What happens when a company places service before leadership? Wawa Inc. did just that, and its chain of convenience stores has soared as a result. Jeffrey M. Cunningham, founder of NACD Directorship magazine and professor of leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, spoke with Wawa Chair Richard D. (“Dick”) Wood Jr. on the main stage at NACD’s 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit about the inner workings of the regional convenience-store chain that has grown into a $9 billion empire.
Originally an iron foundry established in New Jersey in 1803, the Wawa company has weathered many rounds of disruption to become one of three genuine cult businesses in the country, the other two being In-N-Out Burgers and Chic-fil-A. Wood ascribed his success at the privately-owned company that he has served since 1970 to the concepts of servant leadership and being a steward of investment in advanced technologies and innovations. A member of Wawa’s legal counsel at the beginning of his career, this descendant of the founder now serves as non-executive chair of the company’s nine-person board.
For the first half of the event, Cunningham interviewed Wood about the history of the company and Wood’s commitment to the philosophy of servant leadership. In a business context, this philosophy puts service to every stakeholder before any other facet of the enterprise. Wood takes justifiable pride in Wawa’s commitment to its 26,000 employees, including their ownership in the company. Wawa’s Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) has created such value for employees at every level that the organization last year received 300,000 applications for its available 3,000 open positions. The Wawa model has proven to be profitable not in spite of but because of its commitment to family and service.
Once the conversation opened up to questions from the floor, Wood described some of the business challenges he’s faced over the years and how he has surmounted them. When asked about his reputation as “Chief Paranoia Officer” and how even good CEOs often misread the signs, Wood said, “Every time it comes back to hubris. It always comes back to hubris. CEOs didn’t have enough paranoia.”
Wood’s observations on a form of CEO self-awareness that some dub paranoia was fascinating in relation to the earlier keynote presentation by Kwame Anthony Appiah on honor’s place in business. One way that Wood practices honor in his business is to ensure that Wawa’s six core values—Value People, Delight Customers, Embrace Change, Do the Right Thing, Do Things Right, and Passion for Winning—are so thoroughly woven into the company culture that every employee can recite them; and dozens of times each month, Wawa employees recognize their peers in writing for exemplifying those values day to day. Wood’s leadership of Wawa illustrates the type of professional ethics that Appiah touched on in his keynote speech.
Before closing, Wood addressed Wawa’s next step in its innovation cycle: a move toward diesel fuel. “Two big products are going to disappear,” Wood declared. “One is cigarettes, and the other is gasoline. We’re looking into alternatives to replace a commodity we think will disappear.” To support diesel as the anticipated new market source in fuel, Wawa plans to retrofit its filling stations.
Katie Grills is assistant editor at NACD Directorship magazine.
The final session of the Diversity Symposium at NACD’s 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit focused on the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on the Diverse Board and how directors can implement recommendations from that report in their own boardrooms. Kapila Kapur Anand, a partner at KPMG LLP and the firm’s national partner-in-charge of Public Policy Business Initiatives, led the discussion with panelists that included Anthony K. Anderson, retired Ernst & Young LLP vice chair, executive board member, and Midwest and Pacific Southwest managing partner; The Hon. Cari M. Dominguez, a director at ManpowerGroup, Triple-S Management, Calvert SAGE Fund, and NACD; and Karen B. Greenbaum, president and CEO of the Association of Executive Search Consultants.
As the Blue Ribbon Commission that produced this groundbreaking 2012 report observed:
[A] company’s ability to remain competitive will rely on its understanding of global markets, changing demographics, and customer expectations. Diversity is a business imperative, not just a social issue. The new business landscape will require boards to cast a wider net to find the very best talent available. As a natural corollary, the board’s mix of gender, ethnicity, and experiences will likely increase.
Dominguez noted that structural, social, and habitual barriers may prevent boards from becoming more diverse, and she offered this key advice: Don’t rely solely on the company’s CEO to lead this conversation. It’s the responsibility of every director to move the discussion forward.
