Key takeaways — board training workshop by the UNC Law’s Director Diversity Initiative — Maryann Bruce

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It was a pleasure and honor to be a panelist at UNC School of Law’s Director Diversity Initiative Virtual Conference on Broadening Corporate Diversity: Earning a Board Seat. It was an intense day — lots of discussions, exchanging experiences and insights among the panelists and participants. Some of the topics addressed by my fellow distinguished director colleagues Wendy Burden, Dorlisa Flur, Kim Hoover, Lloyd Johnson, Alexander Lowry, Rebecca New and me were: the role and responsibilities of a corporate director, the desired director skillsets, our personal journeys to becoming a corporate director, the value of diversity, and how to develop your board contribution and brand.

Panelists’ Key Takeaways

The primary role of a corporate director is to preserve, develop, and enhance long-term shareholder value by providing oversight, insight, and foresight. Directors typically adhere to the “Nose in, Fingers Out” philosophy meaning they ask a lot of questions to ensure the management team has a solid grasp of the situation but they should not get involved with the nitty-gritty details of running the company day-to-day.

The big picture Always in Demand Skills refer to executive leadership skills that are universally in demand by most boards when they are seeking new directors; such as being a sitting or former CEO, the ability and desire to serve on or Chair an audit committee, deep knowledge of corporate governance, setting executive compensation expertise, and CEO succession planning experience. Subject Matter Expertise currently in demand by boards includes customer loyalty and retention, digital technology and cybersecurity, international, social media, and being a qualified financial expert (QFE). Some of the most needed but least mentioned qualities of being an effective director are candor, collaboration, courage, humor, and inquisitiveness.

While there are many paths to becoming a director, everyone agreed that networking is critical to your success. Consider who you know and who knows you both within and beyond your profession. Use LinkedIn and other social media, the Business Chambers of Commerce and similar business associations, organizations dedicated to board service (National Association of Corporate Directors, Women Corporate Directors, Private Directors Association), lawyers and accounting firms that have a board practice, service providers that cater to boards, and executive search firms to help you make connections and referrals. Remember to be strategic and specific, focus on quality not quantity, and never abuse your network.

Good governance doesn’t call for dissension in the boardroom, but it does call for diversity. Fulsome discussions about challenging issues require deep insight, multiple perspectives, and collective experience. Great ideas often emerge when board discussions avoid group think and disrupt common thought patterns. Visionary boards are those that are both diverse and inclusive, resulting in better decision-making. They ensure a culture where all board members feel like they belong, that their individual voices are heard and acknowledged, and that they do not have to conform to others for their opinions or ideas to be valued. Board diversity is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart business thing to do.

Regarding building your brand it is important to articulate your “professional DNA” by explaining who you are, your unique experience and subject matter expertise, and how that experience can be used to serve a board. Consider working with a consultant to help modify your professional resume to differentiate yourself, highlight your functional and industry expertise, and the value you will bring to a board. A consultant can also help you prepare a bio as well as your elevator speech and value proposition. Once these materials are complete, you should send them to your contacts at the various search firms and register with online board portals. The panelists also recommended joining a nonprofit board or an industry association board to gain valuable experience. You can also increase your visibility by writing an article or blog about an area of expertise or interest and publish it on LinkedIn.

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