depending in part on the skills and experiences needed to oversee their strategy. The important point is that almost all companies seek a mix. “It is rare for one director to have every skill desired by the board—which is why diverse experiences and capabilities are so important,” McCormack noted.
The board bio
To build a strong board bio, CMOs can begin by defining their personal brand. That’s often a matter of considering some key questions:
- Why do you want to be on a board?
- In what area(s) do you consider yourself an expert?
- What are two or three key strengths you’ve developed that a board would value?
- How have you been recognized within your industry or by peers, including awards, publication mentions, and published articles?
- What experiences or other aspects of your personal life enhance your ability to be an effective board member?
A common mistake among aspiring board members is to tell interview committees they want to join a board for the learning experience. “Nobody chooses a board member to help them learn,” McCormack said. “Companies want board members who are prepared to contribute.”
Beyond skills and competencies, cultural fit is another important consideration. “Board members want to know they can have a long dinner with you and find it enjoyable,” Saintil said. “That means you have emotional intelligence, understand board dynamics, and ask great questions.”
Like a resume, only different
Whereas resumes tend to be organized chronologically and describe in considerable detail an individual’s past roles and accomplishments, board bios take a different approach. Typically, they include a photograph, run no longer than a single page, and are written in the third person. They do not provide an exhaustive list of past positions; instead, they focus on the individual’s value proposition and personal brand, bringing in past successes and experiences only where relevant. Different versions of the board bio may be tailored for specific industries or opportunities.
Successful board bios typically begin with an introductory paragraph summarizing the executive’s career and positioning the individual as an expert in a particular industry or skill area, such as analytics or digital transformation. An additional one to three paragraphs provide an overview of relevant experience and expertise along with education and any previous board participation.
Crafting a board bio is an iterative process, Saintil said. “I strongly suggest getting a lot of feedback and being genuinely open to making adjustments to strengthen your candidacy.”
Board service can be a highly rewarding step for executives who feel ready, but opportunities don’t typically fall into anyone’s lap unsolicited. “If you are interested, focus on it just as you would a job search,” McCormack said. “The more you can leverage your network and let others know you’re actively looking, the better.”
—by Katherine Noyes, journalist, Deloitte Insights for CMOs
Ms. Saintil’s participation in this article is solely for educational purposes based on her knowledge of the subject, and the views expressed by her are solely her own.