The Legal Department

How To Land A Seat On A Corporate Board: Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire 50/50 Women On Boards

The Legal Department | Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire | Corporate Board


In this jam-packed episode, Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, President of 50/50 Women on Boards, pulls back the curtain on what it takes to land a seat on a corporate board. In a conversation tailored specifically for lawyers, Betsy discusses why lawyers need more than governance experience to serve on corporate boards. She shares why building a network of business contacts is an essential asset for your board search, why lawyers need to develop a specialty in an area that companies want, and how to talk to people in your network about your interest in board opportunities.


Betsy has devoted much of her career to helping women advance in their profession and into the boardroom. This episode is a “must listen” for anyone seeking a place in the board room. Check out 50/50 Women on Boards and their amazing educational events for aspiring board members.



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How To Land A Seat On A Corporate Board: Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire 50/50 Women On Boards

In this episode, I’m excited to dig into board membership and a board search process with an icon, Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, who was one of the early volunteers of 50/50 Women on Boards. She’s written several books about joining boards under the name Winning the Board Game and was the originator of a historic law in California, SB 826, that required public company boards to have a certain number of women on them. I am thrilled, Betsy, to welcome you to the show.


Thank you, Stacy. I’m delighted to be here and talk to your audience of attorneys and general counsel.


The good overlap with lawyers who are interested in board service is they have a lot of experience in board service. We’re going to cover a lot of ground in our time in this episode. I do want to let people know that 50/50 Women on Boards offers programming throughout the year. They put on about 21 programs and there’s an upcoming program on May 3rd, 2024 in Los Angeles. I’ll give you a chance to talk about that later in the show.


Women On Corporate Boards


I wanted to put out there that we’re going to cover a lot of ground but there are more places and opportunities to get the information. Talking about your background, you have devoted so much of your life and career to helping women in particular get into the boardroom. I’ve seen it as a brass ring to reach for. I wanted to start with the why. Why should people want to be on boards? Why is that something that we should consider as part of our careers?


It’s such an important topic. Stacy, thank you for having me here. This is great fun to talk to your audience. The reasons are many as to why women should serve on boards but it’s remarkable that women didn’t even know about serving on corporate boards. It’s been a dominion of the male generation, especially those who have come up through business and have extensive contacts in business. They know that the way to make money, in addition to one’s day job, is to serve on a corporate board.


It’s also enjoyable to run businesses, as many in the audience know. I’ve owned a business for many years. It’s fun to run a business and build a business. It’s not that women have been excluded. It’s that when openings occur on corporate boards, the men know each other and they trust each other’s business judgment. Women haven’t been traveling in those circles where they could be nominated. You have to be recommended and nominated for a corporate board position.


What we focus on at 50/50 Women on Boards and here on this show will be how to be memorable to your contacts so that they remember your specific experience that would be valuable to a board. When their buddies ask them, “We need to find a woman for our board,” they say, “We don’t know one who has the industry experience in that company or the knowledge of their business to be on their board.” It takes a lot of networking. You’re right. It’s the brass ring but you can get there.


Governance Experience


Let’s go deeper on how to get there because it’s something I’ve thought about for myself. I run in a lot of legal circles. I know a lot of women lawyers and general counsel. For those of us in a general counsel seat, we have a lot of exposure and experience with boards and governance experience. It can feel flashy and exciting to be a board director but the work is governance of the company. I was curious if my gut instinct is right that that governance experience is something that would make a lawyer an attractive board candidate.


It’s extremely valuable and also secondarily, not upfront but the lawyer’s experience on what she’s known from clients, not revealing the names of clients but the experience that she’s had being in the boardroom and making presentations and handling crises. That’s also very important but governance is the number one reason that attorneys would be considered.


Let me share with you the issues. Most companies have a general counsel and the large ones pay millions to their law firms. They wonder why they would have another attorney on their board. They would think, “I don’t need somebody else to tell me what not to do.” Certainly, the attorneys on the board cannot be practicing law or giving downright legal advice to the company or the CEO.


