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How a woman can grab your board seat

When it comes to gaining a corporate board seat, women are often left behind. But qualified female candidates can take specific steps to make themselves more appealing – while avoiding common mistakes that limit their already slim chances.

According to a number of executive search professionals I've worked with over the years, the majority of board positions are filled from the existing board's and management's network, without involving an outside search firm. Indeed, when I ask people how they got their board seat, a reply usually starts with "I knew so-and-so and he suggested me" (though my favorite response was "I used to be married to the CEO's sister").

Businesswoman saying no
Klaus Mellenthin | Getty Images

The fact is, board positions are very competitive and don't turn over often. That's why women, especially those seeking their first board role, need to actively work to demonstrate that they are the right match for the right board at the right time. This is despite the fact that board positions usually pay a fraction of C-suite roles, which makes sense given they do not usually demand the 24/7 attention of a full-time role. The attraction is usually found in the diverse and interesting nature of the work, the benefits derived from shared learning gained from working with other high-caliber leaders, the extension of valuable network connections and, to some, the prestige associated with corporate board service.

Based on my experience in coaching executives who are preparing for board consideration, here are five tips that can help talented candidates find the right board match.

Don't bury the lead. One woman I worked with, who had substantial experience as a CEO, didn't mention this critical fact until three paragraphs into her bio. Spencer Stuart's 2014 Board Index notes 40 percent of director-recruitment briefs seek a sitting or former CEO – so make it easy to find by including this information in paragraph one.

Show your breadth. You are proud of your experience in a functional area, such as HR, so you focus your case for being on the board on the value of your compensation expertise. But when seeking a board role, it's better to show how your management experience will provide benefit across the board (no pun intended) on all or most agenda items while adding real depth in one or two areas. This applies equally to experts in technology, operations, legal, marketing, etc. who are seeking board roles.

Be mindful of overstuffing your resume. Are you one of those leaders who is in a career transition and feeling lost without your title? Have you filled the first page of your resume with grand titles for the LLC that you set up, elaborately describing consulting gigs and making a big showcase of the not-for-profit leadership roles you hold? Headhunters and nominating committees will likely stop reading before they get to the experience that really makes you a good board match. Plus, they sometimes think all that activity makes you too busy to take on board work.

Focus on management vs. governance. You are a successful entrepreneur and you would like to sell yourself as a board member on your incredible ability to get into the details and fix all of management's problems. Unfortunately, this approach gives the appearance that you don't understand the difference between management and governance— when good board members know that board work is usually "noses in, fingers out" leaving management to run the company. Cordia Harrington, founder/CEO of the Tennessee Bun Company, is a perfect example of an entrepreneur chosen for a board because she understands this difference. That perspective, combined with her extensive and relevant experience in food production, distribution and service industries, made her the ideal candidate to join the board of Zoe's, a casual restaurant that has grown from 19 to more than 140 locations in 16 states.

Be active in your search. You believe your board-relevant talents are self-evident and don't understand why the phone isn't ringing. If more than 70 percent of board roles are obtained through the existing network of boards/management, you need to make sure your network knows that you are actively seeking a board position. Do your research, develop a strategic plan and begin executing against that plan like you would with any other business endeavor. Make it clear that you are looking for a corporate board when networking both on and offline, including an up-to-date LinkedIn profile. Prioritize your efforts based on your objective, and focus on networking opportunities that will provide the best "bang for the buck."

When networking, I always encourage executives to join groups that that provide access to other high-level professionals, especially those outside of their immediate field of work. One of the best professional groups I joined is The Committee of 200 (C200), a financially vetted, members-only group of the world's most successful female entrepreneurs and C-suite executives. Not only do we support each other under the organization's mission of "Success Shared," but the diversity of industry and career stages within the membership provides a well-rounded network of fellow women in business.

Obtaining a board seat may not be easy, but with the right credentials and some smart positioning, candidates can find ways to set themselves apart in this competitive landscape.

Commentary by Jan Babiak, a former managing partner with Ernst & Young, serves on the board of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Bank of Montreal and Experian. She is also an experienced executive coach working with a broad portfolio of global executives focused on customized preparation for board service. Follow her on Twitter @janandbrian.