So why aren’t boards as diverse as they could be? Greenbaum addressed this question by referring to data she collected via a survey of both boards and search firms. Her findings surfaced five issues:
Candidate pool. Boards contended that it was difficult to find diverse candidates. Horn countered this claim by asserting that a failure to find qualified candidates is more a function of boards not searching correctly. Boards should demand that search firms provide a diverse list of candidates. Conversely, search firms take their cue from boards and expect them to be vocal about the importance of having a diverse candidate pool.
Term limits. A lack of term limits results in a situation in which boards cannot be routinely refreshed with new directors. If term limits are restricting opportunities to bring on new talent, consider expanding the board.
Experience: Boards resist adding members who are not current CEOs or CFOs. Boards need to be open to first-timers and should develop strong mentoring programs to bring newly minted directors into the fold.
Succession planning: Build a pipeline of diverse talent in your own company so that these leaders can serve not only in your boardroom but also in those of other organizations.
Status quo. Boards can become complacent about how they operate, especially when they feel no pressure from shareholders or other stakeholders to change.
“All of us must be conscious that this is a leadership issue,” Anderson said. “If the leadership of a company doesn’t believe in diversity initiatives, the ability to make much happen is grossly inhibited.” Companies with a diversity strategy that touches on leadership, employment, and procurement are reinforcing the importance of diversity as part of company culture, Anderson added..
Creating change takes time, effort, and formal processes. Putting diversity on the agenda may require a shift in thinking and habits, but, as all of the panelists agreed, diversity is a business imperative that will only grow in importance over the coming years.
How will boards find the next generation of talent—directors who will be able to maintain their companies’ competitive edge in a global marketplace? This was the question raised in the third session of the Diversity Symposium at this year’s NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, and it was addressed by a panel composed of Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Rochelle, founder, president, and CEO of MDR Strategies LLC; Pablo Schneider, CEO of The Wider Net, a firm dedicated to advancing diversity in top leadership roles; and Caroline Tsay, vice president and general manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. and director of Rosetta Stone Inc. and Travelzoo. The panel was moderated by Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Culture Shift Labs, and the discussion broke down the talent search process into three parts:
identifying opportunities for increasing diversity,
analyzing the impact of force multipliers in the boardroom, and
locating these wellsprings of new talent.
Schneider observed that the most promising opportunities for increasing boardroom diversity arise where the board’s biggest knowledge and talent gaps exist. Because demographics and technological innovations are transforming companies everywhere, boards must assess not only a candidate’s skill sets and experience but also whether he or she has the mindset to oversee those transformations. Rochelle added that boards must look at disorder and disruption in order to ensure that director talents correspond to those forces. Tsay advised boards to analyze the skills of prospective directors in terms of their alignment with the company’s overall strategy.
Discussion then moved to the force-multiplier effect—i.e., how having subject-matter experts dramatically increases the board’s effectiveness by providing diversity of thought and cultural perspectives on the profiles of these candidates. Rochelle again brought up the issues of disorder and disruption, asserting that it will be impossible for boards to manage these forces if they continue to rely on traditional approaches. He also noted that an outsider’s view is critical, both because it prompts the board and the executive team to be more diligent in how they analyze day-to-day business and because it provides new insights into potential problem areas.
Tsay echoed this point, offering the example of a Rosetta Stone director who is also the CEO of a media company and who established an advisory consumer focus committee on the board in order to acquire a more granular understanding of the company’s customers. Force-multiplier talents can help boards to rethink the tools they use to reach consumers and how the board can gain an end-to-end view of the industry. “There are opportunities to get candidates with expertise, but how do you best leverage them?” Tsay asked.
Finally, the panelists discussed two key questions: who are the people best qualified to raise the company’s profile, and where can one locate these wellsprings of talent? On this score all agreed that networking is critical. By attending corporate, industry, and/or director education events, current board members will be able to meet and foster professional relationships with potential candidates.