There has to be an extra special reason why an attorney would be brought onto a corporate board, and that would live and rely on that attorney’s specialty experience. One of the primary messages for your attorneys is to develop their specialty practice in real estate, cybersecurity, the coming generation of AI, employee matters, and legal matters. Compliance relates to that but also compensation for the senior execs and the CEO.


I know all of your attorneys know the board has three standing committees. They’re all critical but the most prominent are the finance and the audit committee. Certainly, if some of your attorneys also have finance experience, that’s a value to bring. The second is the compensation committee focuses on the compensation of the CEO and the senior executives. it’s very complex.


Boards are looking for CHROs or Chief Human Resources Officers for the comp committee who understand the complicated compensation packages with long-term incentives, deferred comp, and much more. There’s what was called proudly the ESG committee. Most boards had one based on environment, social, which some think sustainability but it’s social, and then governance. That is a committee that has been, as all of you know, under pressure or the name of it.


Larry Fink said, “Let’s call it the risk committee or the sustainability committee.” That’s what many boards have done but there is a committee. Under that falls diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you know, there’s a lot of push-backs against diversity efforts, the requirement of companies and business in general. The enterprise risk committee is not necessarily a standing committee. Most companies think the whole board should be the risk. The enterprise be constantly alert to risks and have the experience of all of them to deal with risks and crises. It may or may not be a committee but that’s it.


People say, “What about the technology committee?” There isn’t one it required, as probably your readers know but audit finance, compensation, ESG, or a similar title and then enterprise risk, maybe the whole board. It’s important for your attorney’s reading to identify which committee she or he can add value to and bring valuable experience. If you’re in the mid-career, start developing a specialty over the next years to someday serve on a corporate board but planning, navigating, and always saying to yourself, “I intend to serve on a public company board down the line. I’m concentrating on my specialty development.”

The Legal Department | Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire | Corporate Board
Corporate Board: Your attorneys must listen and identify which committee they can add value to and bring a valuable experience.


That’s super interesting. For people in my seat, I’d be a great board member. I understand the company and how the company works more. I don’t know if you feel this way since you do executive search but I feel like very few of the C-Suite folks besides the CEO and the general counsel see broadly across a company, which makes us well-suited for a board role. It is very helpful to hear that there are certain specialty areas like real estate. Cyber is because of the SEC requirements, and to hear that the comp committee is where it’s at.


The board, as you all know, is responsible for hiring and firing the CEO. Being there for the comp committee is very important. I’m not dismissing overall governance or awareness of the business, trends, and what could be affecting the business. Corporate board members and public company board members are paid.


You are paid for the part of your brain that constantly is thinking about the company where you serve on the corporate board. You don’t think about it when you show up for the quarterly board meetings. You’re thinking about it all the time. There are a lot of documents and paperwork that you review before the corporate board meeting that all of your attorneys are very familiar with.


Extensive Business Contacts


We’re the only people that read the board packet. In your experience, you’ve been with 50/50 Women on Boards and working in this space for so long. I’m sure you have a lot of women lawyers approaching you about interest in boards. Do you feel like they are board-ready or outside of this specialty needing to specialize in any of these areas? Is there anything that you feel that is a common growth opportunity for lawyers who are seeking a board role?


Yes. All boards look for board members who have extensive business contacts. Why? It’s because corporate boards want their companies to grow. They bring on individuals on their board when there is an opening who have business contacts who will enhance the influence of the board and bring business to the company. Attorneys have extensive networks of business contacts and always growing from your clients to your friends and people you went to law school with.

The Legal Department | Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire | Corporate Board
Corporate Board: Look for board members who have extensive business contacts that will enhance their influence and bring business to the company.


This is an asset that a lot of women don’t even realize to say when you’re having a conversation with a contact or at a reception where not anecdotally, you’re saying directly that you intend to serve on a corporate board, and you are working toward that. You mentioned your particular specialty background. You’ve been working in this field for twenty years or whatever it is. You happened to have an extensive network of business contacts valuable to a board. That’s a little pointer that might come in handy.


I did an episode with Michael Melcher, who wrote Your Invisible Network. He’s got a lot of specific tactics for building and cultivating your network. I don’t think a lot of lawyers value or see that their networks and contacts are an asset. It’s helpful to hear that that’s something that makes you stand out in a board search.


