Diversity in the Boardroom
Corporate Governance

'Serving on a Board Made Me a Better CFO'

'Serving on a Board Made Me a Better CFO' | Coco Brown, founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, an organization dedicated to advancing women in leadership and in the boardroom, interviews Robin Washington, CFO of Gilead Sciences.

Nasdaq’s Winning Women series seeks to share the insights of successful business women from inside the boardroom and C-suite. 

In this discussion, Coco Brown, founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, an organization dedicated to advancing women in leadership and in the boardroom, interviews Robin Washington, CFO of Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD). Robin also serves on the boards of Alphabet (Nasdaq: GOOGL), Honeywell International, Inc. and Salesforce.com. Read on to learn Robin’s views on how board service has helped advance her career as a CFO. She also discusses how becoming savvy about boards before she became a C-suite executive opened her eyes to new opportunities and aspirations, ultimately transforming her career.

Coco Brown: You’ve said you’ve never felt that there was anything that you cannot do. That hard work and resilience is core to who you are. As you went through your career, did you ever anticipate that you would later serve on a corporate board?

Robin Washington: Neither board service or being a C-suite executive were top of mind for me as my career developed. Candidly, I think at that stage of my career as a female executive, I wasn’t thinking big enough about the possibilities. As the corporate controller at Peoplesoft, I worked for a great CFO and mentor. He sent me to a women’s corporate director program as part of my continued development. I found it intriguing and it really helped me understand how boards work, how an audit committee runs, and the role of the audit chair. It enabled me to better support the audit committee process as the corporate controller. During this program, we heard from board members, shareholders, and other experts about the strategic and corporate governance aspects of board roles which really resonated with areas of responsibilities in my career that I’ve always enjoyed, but more importantly, it opened my eyes to the bigger picture of possibilities to further my career.

Looking back, I realize now that thinking about board service earlier in your career can be very beneficial. It’s extremely helpful to understand how your board thinks about your business and industry trends. Plus, as you think about the skill sets needed for board service—collaboration, strategic thinking, deep functional expertise of certain markets or emerging areas such as big data and cybersecurity—you don’t necessarily need to ascend to the C-suite to start to develop board-ready capabilities. Thinking proactively about a board role can help shape your career.

CB: Did you have an ‘ah-ha’ moment when you realized that board service was in fact for you?

RW: I think going through that program demystified what the role of a board member truly is. Board roles are really a microcosm of a lot of different skill sets. I used to have this impression of board members being mostly CEOs. I realized that it’s important to have a diverse skill set and you don’t need to be a CEO to bring those capabilities to the boardroom A sense of collegiality and the ability to work cross functionally in a collaborative way is important– those were some of the key learnings I took away. I thought about my capabilities differently once I learned more about board experience. I thought, “Wow, I can strive for this in my career.”

CB: What are some reflections or insights you can share about serving as a board director while also serving as a CFO in parallel?

RW: During my first board role, I was a corporate controller. I joined before becoming a CFO. Having served in that capacity, I understood how to support the audit chair. Not only did that make me a stronger board member, it made me a better leader and CFO. I also appreciated that you can broaden your perspectives and provide new perspectives to different industries than the area or industry that you support in your operations role. Board roles further your exposure to different models of thinking and different modalities of strategy development. Further, the ability to interface with, and learn from, fellow board members can offer an enriching experience. 

Once you’re in the C-suite it’s hard to find great opportunities for continuous learning with different colleagues. Learning and interacting with board members can provide you additional resources. What people bring to bear is their experiences. You can learn from others’ insights and hearing from people who bring a broad, diverse range of skillsets to the table. You learn how to solve issues by collaborating and looking at a situation through different lenses.

CB: You’ve mentioned before that your first board appointment impacted your perspective as a CFO. Can you expand on that? In what ways, and does this still hold true today?

RW: Being on a board and seeing the various ways that the CFO was leveraged by the CEO and board gave me a greater appreciation for the various elements of the role. It made me very astute at building relationships with the audit committee and other board members. The CFO is heavily relied on by the CEO and board for data, information, and objectivity. You’re working on a holistic financial plan along with the overall business strategy and you’re responsible for capital allocation and a methodology around allocating resources across the company. In a board role, you’re also thinking and looking at things more holistically. Looking at strategy beyond the numbers is just as important as being a go-to thought partner. 

CB: You’re now on your fifth board directorship. How has the experience changed (or stayed the same) throughout each for you? What lessons have you taken from board to board?

