The 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit officially opened Sunday evening with the bang of drums and the bagpipes of the St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C., a local Scottish heritage association. Their performance was followed by an interactive video experience that challenged the audience to question the borders of the screen. Each of these sensory experiences underlined the theme of the year, Beyond Borders: Leadership Evolved. The opening night keynote speakers–NACD Chair Dr. Reatha Clark King, and philosopher and author, Kwame Anthony Appiah–explored how directors should weather the evolution of the boardroom.
King is a fan of challenges. A seasoned director herself who values the good businesses can do in the world, King centered her message on all the work that boards have done to better the world around us—and the work left to do. “We have been successfully adjusting the trajectory of governance systems and have made improvements, but we still have much to do,” said King. “The board’s agenda gets longer. We offer no encouragement that the agenda will get shorter. Instead we prepare ourselves for the greater demand.”
One of the demands King identified was the need for directors to hold fervently to core beliefs. One among the many she cited was accountability: “I am a student of the word ‘accountability,’ and it looms large in my mind for directors to understand and embrace it.” King asked the audience to also embrace leadership in challenging times in spite of the many chances to falter. Among the recommended ways to lead with strength through governance challenges were the concepts of embracing broader perspectives, finding the courage to do what’s right, and to be brave enough to change if needed.
King’s suggestions for leadership to the audience of more than 1,200 were strengthened by Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion on honor. Appiah is author of The Honor Code, a best-selling book that examines four points in history where honor outweighed other forces to catalyze social change for the greater good. Appiah distilled his observations on honor into applications for the boardroom and professional practice as a whole.
At the core of his message was that honor will trump money, regulation, and even the coercion of law to guide a person’s moral compass and that only honor holds up in the face of the greatest ethical challenges that inevitably arise.
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.
During today’s keynote address at the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, Chuck Underwood—founder and principal of The Generational Imperative, a consulting firm that provides training and research on generational demographics to businesses and governmental officials—shared some key takeaways on how generational demographics affect corporate governance. He began by sharing three key points about generational dynamics.
“Between birth and the late teens or early 20s, individuals form core values molded by teachings and personal experiences, and those core values are by and large kept for life. People who are approximately the same age group and who have been shaped by similar teachings and experiences are considered to be a generation.
American life in the last 100 years has changed frequently and sharply, and life expectancy has increased because of advances in medicine and improved overall wellness. Individuals now live an average of 30 years longer in 2014 than in 1914. The increased life expectancy, coupled with frequent cultural changes, means there are now five living generations in the United States.
The core values held by each generation exert powerful influence over that generation’s core choices, career decisions, lifestyle preferences, and behaviors—including leadership behavior in companies and in the boardroom,” said Underwood, who hosts the PBS national television series “America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood.”
Boards and company management can benefit from learning the core values of the five living American generations and by understanding how to relate to each generation in the marketplace and in the boardroom. The five generations are:
The G.I. Generation, born from 1901 to 1926, is shaped by the experiences of economic prosperity during the roaring 1920s followed by the setbacks of the Great Depression;
The Silent Generation, born from 1927 to 1945, is more financially secure than any other generation that has reached their age;
Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, currently account for 25 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of its wealth;
Generation X, born from 1965 to 1981, is shaped by a materially comfortable childhood that was also emotionally difficult because of divorced and career-driven parents; and
Millennials, born from 1982 to 1996—possibly longer, depending on whether individuals born after 1996 hold to the same core values of Millennials—and living an extended adolescence while also wanting to change the world for the better.
Underwood said that each generation has its own leadership style that is shaped by its unique experiences. He has found there are four general points about generational leadership:
Each generation leads for about two decades.
Each generation’s unique core values determine America’s direction.
Some generations deliver good leadership, some deliver bad.
A generation’s leadership era begins when the oldest are about 65 years old.
The United States is currently undergoing a transition, Underwood said, from one leadership era–that of the Silent Generation—to another: the Baby Boomers.
“Silent Generation white males (minorities and women were allowed the same opportunities) came into an environment in which the corporation was the highest priority, rather than employees. Team players were valued more highly than mavericks,” Underwood said. The value of conformity was stressed to this generation.
They enjoyed lifestyles their G.I. Generation parents never were able to receive because of the Great Depression, and they measured their value based on their material wealth.
The Silent Generation had the expectation that if they conformed and put the company’s needs above their own personal needs, they would be rewarded. Their strong desire for reward, however, led in some cases to corporate corruption.
“This,” Underwood said, “is why eyes are focused on the incoming generation of corporate directors and managers—Baby Boomers, who in their youth helped bring social change through the civil rights’ and women’s rights movements, for example—to help set corporate America back on a solid track.”