You can’t stand at a reception and say, “I handle legal matters for this company.”


You have to be careful about it.


You can certainly say for a major technology company or a major healthcare company. You don’t have to say who. When I said technology and healthcare, another tip is that your specialty, whatever it is, should be developed in an industry like technology, financial services, or other industries like utilities or consumer products. You have an industry.


There’s a hook for who you are.


You are a specialist in that industry or you have years of experience in that industry. Many attorneys, especially those who work for law firms, are working for all kinds of clients.


Pitching Interests


It’s important to cultivate that. You’ve mentioned a couple of times about how to pitch or talk about your interests. That’s something I was excited to talk with you about because many of us have these board aspirations. I don’t know if this is a woman thing or a general thing but it feels icky and uncomfortable to think about being in a conversation with somebody and saying very directly, “I’d love to serve on a corporate board one day.”


I’d like you to be even more specific so it doesn’t feel at all icky. It’s all women who suffer from this. Believe me. Is this boasting?


It feels braggy or weird. I don’t know.


You feel that way but it’s not. Look at it this way that you are sharing with contacts or friends that you intend to serve on a corporate board and you are looking for the right one for you. This is what we train. At 50/50 Women on Boards, we have our educational events, fifteen in the US and Los Angeles, upcoming May 3rd, 2024. We also have our workshops called Get on Board.


In those workshops, we train the women on what to say about themselves, specifically about their experience that would be meaningful to a corporate board, not their overall general experience but specific bullet points of what would be meaningful to a corporate board. We train the women in the Get on Board workshop on what to put into your board profile.


This is not a resume or CV. These are bullet points very well-honed and not lots of words saying, “I’m a respected senior executive,” and all that. No adjectives or verbs. It’s just the bullet points of achievements and knowledge or specialty. That’s what we do in our Get on Board workshop. The third thing is strategic networking, how to do it, and what to say so that it becomes part of your branding, outreach, and conversation every day.


When you go to a reception, it’s something good to talk about. It’s not just talking about the kids or your latest case in general but I’m seeking a corporate board. I’m navigating my networks and specialty area to find a corporate board. “Joe, I know that you serve on corporate boards. I would welcome your advice someday. I’d like to put together my board profile. May I be in touch?”


This is what we train our women to say, specifically to say, “May I have a short fifteen-minute Zoom with you if you might look at my board profile? Have a conversation with me as to what you think my strength would be to bring to a corporate board.” Men love to give their advice. Do you have men in your audience? I’m sure they love to give advice. For those of us who married and been married for years, they like to give advice.


Strategic Work


Let’s talk about the strategic network. I’ve looked into some of the programming and I see that a lot of the faculty for these programs are sitting directors. I wanted to dig a little bit into that. As you’re looking at your network, I don’t know that it would occur to me that I should focus on folks who are already on boards. Why is that?


The advice that they give you is good advice for one but also this makes you memorable. They may not ever think of you for their board but what you say and what we train the women to say in the workshop is, “Joe, I know that you are very respected in business. I know that your friends who serve on boards frequently call you, probably looking for a woman. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share my board profile with you that I created with 50/50 Women on Boards,” and you don’t have to say, “I would welcome your advice.


Stand right there and talk to him, “I would welcome your advice. I’m looking for a board in technology or real estate because of my background.” It’s anything you can say that helps them pigeonhole you. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed but in this case, you do because that’s the only way that you’ll be memorable. You have twenty years of experience in real estate law. You don’t have to come across right away saying, “I’m an attorney,” but, “I have twenty years of experience in real estate or consumer products. I’m an attorney for a company in that industry.”

Nobody wants to be pigeonholed, but you must seek it out when getting into a corporate board. It is the only way to make yourself memorable. Click To Tweet

I’ve always felt like corporate boards are a chicken and egg or getting the first one is the hard one. Once people know you’re on one, then you’re more likely to get considered or they’re aware for other opportunities.


They can also call their buddies and say, “How is she on the board? Is she collegial? Does she ask too many questions? Does she bring added value in a certain area?” That’s what they want. That’s why getting on the first board through your friends is so critical. People will still call one another who know you. It’s much easier to get the second or third because they can call their buddies and find out what kind of a board member you were.


