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Corporate Governance

Lessons in Leadership and Branding: Q&A with Governance Expert Betsy Atkins

Betsy Atkins shares some fascinating personal anecdotes from her experiences as a serial entrepreneur and board member.

Betsy Atkins Public Company Director and Corporate Governance Thought Leader

What common mistakes do board candidates make?  Who are the corporate leaders that board members look to as role models? Is a nonprofit board seat a viable stepping-stone to public board service?

Veteran board member and entrepreneur Betsy Atkins was asked so many follow-up questions during a recent webinar interview hosted by Nasdaq, that time ran out before she could respond to them all.  As promised, we followed up with Betsy to get answers to those audience questions, which are listed below. 

If you missed the webinar, Betsy shared some fascinating personal anecdotes from her experiences as a serial entrepreneur and board member, so the replay is worth a listen: Lessons in Leadership and Branding.

Q: What corporate leaders are most inspirational to you and why?

Betsy Atkins: Jeff Bezos is really inspirational to me because for such a large-scale company Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) still innovates and is very decisive.  The fact that a company the size of Amazon continues to grow and innovate is fabulous.

The other person who is really inspires me is Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy.  He’s now the executive chairman of that company.  He did something almost nobody has been able to do, which is take a company that has basically flat-lined and bring it back to life.  The Circuit City brand (which was for years Best Buy’s closest competitor) went out of business while Best Buy, under Joly’s leadership, went from diminishing growth back to growth.

I’ve seen estimates that only four percent of companies go back to growing after they flat line.  That's why we're all so excited about Satya Nadella's success in repositioning Microsoft - it’s rare to successfully take a company that is not growing, and hasn't grown for multiple years, and find a way to bring it back to growth.  I think it’s amazing when that happens. 

Q: Is there a board out there you aspire to join and, if so, what makes that board fascinating to you? 

BA: I definitely would join Amazon if they invited me.  I think Novartis is a fascinating board and so is Gilead Sciences. Novartis at its scale as a pharma company has done an incredible job on product development, on distribution, and on successfully integrating a big merger.  Gilead is way out front of everybody else on solving the issues associated with viruses—I believe they do the most innovative work on viruses on the planet. 

Q:  What is the most common mistake you see made in the boardroom?

BA: Poor emotional intelligence (EQ). Everybody who gets to the board room normally has high IQ but doesn’t always have great EQ or people skills. Poor EQ can materially impact the working relationships and effectiveness of a board. 

If you become a board member, learn to read the room. If you pay close attention, body language from your fellow board members will tell you whether you’re chiming in too frequently or talking too much or if your comments are resonating.

Q: If your goal is to join a corporate board, is joining a nonprofit board a good first step?

BA:  It depends on the board.  There's a range of nonprofit boards.  If it's a big university board where all they want from you is fundraising connections and your checkbook, I don't know that you're going to learn a lot there. 

Now, if it's a smaller board that wants your help and expertise to execute the substance of the mission and to help craft and execute strategy, that kind of experience is very relevant to future corporate board service.  For example, let's say you're serving with a regional Big Brother Big Sister organization in your town and you're helping with program development and strategies like building the pool of people who come in to do the mentoring of boys and girls or building relationships to identify a pool of at-risk children to be mentored—those experiences are relevant to public board service.

Be mindful when you pick a nonprofit that you're learning portable, transferable skills that you can articulate (other than just fundraising), that you are learning to support and guide how the operation works, how it grows, how it progresses, and how it handles problems.  Those skills would all apply.

Q: What are your thoughts on serving on advisory boards?

BA: I think advisory boards are outstanding—if they are engaged. A good advisory board can add a ton of value and really help move a company forward, so serving on one can teach you a lot.  Additionally, an advisory board can become a feeder for the board room if you make good connections.

Q: Are there common mistakes board candidates make that eliminate them from contention early on?

BA:  There are two that come to mind.  First, remember that subconsciously people want to know whether a candidate is a culture fit, which means appearance is important. A candidate should try to mirror the style and appearance of the company’s leaders. If company culture has executives buttoned up and wearing jackets and ties, then don’t come to a board interview in jeans. If company leaders wear hoodies and sweats, don’t show up for a board interview in a stuffy suit.

Second, don’t talk too much about yourself.  If you don’t ask questions and listen carefully to the answers, not only will you turn off your interviewer, but you won’t learn much about the board you seek to serve on. The ideal ratio is 65% listening and 35% percent talking.

Q: Did you have a mentor in your career and if so, how did this relationship change you?

BA: My greatest mentor was my mother. She always pushed me to believe anything is possible and to dream big.  She helped me reinforce that attitude with a “never quit trying” work ethic that has served me very well during my career.

Q: What is the best way to close the loop after you apply something you learned from a mentor?

BA: I think it is incredibly important to either call or write to your mentor and let them know that you have applied their insights and how it has been valuable. Mentors want to know that they added value to your career and that the time they spent with you brought meaningful results.

Q: A lot of boards seek millennials now for board positions, feeling they have more relevant expertise. There are a lot of talented, experienced women in technology who are not millennials who are being overlooked.  Do you have any advice for women in technology to get noticed?

BA: I think the most effective way to be noticed is to go out of your way to build a network by helping others and doing favors for people. I think if you extend yourself in multiple acts of unsolicited assistance, you build up the good will to go back to the network and ask them for an introduction or advice. It’s like a bank. You can’t withdraw unless you’ve already deposited.

To listen to a replay of the webinar, visit Lessons in Leadership and Branding

For more advice on board readiness, read Get Board Ready with Veteran Corporate Director Betsy Atkins

Betsy Atkins serves as President and Chief Executive Officer at Baja Corp, a venture capital firm. She is currently on the board of directors of Covetrus (Nasdaq: CVET), Wynn Resorts(Nasdaq: WYNN), and SL Green Realty. Betsy is also the author of Be Board Ready: The Secrets to Landing a Board Seat and Being a Great Director and Behind Boardroom Doors.