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General counsel advice on increasing your boardroom presence

Tips from top general counsel on how to establish yours

Let’s first define what we mean by boardroom presence, as this is an essential quality companies seek when making a senior level hire. We are talking about business maturity, confidence, presentation ability, and interpersonal skills.

I asked three leading general counsel for advice that junior to mid-level inside counsel can use to build their board room presence. My thanks go to Christine Castellano of Ingredion, Carrie Hightman of NiSource and Jim Rogers of Orbitz.

Christine and Jim encourage you to help with board meetings as a starting point. “Volunteer to take notes at a board meeting,” Jim suggests. “Even if you do not get to present before the board, offer to help prepare governance documents or other items which will be presented to the board,” Christine says.

Long before you get your first opportunity to present to the board, hone your skills outside the boardroom. Presentations to senior management are ideal preparation, but some readers might benefit from extracurricular practice via toastmasters clubs and similar small group public speaking formats. “Ask for feedback from individuals you trust, but who will give you an honest opinion,” Christine suggests. “Did you appear confident, poised, and knowledgeable or did you appear unsure, nervous or arrogant?”

Once you get your opportunity, Carrie points out the important nuanced difference between presentations to management and board level interaction. “Critical to being effective as counsel in the board room is knowing when to speak up and when to defer to the CEO and board.” Carrie adds, “You need to understand what the CEO expects and what he or she is trying to accomplish in order to optimize your participation in the board meeting and to be invited back.”

The ability to remain concise in the boardroom is critical, according to Carrie and Jim. “The board is looking for broad strokes,” Jim says, “speak concisely and clearly. Insecurity manifests itself in providing too much detail (on a legal issue) and lacking decisiveness. Confidence and conciseness go hand in glove.” Carrie explains, “You need to understand that perfect is the enemy of the good. It isn’t important to state or restate every legal principle so long as the principle is generally understood by the board.”

Of course, you will be thoroughly prepared to answer questions. Speaking of preparation, Christine reminds you to “make sure you know the board members’ biographies before you meet them. Be able to address them by name, and know on which board committees they sit.”

While preparation is a given and will help your confidence level, some of you will still be nervous your first few times in the room. None of our experts volunteered the “picture everyone naked” advice, although you may contact me for tips on fighting stage fright generally if that’s a real concern for you. Jim reminds us, “Board members are just people.” So, find that balance between speaking comfortably on the one hand while, as Jim puts it, “resisting the desire to show off your knowledge” on the other.

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