The sitting directors are more likely to have access to the opportunities.


Not necessarily. This is interesting. When we got the law passed in California, which was passed in 2018 and enacted in 2019, for three years, with 750 California public companies, only half of them had women on their boards before we started. 34% of the board seats in California are held by women and both are only 29% nationwide.


When we started back in 2010, the number was 10% across the board and a board seat held by women. We’ve come a long way, women, but we’re still a long way, and that is our mission at 50/50 Women on Boards. I digress there only to say that the first year that the law was passed, I thought search firms and maybe other CEOs got a lot of calls but most women who I’ve talked to who got on board that first year, called their attorneys, CPAs, and bankers.


When I say they, I mean the companies or the boards, the nominating and governance chair called their company attorney, external attorney, company banker, and company CPA. They know that those professionals know women who know the industry and our businesswomen who could have trusted business experience. That’s how most of the women the first year got on boards. They were recommended by their CPA, banker, or attorney. All of you have CPAs, bankers, and attorneys. That’s where you start telling your contacts of your interest to find someday, if not immediately, the corporate board for you. Isn’t that interesting?


It is very. I keep looking down because I’m taking furious notes about all these tips. It occurred to me as you were talking. How long does it take? Once you start sharing your intention and “putting yourself out there,” do you have any metrics on about how long it takes to land that?


2 years to 20 years. I have women who attend our workshops who are in their 50s and they say, “If I only knew this 20 years ago, I could be working my network all these years.” You’re building trusted contacts and friends in business. Boards are built on trust. They have to know your background. They’re not going to bring on strangers. Would you? On a board, you’re going to bring on someone whose business judgment you trust.

Nobody would put a stranger to the corporate board. They will always bring in someone they know and trust. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about age then. Generally, many of you who are in boardrooms will know the accepted step-down age from a public company board is 75. It used to be 72, and then the guys got to be 72, and they moved it to 70. Some want to move it to 80 but the shareholders are not putting up with that unless the board member who wants to stay on until death is Warren Buffet or the similar. Generally, a step down for men and women at 75. Therefore, board wants to have somebody or nominating candidates who could have a 10-to-15-year runway.


They don’t want somebody in their 70s already who they’re going to bring on for the first time. They want someone in their 50s. The average age for women is 57, serving on corporate boards. For men, it’s 59. Women in the audience and men want to start navigating their networks, thinking about serving on boards by the time they’re in their late 50s, if not their early 50s, that’s public company boards. Working backward, they should be on nonprofit boards or United Way, Girl Scouts, hospital boards, or boards of trustees of their universities. These are all nonprofits.


The reason to do that is, to put a fine point on it, it’s threefold. You are passionate about whatever organization making a contribution. I would bet it’s the contacts and strategic network that you develop from serving. Also, having a track record of board experience.


All three. I would move to develop top-level business contacts to the number one spot.


Is that the number one thing people should focus their time on, building and maintaining the contacts?


Also, building their networks. When you serve on a nonprofit board, especially a large one, and when you decide you want to serve on a board, choose by, yes, your passion. You could also serve on United Way. They serve many organizations that could meet your passion but there are outstanding business leaders on that board in particular. There are many others. You’ll find outstanding business leaders on your board of trustees at the university where you attended or the university where you want to be on the board.


Those contacts need to see you in action. A nonprofit board is raising money. It’s developing more exposure for a more influence for the nonprofit as well. Demonstrating on that nonprofit board your business and finance experience. If you’re on a nonprofit board, you should show up. You have to raise money. It doesn’t mean you have to give your money. You can raise money from corporate sponsors but you have to do the work to earn your stripes.

The Legal Department | Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire | Corporate Board
Corporate Board: In a non-profit board, you should show up and raise money, either by giving your own or from corporate sponsors, to earn your stripes.


You’re paying your dues and eating top-level businesspeople, men as well as women, women as well as men who could see you in action and then be able to recommend you when their buddies call them and say, “We need to find a woman.” In my two books, I’ve interviewed and done the stories of 113 women on how they got onto their first board. This was shocking to me. Eighty-five percent were recommended by someone they knew on their nonprofit boards for their first board.


