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Women’s path to the corporate boardroom

Women looking to serve on corporate boards would do well to listen to Julie Norris, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive search firm.

“Build an external brand,” Norris said. “Speak at events, write articles, and get to know people outside of your industry.”

“Excel at your day job,” she continued. “Be great at what you do, whether you’re the chief financial officer or the head of marketing.”

Norris’ advice piqued the interest of dozens of female presidents, CEOs, and executive directors who filled the Alumni Center on Tuesday evening for a two-hour panel discussion on women’s path to the corporate boardroom.

In addition to Norris, the panelists comprised Mary Baglivo, chief marketing officer and vice president of global marketing at Northwestern University; and Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of Practically Green, the leading technology provider of sustainability engagement programs for global companies.

The conversation was moderated by Henry Nasella, Northeastern’s chair of the Board of Trustees, and co-sponsored in part by 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign dedicated to increasing the percentage of women on corporate boards by the year 2020.

The discussion ranged from why more women should serve on corporate boards to what a prospective board member should know before accepting the position.

The former topic is a simple matter of dollars and sense. A 2011 study by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that companies with higher proportions of women on boards exhibit a higher degree of organization, above-average operating margins, and higher valuations.

“Diverse teams get better results, particularly in terms of innovation and new product development,” said Baglivo, who serves on the board of directors of Baby Jogger, Phillips Van Heusen, and Host Hotels and Resorts.

Large corporations appear to be listening. In 2013, women made up 16.6 percent of board membership in Fortune 1000 companies, up from 14.6 percent in 2011.

The growth is exciting, the panelists agreed, but it should not prompt prospective board members to accept the first position they’re offered.

Instead, they should “think about what skills they have that could be a fit for the companies they’re interested in,” said Baglivo. “I’ve always done better in subject matters that are fun and pique my curiosity.”

According to Stevens, prospective board members should vet their potential colleagues before accepting the position. Stevens, who sits on the board of Xconomy.com, recommends asking, “Do I like the people I’m on the board with? Do I like the investors? Do I like the founder?”

Nasella, who is currently on the board of directors of Au Bon Pain, Natural Food Holdings, and Phillips Van Heusen, agreed with Stevens’ assessment strategy. “You better like the other board members,” he said. “Collegiality is really important.”

So, too, is writing an engaging board CV. In the Q-and-A, Norris instructed one woman who asked for advice on fine-tuning her curriculum vitae to write a “one-page snapshot of who you are and your value proposition.” The ability to articulate her expertise, Norris told her, would “make you all the more compelling.”