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Episode 6: Identify Your Boardroom Superpowers

Join BDO in discussion with Julie Cullivan, Chief Technology and People Officer, ForeScout Technologies and Board of Director for Axon (AXON).




Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nicole: Hello everyone. And thank you so much for joining BDO's podcast series Getting to the Boardroom. I'm Nicole Ward Parr and in this series I have the pleasure of hosting some of the most distinguished executives currently serving on public company boards to discuss their journeys and the paths that got them there. Today I'd like to welcome C-suite executive and public company board member, Julie Cullivan. Julie currently serves as Chief People Officer and Technology Officer at ForeScout Technologies. The leader in device visibility and control. Before transitioning to ForeScout Technologies, Cullivan served as EVP, business operations and CIO at FireEye, where she helped scale FireEye from a private company with $80 million in revenue, through its successful IPO, to a global publicly traded company with revenues of over $700 million and a $2.7 billion valuation. Cullivan has extensive operational and strategy experience and previously held executive positions focused on sales channel, and marketing operations at Autodesk, McAfee, EMC, and Oracle.

Julie currently sits on the board of Axon Enterprise, Inc. formerly known as TASER International, and is currently an advisor to Cobalt.io, a leader in pentest as a service. Recognized as a 2019 woman of influence in Silicon Valley Business Journal, Cullivan is a leader in the cybersecurity field, and a sought-after speaker on topics including women in technology, security as a boardroom imperative, and building high impact teams. Ms. Cullivan has a BS degree in finance from Santa Clara University and brings extensive business information technology and cybersecurity expertise to the Axon board. Julie, what an accomplished background. So grateful to have you join us today and to learn more about your path to the boardroom. Thank you so much for being here.

Julie: Well, I'm really excited for this podcast. Thanks for inviting me.

Nicole: Absolutely. Great. Well then let's jump right in with the questions. First off is, when you were considering joining your first board, did you have a strategy or specific approaches that you used?

Julie: So, I guess when I first even started thinking about the idea of potentially joining a board, I really kind of started with the same thought process that a lot of other women leaders start with; and that was, “I'm certainly not ready now, but maybe that's something I could do in the future”. So when I very first started talking about it, it was very much in the context of, “Someday I would like to do this,” and I had the huge fortune of meeting Coco Brown who was really focused on trying to build more diversity on boards. And in my conversations with her, she really started to wrap my head around the fact that, “Why not now?” But also, recognition that it can take a while, right? To find that perfect match for the leader and the right company that's looking for a board member. So for her, she was like, why put this off? Why not get started on creating your journey to the boardroom? Because you really never know how long it's going to take. And it was always something that I thought could happen someday, and she really made me believe that you need to start now because you're not sure exactly when things will sort of align.

Nicole: I think that really resonates probably with a lot of women that, “Am I ready?” Or “Someday I will be, right?” But getting from that mentality to, wait, I need to do it now, “I'm ready now”. Was there any other switch that flipped in your brain from a skillset standpoint that told you, wait, I am ready now. I'm not going to put this off. What was that switch that flipped for you?

Julie: Well, I think, that's where other mentors helped flip the switch for me, because one of the things you're really pushed to do as you're thinking about board service is, “What are my superpowers and what it is that I can really bring to a board so that people can really understand who I am?” And it's really hard to pull out because we think of ourselves in terms of accomplishments, not in terms of really superpowers and what makes us unique or different. So I say that's where I started to see, hey, now that I look at this in the context of a board bio, maybe I do have a lot to bring to a board and I hadn't really been able to figure out what those superpowers were and how to pull that out into a nice story that somebody else could pick up.

One other bit of advice that I think you get when you're going through this process is some people will tell you, you need to be maniacally focused on a skill, a value that you bring to a board. And I struggled with that because I felt like I had a broad set of values that I could bring to a board, and not all just in the context of digital or security, but that I was a broader operator and had broader business acumen and experience. And so when I went through this process, I really had to make a call as to whether I wanted to be the cyber technical person, or if I wanted to describe myself more broadly as a global operation leader. And, again, as you find opportunities and are starting to interview for board roles, you'll pretty quickly start to see whether they're open to that broader set of experiences or just very narrowly interested in a set of skills.

Nicole: And did you have a particular champion, or mentor that guided you through that? That gave you coaching as you were going through those board interviews and that gave you that feedback?

Julie: Yeah, I had folks that are part of Athena Alliance, that organization that we're sort of assigned to women pioneers to help us understand who we were, walk us through, how do we tell a story about our experiences and show the kind of impact that we've had on the organizations that we've worked in? They also walk you through, hey, how do you practice your board pitch, right? And actually, on video, going back and forth and getting coaching and communication advice from folks so that when you're ready, you get asked the question, that you have a very quick, crisp, well-articulated story about why the conversation should continue. I do not want to say that I haven't had tremendous coaches and mentors in my work life, but I have found that those coaches and mentors seem to be a little more focused on mentoring how you grow in your career, as opposed to how you grow as a potential board member. So, I really felt like where it all came together for me was through that network and that confidence that we give each other to say, “You can do this!”