There’s a big ROI on that.


I am a high-level woman and I started on my first nonprofit board when I was 30 on March of Dimes of Southern California. People I met through that board have become friends over the years, clients, and influential business contacts. Those of you who are in this audience, don’t wait. Get started when in your 30s, even your 20s. You can start as a volunteer and then work your way onto a nonprofit board. All of you can serve on private company boards.


Private Vs. Public Companies


To me, the public company seems less fun. There seems like there’s more money but it seems less fun because so much of what they do is regulated whereas a private company feels like there’d be a little more freedom in what you do.


Private companies pay some compensation, $50,000, $80,000 a year perhaps, or maybe less but it’s the fun of helping to run a company. There is that fine line between giving legal advice as opposed to being a senior-level board member. Many companies where women attorneys could get on boards are private equity-held companies is important.


For venture capital, you probably need to make an investment to be on the board. It doesn’t have to be huge but for those of you in the audience who have friends who are in the private equity world, there are major companies here in Los Angeles, Platinum and Houlihan Lokey and many other smaller ones. There’s a list in the LA Business Journal of private equity firms. They are always looking for board members to represent their interests on boards in their portfolio.


The good thing about getting on a private equity board is attorneys can do this. It’s not as limited as all the company boards. With permission of your law firm and your CEO, if you’re a general counsel, they usually don’t have a problem with that. You’re serving on a private equity board. The good thing is if the company then goes through an IPO, there’s a possibility. Even on a private equity board, you can make money and can be paid. They’re all different.


Being Too Pushy


I was talking with somebody from Diversity Lab, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. It’s an organization that helps promote diversity and inclusion in law firms and law departments. A big barrier for folks in wanting to move forward in their careers is a lack of transparency about what it takes. This conversation is helpful because you’re pulling back the curtain about the board process. Are there any big mistakes you see people make? You have a great curriculum at 50/50 Women on Boards and have given a lot of thought to it. I don’t know how many events that you’ve done. Hundreds probably.


The only mistake is to blatantly ask people who serve on boards, “I want to serve on your board.” That’s too pushy. The thing to do is gradually, over the months and years, ask advice and not what board do you suggest I would get on. Nobody is going to take you on. No board members or people who are in that world have the time or the interest in representing you. That’s the mistake I see some women make.

The biggest mistake people make when joining a corporate board is blatantly saying that they want to serve on the board. Click To Tweet

Men can be more blatant on the golf course like, “Joe, I want to serve on your board or that board when you retire from your board.” Those legacy relationships from the golf course or other business relationships with men is part of the roadblock that we women run into and develop those golf course relationships. On the golf course, you could let your buddy win at golf for twenty years.


“When you retire from your board, I want your seat.’ The guy says, “Of course.” Some of those promises are what we are bucking up against. Our mission is more important than ever because we’re trying to reach 50% of all board seats held by women and 20% of all board seats held by women of color. Women as a gender, only 50%, that’s like a good marriage. Not as it is now, 70% men, 30% women.


Women Helping Women


I want to also shift and talk about what women should do to help other women. If you are a sitting board member or you have contacts, it’s not just about what you want to learn to do yourself but how you can be a benefactor to others.


Women are wonderful in that regard. Gone are the days that the women were the barracudas who got on a board and close the door behind them and say, “I got mine. The rest of you women are outside.” No, there might be some of those women left but they’re dying or we’re getting rid of them somehow but no, the women help one another. That’s why at our workshops, we have women directors more than men but some men.


In our event in Los Angeles on May 3rd, 2024, we have a director, we call them director coaches, but a corporate public company director seated at every table. There will be 25 to 30 tables with 10 people around the table where that director, women, as well as men, is helping those women and coaching them on what to say about their experience, how to navigate their networks, and how to do a board profile but very specifically coaching each woman at the table.


We set them up by peer groups. Mid-level career women are in the same table, having a relevant discussion, senior women at different tables, and C-Suite women are at a different table. There are 2 or 3 tables of those who are already on a board and looking for their next. At each one, we have women and men coaching the participants. It’s heartwarming and gratifying.


