Identifying what expertise is needed on the board and orchestrating different—if not conflicting—points of view into constructive conversation can be a challenge. During a session at the second annual NACD Diversity Symposium on the opening day of the Global Board Leaders’ Summit in Washington, DC, panelists James Lam, director and chair of the risk oversight committee at E-Trade Financial Corp. (E*TRADE); Myrna Soto, director of Spirit Airlines and CMS Energy Corp.; and Charlotte Whitmore, vice chair and chief, brand strategies, of Analytics Pros., discussed how boardroom talent and a robust mix of perspectives are critical to ensuring a company’s success.
Conversation centered around two themes:
1. Striking a Balance. When considering the future needs of the company, Lam recommended that directors think about their business and its risk profile and then consider the following questions: “What are the key megatrends that will impact the business?” and “What director skill sets will be needed to mitigate this potential impact?”
Considering the continuously growing list of threats and disruptors facing businesses—such as cybersecurity, globalism, and climate change—some boards debate the need to focus on recruiting subject-matter experts to help them oversee these risks. But panelists agreed that new perspectives should replace long-standing expertise.
“Seasoned directors can be a voice of reason,” Soto said. “New executives can be what you need to push the strategy. When you have that diversity of thought, you really challenge the strategy, but it comes down to the nominating committee and how it thinks about what the next director is going to bring to the table.”
Drawing on her own experience, Whitmore concurred. Whitmore is cofounder of the data analytics start-up, Analytics Pros, and knows what it’s like to both recruit directors whose business experiences are different from her own and to be recruited to a board because of her particular expertise. At her own company, Whitmore said she has learned from more seasoned directors that taking actions to grow the company too quickly might do more harm than good. “They bring a sensibility to corporate culture that’s not just about driving results,” she said. In her role as a director, she said her older colleagues often look to her data-analytics savvy to discover new ways to support the organization.
2. Facilitating Dialogue. Having diverse perspectives around the board table does the company no good unless they are heard. Effective director onboarding is vital to acquainting a new director with the company and establishing both the board’s expectations of the new recruit and what that director expects of fellow board members and management. A director’s ability to successfully contribute to the conversation is contingent on the conditions on which they were onboarded. Soto said that she turned down several directorships based on what she learned about the companies’ governance structures. Lam recalled having his own agenda during his onboarding at E*TRADE, ensuring, for example, that he was able to meet with the risk committee and senior management.
In addition, the lead director plays the very important role of ensuring that all directors are heard. When new directors are called upon to join the board of a company in crisis or during a transition—such as a CEO succession—the lead director can be instrumental in managing and balancing the perspectives and experiences represented around the table and getting the full board to a point where it feels comfortable not only in making major decisions, but also in communicating those decisions to stakeholders outside of the boardroom.