As an entrepreneur, you're busy, busy, busy. You have a company to run, employees to manage, and customers to satisfy. Yet I'm going to suggest that you make time to do something counterintuitive: help manage another business by joining a company's board.
"It's connections. It's learning. It's getting experience," says Jane Barratt, founder and CEO of GoldBean, a financial services startup, and a current board member of Edgewater Wireless Systems, a Canadian telecommunications company.
Advising another company can often help you become a better leader of your own, says Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, the founder and chairman of the Boardlist, a marketplace for tech companies seeking women board members.
"It made me run more productive board meetings," says Cassidy, who's been a director of Urban Outfitters, TripAdvisor, and Ericsson. "The boardroom became something I strategically managed. You just watch how other CEOs do it."
There's also a financial advantage, especially if you join the board of an established for-profit company. According to the National Association of Corporate Directors, the median pay for people serving on Fortune 500 boards is just north of $250,000. Startups, meanwhile, frequently offer equity in exchange for service.
Make no mistake: Sitting on the board of another company takes a decent chunk of your time. According to an NACD survey, a typical director can expect to spend 248 hours a year, or nearly a month of 10-hour days, fulfilling board commitments. And then there's the practical problem: Board seats are in high demand and slow to open up--and they mostly go to white men, who hold more than two out of every three seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies.
So how do you find yourself a seat on another company's board? Patience, networking, and preparation. Think of joining a corporate board as a long-term process, a goal that the Deloitte Center for Board Effectiveness estimates can take anywhere from two to three years to accomplish. "Positions don't come up that often," says Barratt, who spent a few years looking for a corporate board position before connecting with Edgewater. "And the need is often very specific. So if the board already has, for example, a marketing expert, they might not want or need another one."
Consider creating a board résumé or statement, highlighting applicable skills. Publicly traded companies most commonly use professional search firms to recruit new directors, followed by personal networks, according to the NACD's survey. These companies are most interested in candidates with specific knowledge of and involvement in their industry, followed by financial and executive-level professional experience. "Know your superpower," Cassidy says.
There are also programs designed to train entrepreneurs for board service, such as Deloitte's Board Ready program, which offers support for executive women hoping to join corporate boards, or Cassidy's Boardlist. The NACD offers companies a search service, as well as courses for wannabe board directors, though membership is open only to people who are already on a for-profit or nonprofit board.
The latter might be a good first step--as long as you're passionate about a nonprofit cause. You won't be compensated for serving on a nonprofit board, and you'll be expected to fundraise. However, such service can provide experience in executive oversight, something that corporate boards look for. Nonprofit board membership also is often validation of standing in a particular community.
"You have a seat at the table, which is often made up of very important people," says Susan McPherson, who runs a New York-based corporate social responsibility consultancy, and who's acquired several clients through her service on four nonprofit boards.
In other words, board service can be a networking silver bullet. McPherson says, "It widens your circles."