We’re helping women get to corporate boards and advance their careers, even if they don’t get to a corporate board, just the networking. The awareness of themselves and their very valuable experience, and talking about it in a comfortable way is an advantage to enhancing their careers. Your women should not only come to our event but bring their women clients and help one another. I’m very encouraged about women helping one another. Gone are the days of the old barracudas.


I’m excited for the event. I’m thrilled to know you, Betsy. Where can people find out more about the May 3rd, 2024 event and 50/50 Women on Boards?


Easily on our website, Our entire website comes up, which includes research and all of our programs. Go to Programs under City Events and you’ll see Los Angeles, or put into the Google 50/50 Women on Boards, Los Angeles, May 3rd, 2024, and that comes up. You register. Tickets are $250. We’re always looking for sponsorships but it is only two days away. Even coming as yourself at $250.


We are not a membership organization. The only revenues we generate are through corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. I would like to, and I haven’t done so, develop more law firms as corporate sponsors. Even if women don’t get on a public company board, getting on nonprofits and getting on private equity boards, development, and all attorneys are responsible for bringing in business. They’re very good.

The Legal Department | Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire | Corporate Board
Corporate Board: Getting on non-profit and private equity boards expands a great pipeline.


It seems like a no-brainer to sponsor for those law firm partners who are reading.


Let me add. Katherine Blair from Manatt is one of our speakers. We have a panel of four speakers who give their stories of how they got on corporate boards, their first one. We turn it over to the director coaches. The event is three and a half hours long. It’s an educational session. This is not just getting together for lunch and hearing a panel. No. It’s very beneficial.


She serves on the board of Skechers and was the first woman on the board of Skechers. At 50/50, we gave Skechers a lot of pressure because all their customers are women. They didn’t have any women on their boards for years and relenting to pressure. They put Katherine on the board. She has two other women. See, you get one woman on the board, she brings in more.


Pump-Up Song And Closing Words


Get your nose under the tent. Betsy, my last question, which is a little lighter, is I’ve used music throughout my life and my career to get pumped up many times for board meetings that I knew were going to be tough. What is your pump-up song?


My pump-up song is I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. That’s important for all of us no matter what pursuit, especially for women. There are so many pressures in life, personal, family, and work but no matter what, we will survive.


Betsy, thank you so much for being here. I hope folks check out 50/50 Women on Boards and the May 3rd, 2024 event. Thank you.


Thanks, Stacy. I appreciate your interest in this whole topic. We’ll see you on May 3rd, 2024.


Important Links


About Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire

The Legal Department | Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire | Corporate BoardFor 26 years, Betsy has co-owned Berkhemer Clayton, Inc., a retained executive search firm based in Los Angeles, specializing in senior-level and board searches for corporations, universities and nonprofit organizations. The firm is distinguished for commitment to advancing gender and ethnic diversity on corporate boards and in senior management positions throughout the country, with 44% of placed management candidates women and 36% men and women of color.


Starting in 2018, she also became CEO of the nonprofit 2020 Women on Boards, the leading global education and advocacy campaign committed to increasing the number of women directors on public company boards of directors. A 501c3 research and education nonprofit, 2020WOB produces the annual Global Conversation on Board Diversity in more than 30 cities every November, and Get on Board! Interactive workshops. She is the author of two books, “The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors” and “Winning the Board Game: How Women Directors Make the Difference.” Both books offer real-world guidelines and profiles of current women corporate directors to help women seek board positions as their ultimate career goal.


As a statewide board member of the National Association of Women Business Owners-California (NAWBO-CA), Betsy led the successful NAWBO-CA campaign to secure passage of SB 826, effective January 2019, the first and only law in the U.S. requiring every public company in California to have at least three women board members before year-end 2021. She previously served on the boards of the Southern California Leadership Network and UCLA Medical Center, and the consumer advisory board for SoCal Edison.


Before founding Berkhemer Clayton with Fred Clayton, Betsy built one of the largest independent public relations firms in Southern California, which was acquired by Golin. She is a UCLA graduate and lives in the historic Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. The Berkhemer Clayton and 2020WOB offices are located in Downtown Los Angeles.

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