April 14th, 2022

“You’re not going to get a public company board seat as your first board. Stop looking, it’s not going to happen!”

For three years, Barbara Troupin heard this feedback again and again. Last month, after interviewing for 20+ boards and receiving as many rejections, Barbara’s patience and persistence paid off as she was appointed as an independent director for Equillium, a Nasdaq-listed clinical-stage biotech company.

Barbara is a serial Chief Medical Officer who helps biotech companies scale from startup through commercialization. She is a seasoned executive and board advisor in the areas of biotech, pharma, and life sciences. In 2018, she was propelled on her board journey by two combining forces: working as an operating executive with the exceptional board at Aquinox Pharmaceuticals, and the company’s subsequent phase three failure that left her without a job.

She joined Athena in September 2018, setting her sights on networking towards her first board role at the industry’s premier investor event the following January. She worked with Athena to develop her board pitch, board application materials (what we call the Branded Career Portfolio), and networking strategy.

How networking brought her first public board seat to fruition

Barbara continued interviewing for board and executive roles, stewarded her network, and stayed close with recruiters and industry titans. But despite checking all the right boxes, she still faced rejection.

“On three occasions, when I got to the point of interviewing with the full board, they would say ‘We don’t know anyone who knows you, you’re not part of the circle,’” Barbara recalls. “To me, that was incredibly frustrating.”

After every interview, whether with a CEO or recruiter, she would mention her intention to seek a board role in tandem with an executive role. She landed her executive role, but the board role was still elusive.

“It was part of my interview script,” Barbara said. Finally, her long-term commitment to networking paid off. “I was interviewing for an executive role with the company’s chairman, who is a well-known, well-respected biotech CEO. He sits on the Nom/Gov Committee for Equillium, and introduced me to the company. It even turned out that I knew their executive chairman. The investor on the board used to be a research analyst in life sciences covering companies I worked with. Those connections were incredibly helpful in building trust.”

Her name was put forward and she interviewed with the board, investors, and CEO. But without that initial connection with the Nom/Gov chair, and his direct support and endorsement, she doesn’t believe she would have been considered a top candidate.

“How do you find the people who will make those introductions at the right time?” Barbara reflected. “There’s some fairy dust that goes into that.”

The fairy dust: Lessons learned in the search for a public board seat

  • Know what you want. “I wanted my first board experience to be a good one, because that may be my only board experience until I get closer to retirement. I knew it needed to be adjacent to my current work so there weren’t conflicts of interest. I was particularly interested in the dynamics between the board and management. It was important to me that they had a mature, sophisticated board and executive team where you can intervene, ask questions, and guide from a distance. I was sort of picky, but also wanted to tailor my skills and value to be the best fit for a board.”
  • Know what you’re bringing to the table. “Having a slightly non-traditional background and knowing I was going for a niche seat made my search more challenging. I got a lot of feedback that my background was broader than they were looking for. People kept saying ‘You’d be a great Chief Medical Officer, we should hire you for that,’ or ‘We should have you as an advisor to our CEO.’ People recognized my value and experience, they just weren’t connecting it to board service. My Athena Coach, Tissa Richards, helped me understand that you have to package it for them versus explaining your whole range of talent and letting them figure out how it applies to their board. Once I did that, the types of boards I was seeing and the interviews I was having were cleaner, clearer, and closer to what I desired.”
  • Know the board’s reasons for recruiting you—and make sure they’re the right ones. “I interviewed with a handful of boards focused only on trying to tick the box for having a women board member. I knew those were not the right fit for me.“
  • Target the right company size and stage. “I kept coming across boards that were too early stage for my expertise and value. They should be recruiting for the person they need now through the next three years, not someone whose expertise they need five years down the road.”
  • Make consistent progress, but give yourself permission to pause. “Keep saying, to yourself and others, ‘I want a board seat. This is important to me.’ My search went in bursts, balancing the demands of a full-time executive role with networking and outreach to broaden my board visibility.”
  • Stay top-of-mind for your network. “I didn’t have a cadence for how often to follow up with my contacts. I set a reminder to check in a year later, and most of them had forgotten I had any interest in boards. I was a little disheartened at how fast I fell off their radar. I needed to follow their companies and find organic ways to stay connected with CEOs and sitting board directors, like saying ‘congratulations on your recent fundraising round’, ‘that was an interesting data release’, etc. I would ping the board-focused recruiters in my industry every six months and find ways to stay in touch with CEOs and board members in my network multiple times a year.”
  • Work with a coach to solidify your value proposition and board go-to-market strategy. “I started to work with Athena Coach Cate Goethals to build a very clear vision for what I wanted and why, and subsequently worked with Tissa to reposition my messaging. I knew the type of board I wanted based on where I brought the greatest value (a clinical-stage public biotech or small pharmaceutical company). My coaching focused on how to best state my value as a board member rather than an executive. I realized I was often blurring the lines and not coming across as clearly as I desired. Tissa was great helping me with this!”

Athena helps women leaders reach the next step of their careers. Are you ready to step into the boardroom or C-suite? Athena can help you get there.



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