Donna Wells Interview: 10 Things to Know about Board Service
What does a board role really involve? Donna Wells, an experienced board member, shares her words of wisdom.
The importance of diversity on boards cannot be underestimated. Research shows that having female directors on boards improves the quality of deliberations and that different perspectives allow for a broader range of information to be considered. Yet only around 19% of Russell 3000 board seats are held by women, in spite of experts proving that companies with at least three women on their board tend to perform better financially.
That’s why AllBright has launched AllBright Elevator, our new development programmes aimed at helping senior leaders achieve their potential and take the next step in their careers.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of professional development and a network to learn with and from. It can be lonely at the top, but it doesn’t need to be” — Anna Jones, AllBright co-founder
The Elevator programmes, one for those in or moving into C-suite roles and one for those looking at board level positions, are done in small cohorts, meaning participants will gain unprecedented opportunities to connect with like-minded women over the course of a year. The programmes mix one on one coaching with technical masterclasses, workshops and curated resources.
As AllBright co-founder Anna Jones says: “You can’t underestimate the importance of professional development and a network to learn with and from. It can be lonely at the top, but it doesn’t need to be.”
Are you an aspiring board member wondering where to start your search? You should consider looking close to home. Studies on technology boards showed that around 80% of board members landed their seat through their existing contacts, so networking could be key in landing your first role.A new drive for diversity means that companies are increasingly willing to consider first-time directors onto their board, particularly those in specialty roles who can fill critical skill gaps in the boardroom — in fact, almost half of female directors currently have a background in non-business sectors. Financial experts are in high demand for board roles, as are tech savvy digital directors and individuals who have worked internationally, meaning that being able to demonstrate a specific skillset can be just as important as previous leadership experience.
Being part of a board can feel like a big step in your career, but this shouldn’t put you off striving towards an exciting new position. The more that women participate on boards, the more that we build diverse and equitable businesses — and we can all be part of the change.
Donna Wells is a financial technology entrepreneur who serves on the Boards of Mitek Systems, Apex Technology, Betterment and Happy Money and the Advisory Board of CrowdStreet. She was previously President and CEO of Mindflash Technologies and CMO of Mint.com. Here, she shares her pearls of wisdom about joining and serving on a corporate board.
SEEKING YOUR FIRST BOARD ROLE
Leverage your existing connections
I was introduced to my first board through a recruiter who had been given a very specific set of criteria for a new board member, but I was ultimately invited to join because I had shared connections with the board’s Chairman and the company’s CEO. It was their reference calls with our mutual connections that gave them the confidence to take a chance on me as a first-time director.
Find a board where you are able to both contribute and learn
I would encourage anyone considering board service to approach potential roles with the same twin objectives I had when joining my first board at Boston Private Bank — being able to both contribute and learn. I was looking for a board where I could contribute relevant and diverse experience to the critical boardroom discussion, and I could learn a great deal from public board service that would help me to develop as a CEO and board member in my own company.
Apply an 80/20 rule
Look for a board where you can contribute 80% to the board conversations immediately, but where 20% of the conversations are going to be new — and on issues that are relevant and interesting to you personally and professionally. On your first board, that 80% will likely be in your industry, organizational and leadership experience. The 20% might be in topics around corporate governance, legal and regulatory issues.
OPTIMIZING THE BOARD INTERVIEW PROCESS
Identify and share your personal focuses
During the interview process, identify and share the 2–3 strategic issues that would be your personal focus for the first 12–24 months on the board. This will help you and the nominating committee determine if you have shared expectations and a solid mutual fit, and will increase your value, effectiveness and impact as a board member.
“During the board interview process, identify and share the 2–3 strategic issues that would be your personal focus for the first 12–24 months on the board” — Donna Wells
Consider carefully which board committees you’d be sitting on
Board committees are where most of the work, and most of your personal impact, will happen. I’m a big advocate of new board members joining the audit committee, as I believe that this is the best and fastest way to come up to speed on the company, its leadership and key strategic issues.
Ask for one-on-one conversations with other board members
Ask for one-on-one conversations with other board members, and spend the majority of your time getting to know your new colleagues personally, versus asking about company specifics. A corporate board is a unique decision-making entity, and your understanding of other members’ interests, communication preferences, and personal approaches to problem solving will be a key factor in your effectiveness on the board.
SUCCEEDING IN YOUR FIRST BOARD ROLE
I believe that the secret to feeling comfortable in your first board role and meeting is good preparation. Arrange calls with the CFO, General Counsel, and CEO as well as other key staff and line managers. If the company does not have an established director onboarding program (many don’t), I’d suggest you identify and recommend one of the many templates available from board governance organizations such as the National Association of Corporate Directors.
“Adding a new Director is a significant investment for any company, so be well-prepared to contribute your unique perspective and experiences.” — Donna Wells
Build your network of other board members
After developing the requisite skills for board service, networking with other board members is probably the second most important element of a successful board career. These contacts will probably be the source of your first board role and the best people to tap for advice. Board work is a challenging and unique job, and there are not many people with experience of a board position — I’ve found it incredibly valuable to have a couple of trusted, experienced board members to go to for advice when facing challenging issues.
“After developing the requisite skills for board service, networking with other board members is probably the second most important element of a successful board career” — Donna Wells
Establish two-way mentoring relationships
One of the ways that I’ve handled the male-dominated environment of a board is to find a male mentor with whom I can establish a trusting and candid dialogue. Over time, work to create a two-way mentoring relationship. Learning how to influence the boardroom conversation globally and how to disagree respectfully with a tenured member of the board and are necessary skills in delivering your value to the board and company.
“One of the ways that I’ve handled the male-dominated environment of a board is to find a male mentor with whom I can establish a trusting and candid dialogue” — Donna Wells
Identify opportunities for growth
Throughout my time as a CEO I’ve remained deeply interested and engaged in a number of organizational, economic and societal issues such as the impact of technology on society, income, wealth inequality and diversity and inclusion. My board work keeps me current and engaged on these issues and I highly value the opportunity for professional and personal growth and impact.
Interview by Katie Bishop