RW: I have a better sense of the roles and responsibilities of the board and the realism of the dynamics amongst board members, and what’s needed to be effective. I am personally more comfortable and deliberate when asking questions and I’ve become better at onboarding myself to ensure that I’m an effective board member.

The key learning for me in this role versus an operational role is that you’re not management, but you’re expected to bring your skills and experiences to the conversations. If you’re a financial expert, the Board doesn’t just look to you solely for your financial expertise – they want your broader experience and knowledge at the table so both you and the company benefit. 

Serving on boards has helped me become a better listener. I’m also a broader, more strategic thinker. In general, I’m clearer around where boards can add value.

CB: How do you measure your success as a board member?

RW: I think successful board members are measured by their engagement and alignment. Alignment doesn’t mean you all need to agree, but every board member needs to be part of the process and aligned around the role a board plays in strategy, succession planning, or whatever the topic may be. You are part of a team, yet you’re not together all the time. You must be objective, engaged, and a good listener and bring your expertise to the discussion at hand.

CB: At your level as a CFO and board member, how do you continue to grow and develop yourself at this stage in your career?

RW: I look for opportunities that allow me to stretch my current capabilities and think differently. I specifically pick boards in different industries, either ones where I have an interest or adjacencies to what I do on a regular basis. It makes me think more holistically about strategy.  I am always looking for opportunities to approach problems differently. I try to pick boards where I can learn best practices, or even perhaps things I would approach differently in the future.

You also grow through peer to peer interaction. Finding a subset of CFOs or other executives to network with is important. Continuing education at the executive level is few and far between. I also remain current by reading about my industry, adjacent industries and innovative ideas or approaches that other companies are leveraging successfully.

CB: You’ve spoken about making time to form connections and to network, and that you’ve formed what you refer to as your “personal board of directors.” How do you make the time for this, among so many other commitments?

RW: Similar to a corporation having a brand, as an individual you also have a personal brand that you have to invest in. I leverage my personal board to help me think through career and key life decisions. I am fortunate to have a great set of friends, mentors and sponsors. We share ideas and thoughts; they understand me and have my best interests in mind.   I covet my board of directors, particularly the ones that tell me things I don’t want to hear! 

I left Peoplesoft after nine years due to the fact that we were acquired by Oracle. That transition was my wakeup call – my whole network was at that company. As my former colleagues dispersed across Silicon Valley and beyond, I became much more deliberate about networking. At least once or twice a month I would make time for a lunch, dinner, or some type of interaction with my former colleagues as well as others that I felt I needed to know. I became more purposeful about it.

You can learn from anyone, but you have to be purposeful and deliberate. This is especially important with board roles because fairly often they are sourced through informal networks. The most important thing you can do in your career is become a good networker inside and outside your company.

CB: You’ve noted that having a purpose is “your fuel.” Do you still feel that way?

RW: For me, my fuel is my continuous learning and being purposeful relative to the goals and objectives I want to achieve and how I spend my time outside of family and personal time. As I’ve advanced in my career, helping others become successful gives me great joy. I love people management and leadership development. I am also passionate about diversity and inclusion and ensuring minorities and women feel comfortable seeking advice from me, as well as being a board or corporate advocate for seeing advancement in these areas, which I believe is essential for long term exceptional business performance.

I also have eight former employees who have become CFOs in other companies. Seeing that, I feel I’m doing the right thing.

Robin Washington is CFO of Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD). Robin also serves on the boards of Alphabet (Nasdaq: GOOGL), Honeywell International, Inc. and Salesforce.com.  She was previously a board member of MIPS Technologies, Inc. (acquired by Imagination) and Tektronix, Inc. (acquired by Danaher).

Coco Brown is the founder and CEO of Athena Alliance. She leads a network of more than 1,500 C-Level women, VCs, and CEOs from over 200 companies including Microsoft, Autodesk, Intuit, OpenView Venture Partners, Accenture, TA Associates, and PwCCoco has extensive experience in serving as an advisor to C-suite executives and their teams, guiding strategy and execution. Prior to Athena, Coco served as President, COO and Board Director of Taos, a prominent IT Services business serving hundreds of F1000 companies such as Apple, Cisco, eBay, Facebook, and Silicon Valley Bank.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the contributors at the time of publication and may not be updated. They do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc. The content does not attempt to examine all the facts and circumstances which may be relevant to any particular company, industry or security mentioned herein and nothing contained herein should be construed as legal or investment advice.

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