By Nilofer Merchant (Contributing Writer, Harvard Business Review)
Once again, the topic of women on boards is getting play.

Most of Facebook’s 800 million users are women, but all of its seven directors are men. It’s such a big disconnect that it makes one question if their strategy is fundamentally wrong.

There’s plenty of research already out there that proves that it makes good business sense, so in my mind this is not about women’s equity as much as it is about being smart and building a company for the long haul.

This needs to change, and I have some faith that it will change even in absence of any data to point to… but it means we all need to get ready to be a part of that change. Angie Chang, editor of this venue asked me if I could offer some tips to those of you thinking about board roles in the long-term.

Step 1: Dare to raise your hand.

Even if it’s a dog assignment. Showing ambition has long been viewed as something women especially shouldn’t do. But raising your hand when there’s a problem to be fixed, an opportunity to be addressed gets you in the game, and is central to getting you a seat at the table.

I remember a project I got asked to do at Apple. A senior executive who was running Apple USA (the sales and marketing arm for the region) ran into me in the hallway. He had never really talked to me before though he knew of me from Town Hall meetings, beer bashes, and such. But when he stopped me that day, he was holding a spreadsheet of two different business lines. One was declining in profit and stalling on sales. Another was ant-like in size but high in profit. He then handed me the spreadsheet and asked if I could show him how to grow this tiny little part of the business. so it could contribute a more meaningful part and thus improve our bottom line.

I honestly knew NOTHING about what he was talking about. But I said, “sure” and got prepared. When I called friends who would be able to offer me clues, they told me that this executive had asked all of them, too but they had passed because it was a shit assignment. They thought it wasn’t really solvable and they were associated with more “important” product lines.

But I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to fix it. I gathered lots of information, developed an answer, presented a potential solution at a subsequent executive meeting, and then was asked to lead the effort to architect the new program in the marketplace. I pulled all nighters and pushed hard to learn what I needed to learn.

I never lied (no “fake it till you make it” thing) that I knew it already, because that would have been dishonest. Instead, I shared with people that I didn’t know the answer but could use their help in finding the answer. A little bit of hustle and push meant it became a reality. The program that followed was heralded by the industry, and earned many awards. It made my career within Apple in many ways. Something my friends in other parts of the business didn’t get because they were playing on safer turf.

Step 2: Get P&L experience.

Making payroll, balancing investment decisions, and deciding what to cut to make an organization profitable – these are hard stay-up-at-night challenges. But they are the ones that Boards need to make regularly. If you don’t have experience in creating incentives and measures that align behavior to the organizations’ business, then you’re not in a position to do it for another company where you have even less specifics from which to operate.

While I can appreciate the people who call themselves a “director of such-n-such” and “CEO of their own consulting company”, it’s important to know they are a leader in title only because role does not involve a P&L. While I had run a company P&L, it was making payroll that made me get it.

I started a company back in 1999 as a solo-preneur but the day I made my first payroll made me a CEO and entrepreneur. I’m a big believer in not only knowing what makes a business tick financially, but living it. Titles and studies only take you so far. Get the operational experience by running a non-profit, or become an entrepreneur, or something.

Step 3: Silence kills.

Speak up and get your ideas heard. Most organizations get in trouble when they start taking things for granted. They buy into their own good press. They believe that because their founder had a great hit the first time, that person now has the chops to find the 2nd market.

In reality, it takes challenging thinking to figure out what market to go after, how to defend against a competitor, or ways to win in the market place. Never forget to speak up if you have a divergent point of view and something to add. Never forget to lobby for what you think is right.

I’ve written over at Harvard Business Review about this a lot, so I’ll point to a few articles worth noting if this is a problem area (here, here and here).

Step 4: Build the tribe.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Every thing good that has ever happened is because someone I already know helps me. Whether it was my internal Apple network who helped me know who to work with to get things done, or whether it was in growing a consulting business to be a multi-million dollar enterprise, or in getting my first corporate board seat. Realize every person you are working with today could end up working with you in some future life.

Think long term, help people whenever you can and remember to ask for help when you need it. Helping others is the way we help ourselves. But make sure when it’s your time, to ask for help also and to surround yourself with people who know how to help you.

Step 5: Don’t let your history ground you in the past.

We are always two people – the person we’ve been, and the person we’re becoming. Think of it as a venn diagram, where we are in the middle of these two stories – the past and the future. In the moment is the creative act of inventing the future. If you are like me, there are countless reasons to believe that you’re not going to make it to the board room.

My own experience includes living in a slum when I was little, putting myself through college over the course of 15 years, because I was working and so on. If I asked myself if a person with this profile was ever going to get on a board, the answer would have to be no. My humble beginnings do not “pattern-match” to most people who serve in the C-Suite or on boards. Yet, here’s the thing.

To focus on what any of us have done is to be bound only by history. We deny our ability to be the future if deny our aspirations. We owe it to yourselves to allow our aspirations and dreams to flourish, so that we can also enable the process of defining who we’ll be.

My friend, Whitney Johnson, wrote recently that she’s glad Sheryl Sandberg isn’t on Facebook’s board, yet. She argues that this experience will build some empathy. And I understand her eloquent point.

We can learn a lot from disappointments, one of which is to keep going. None of us can say that we will be on boards or not, but we can remember that we are each responsible for “entering the room, sitting at the table, and chairing our lives.”

Let’s do that.

(p.s. There’s a Women in the Boardroom event on February 9, 2012 – Come say hi!)

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Nilofer Merchant is a corporate advisor and speaker on innovation methods. Her first book, The New How, offering a handbook for setting direction collaboratively to achieve results, was published in 2010. Follow her on Twitter at @nilofer or sign up to get her blog at