Behind Boardroom Doors with Betsy Atkins

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As an executive search expert with over 30 years of experience in the field, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the boardroom. From how boards operate to who is around the table, serving on the board is a different experience now than it was in the past. Betsy Atkins, a friend and experienced corporate director, has seen it all when it comes to boardrooms. In fact, she wrote a very poignant and insightful book about her experiences over the years called, “Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director.” In today’s interview, Betsy gives a glimpse into how she sees boardrooms, leadership, and life in general. Take a look.


You certainly must have seen the nature of the boardroom change significantly over the years. If someone asked how life at the board level is different now than perhaps 20 years ago, what would you say?

Twenty years ago, things were really formal – death by PowerPoint and I sometimes felt like boards wanted you to have your rubber stamp ready to affirm a fully baked decision. Now, it is far more interactive.

We’ve seen some real shockers and also improvements in the area of diversity in the boardroom this last year. What’s your feeling on the direction that boards are taking in this area?

The big index funds, State Street, Global, BlackRock and others are mandating boards to have a minimum of two females and they will vote “withhold” on governance chairs and committees that don’t. This will be a huge catalyst and accelerant for gender diversity.

New legislation and regulatory requirements are leaning toward placing the burden of cybersecurity at the board level instead of with IT or risk management. How are you seeing boards respond?

Actually, the new SEC guidance came out and it pretty much focuses on three things: companies have to inform investments about cyber risks, even if the company has not yet been breached; when there is a breach, you have to disclose in a timely fashion and; management cannot trade stock once they are aware of a breach. These all seem reasonable and logical, and don’t transfer huge burdens to the board.

What advice do you have for professionals and executives looking to establish their first seat on a board?

Get in touch with a search company. Boards will continue to use and will increase their use of search companies to fill seats. Identify how you are unique and add value.

Your board experience is unbelievable. But tell us about your very first board experience… what was it like?

My first public board was at Ascend, which I co-founded. The company went from 0 to $5.4B in revenue in less than 9 years, returning +4,000 percent to shareholders, wow. We faced many important topics: CEO succession (done successfully), acquisition integration (successful), constant technology innovation. The toughest board question was “do we sell the company?” After refusing five acquisition offers, finally we had to accept Lucent’s $23B offer because the premium was so compelling and the guaranteed return to shareholders was so high.

What’s the biggest false assumption about serving on a board that outsiders have?

The biggest misconception is that you will automatically have credibility once you join the board. You have to earn your stripes and prove your value, not just once, but at every meeting.

The best thing that a board can focus on right now is_____________.

Staying competitive and understanding all of the major macro trends that are affecting every single business – trends like: new business models such as marketplace, majority millennials in workplace and marketplace, sharing economy, gig economy, AI and machine learning, software robots, etc.

The surefire way for a board to fail is to_______________________.

Not deeply understanding the company’s strategy and global competitive landscape.

If you had the opportunity to share 1 quote with every executive in the world, what would that quote be?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou

What’s keeping boards up at night right now?

 Concerns about activism and cyber breach. I think the new things that will hit boards in 2018 are addressing environmental, social, and governance issues (ESG), having better crisis management plans, and rethinking how they allocate work between board committees.

In 2020, what do you predict will be the hot topics of the board room?

My lens gets foggy out in 2020. My guess will be understanding how to take digitization to the next geometric progression. To really understand advanced digitization, you need to look at China. It is incredible in Shanghai that nobody carries money, or a credit card, they only pay with their phone. These types of major digital transformations will hit the North American market faster than expected and impact companies and boards to respond with unprecedented speed.

Who has been a mentor to you? Tell us about them.

My mother has been my best mentor. I was blessed with someone who told me all things are possible if you are focused and are willing to work harder than everyone else –  and don’t quit.

Who inspires you and why?

Margaret Thatcher inspires me. She was courageous in the face of a lot of pressure and criticism and stayed true to her values.

If you had a life motto, what would it be?

That you must follow up on everything, same day, with a thoughtful capture of the information that was shared and clarity on what the next step is and who will take the next step.

If you could have lunch with one leader in the business world, who would it be with?

I would have lunch with Jeff Bezos and I would ask him, “What do you see as the next three major disruptive changes that will affect us in the coming five years?”

What do you always have to have near you during business hours?

A clock and a blank pad of paper.

Droid or iPhone?  Mac or PC? 

iPhone and PC

Coke or Pepsi?

Coke

Best place to vacation?

Italy

What snack can you simply not live without?

Fennel and turkey jerky.

What’s on your iPod right now?

Country Western

Biggest Pet Peeve?

People who don’t write things down.

What’s something about you that people are surprised to find out?

I love gardening.

If you could time travel, what would you want to say to the college-age you?

Learn to program.

One piece of advice for young, aspiring leaders:

Always go back and thank everyone who has helped you in any way. 

What’s a lesson that you had to learn the hard way?

Not everybody is trust worthy.

If you suddenly had to start over with a new career, what would you pursue?

I love what I’m doing – nothing else calls me.

What’s an opportunity you missed that you regret?

I gave each opportunity 100%, I don’t have any regrets.