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Digital Directors: Getting Digital Experts Into the Boardroom

August 2015

The greatest demand is for technology-savvy executives who also have broad operational or management experience, particularly in newer digital fields. Executives with these profiles, especially those with prior board experience, are scarce, and, consequently, boards have become more willing to consider candidates with digital profiles even if they have less operational or general management experience.

Drawing on our work recruiting digital talent for corporate boards, here are some tips for aspiring "digital directors" on how they can best approach and evaluate an outside board opportunity.

Determining fit: A two-way process

The most important consideration when evaluating a board opportunity is your fit with the board and company. You should consider the current board culture, how the role of the digital director is defined, the expectations and perceptions of the current directors, and your own priorities.

The demand for digital expertise comes from three distinct types of company – traditional, consumer-focused businesses; media and technology companies going through a transformation; and private growth-stage technology and Internet companies. Which of these would you be most comfortable in?

Issues to keep in mind

  • Many directors are not well-versed in digital technology and may be unaware of its importance in competing in today's marketplace.
  • Boards value prior CEO and general management experience, as well as prior board experience, although not all boards insist on it.
  • Boards are also more comfortable with fellow directors who have stable career chronologies. Plan on committing at least six years (two three-year terms).
  • Clearly understand the expectations for your role before signing on to a board. Would you be acting as a digital consultant? Do you have the time to be hands-on, guiding the company’s digital strategy?
  • Be aware that your role may be to steer the board away from discussions about from specific platforms and toward a broader conversation about digital technology in the 21st century and the specific strategic digital opportunities and challenges for the company.
  • Boards are hyper-sensitive to potential conflicts of interest and will be very thorough in vetting intercompany conflicts when reviewing potential directors. Boards expect director candidates to be as diligent in identifying potential conflicts with their own companies.

It is important to determine what you hope to gain from your experience as a director, both so that you can articulate your reasons for pursuing a seat to the nominating and governance committees, and so as to have a rewarding experience.

Consider the following questions

  • Why are you interested in sitting on a corporate board? Are there specific challenges or governance topics that interest you or that you feel you are especially qualified to address? Career development should never be the sole reason for joining a board.
  • Do you have the capacity to fully commit? Board service extends well beyond the board meetings; you will be expected to serve on at least one committee, and be available during a crisis. Be realistic about whether the timing is right and whether the rest of your professional career may be compromised.
  • Are there geographic limitations on your ability to serve? You will be expected to attend six to eight board meetings in person each year. Traveling to a distant or out-of-the-way location can add a significant amount of time to the commitment.
  • Which industry or type of board opportunity is most interesting to you? Approach this question from both sides, considering not only what types of boards you find attractive, but also what you can offer those boards. Focusing your search will make you a more attractive candidate.

If you have asked yourself all of these questions and still feel that a board seat is the logical next step in your career progression, it's time to begin working your network.

Positioning yourself for service

Although search firms are the public face of the director selection process for many companies, and arranging to meet with an experienced search consultant is an important part of indicating your interest in a board seat, there are a number of other resources aspiring directors should tap into.

Maximize your network

  • Test the waters for outside board service with your boss or board. Thinking through with your company which industries would be additive to your current role and which ones may represent conflicts is an important step that will save time later.
  • Express your interest in sitting on a board to like-minded digital colleagues who already serve on one. They may refer your name to a search firm or nominating committee that contacts them about a board seat they are too busy to consider.
  • If possible, learn more about board dynamics by gaining exposure to your own board of directors. Whether it be working on a special committee created to address a specific venture or simply presenting your work to the board, any exposure to the boardroom will help differentiate you from other aspiring digital directors.
  • Focus on developing the skills of a high-functioning director in your daily professional life, including the ability to collaborate, listening skills and strategic insight. When asked about your suitability to serve, you'll be ready with examples of how you embody the skill-set of a well-functioning director in your day-to-day executive role.
  • Consider attending director education events, which provide opportunities to become more familiar with the governance issues shaping the boardroom today and to meet well-connected individuals who can offer unique insight into the director selection process. Expanding your own network through these types of events can prove to be invaluable.

As boards seek to hire more digitally minded directors, the candidate pool they are drawing from is an unfamiliar one, with candidate profiles that are markedly different from traditional director backgrounds. This should not deter you, but you should be prepared to address the questions outlined in this guide and understand what will be expected of you once you secure your first board seat. It's up to you to differentiate yourself from the competition.