Nicole: That's fantastic. And the two things that really stuck with me about what you just shared was the telling of a story, right? Really the anecdotal sharing of the types of problems that you've been able to solve, the value that you've added coupled with video conferencing. That sounds like a fantastic tool that really does allow you to know what you don't even know you don't know?

Julie: Yeah! And practice!

Nicole: Exactly. That must have been valuable

Julie: So, there was one other set of experiences I think that we all say, "Oh, I think I'd really love to serve on a board." And then there's the questions about, well, what kind of board? And there's also the question of, what does it really mean to serve on a board? Because I think many of us have the experience of sitting in on our organization board meetings, but it's sort of different when you flip the table, right? And now you're the board member with the management team coming into present. So, one of the other nice activities that Athena put together was the ability to walk through board simulations as a group. So, a group of 10 women would come together and there'd be a facilitator and you'd actually walk through a board scenario, and kind of learn the process, in terms of, even just the simple things about calling meetings to order when there was something that required some sort of approval or vote, what the process was, but then really throw in a hairy situation and say, “Hey, you're now the board, let's walk through how you're going to advise the management team on how to handle the situation.” Or in some cases the boards need to step in, right, and play a bigger role in making sure that the situation is managed appropriately. So I thought that was really great as well, because we all talk about, hey, I want to be on a board, but getting the opportunity to really do more scenario based understanding . . . and it's like, wow. I mean, that's a serious responsibility . . . getting to kind of experience that, not in an actual boardroom, but in a simulation, I thought was super valuable.

Nicole: Absolutely. And nonetheless, once you were on a board, I'm sure there were still gaps in your game if you will, and areas where you were like, whoops, I've never simulated for this. This is real time. And I have a gap in my skill set here, or I just made a mistake. Whoops. What were some of those hiccups, if you don't mind sharing?

Julie: Yeah. So, I guess what I found out pretty quickly is there's a lot of discussion about onboarding new board members. My experience was that you onboard yourself in many ways and that, I think I heard something fantastic last week where somebody said, if you've been on one board, you've been on one board, because each board is somewhat unique. So, I'm not making any generalizations, but Axon had a board team that had been with the company for many [years]. I was the first new board member in a few years to onboard. And not only was I new to being on a board but was new to them. And so as much as I got a lot of great support and coaching and advice from the chairman and the gentleman that runs non-gov, right? They were more than happy to help me.

I had many years of history to try to catch up on. So, what I realized pretty quickly was somebody's not going to do it for you. Take some initiative to figure out how you onboard yourself and knowing that I can never make up for the fact that some folks have been on this board for 10 years, but how do I at least show the initiative and the desire to want to understand more. And also, when appropriate, raise my hand and say, I don't have that context or history. If now's not the time to give it to me, fine, but I'd love to understand more so that I can really understand the dialogue and the conversation more. So, I think a lot of it's taking initiative to really engage and learn the business, learn the committee that you're on and kind of what your roles are, but more than anything constantly ask for feedback, right?

I mean, I've been on Axon's board for about two and a half years. And outside of the fact that this past one we just did is virtual because nobody's traveling right now, I try as best as I can to pull folks aside and say, hey, any feedback? Right? Cause you know, I'm always trying to make sure I balance my, “Hey, this is what I would do” versus, “Hey, have you thought of these things?” And just make sure that my engagement and support of the team is not coming across as an operator, but coming across as more of an advisor, consultant, if you will. So, I think you just got to keep asking for feedback.

Nicole: I think that's great advice. I also think that if you were the first new board member in a significant amount of time, which you describe, what an opportunity for you to come in and innovate and bring new ideas into that collective group. What are some examples of how you innovated, or some ideas, or perhaps disruptive thoughts that you brought to that group?

Julie: Yeah, so, it's been fun because I was the first woman board member. Not ever. There had been a woman on the board before, but unfortunately, she had to move on. And so, they were very focused on some diversity. And so, I was the first, next woman to join the board. So again, one woman and the rest men. And so, almost immediately, I brought a unique perspective for a lot of different reasons, whether it was conversations about people related things, or just perspectives and interpretation on how things would be perceived. So, I felt like pretty quickly I was bringing a slightly different lens and voice. Somebody that was also somewhat a voice of a customer. I am certainly not law enforcement, but I buy technology all the time, and understood a lot about new business models that they were pursuing and to be able to add a voice about like, this is how this can be perceived from a customer perspective. Right. Great idea for monetization, but let's think about what the expectations are from another view. So I think there were several different perspectives I was able to bring in very quickly and I felt like people were more than willing to listen to my ideas and thoughts and voice having been through similar growth, and similar responsibilities around digital transformation and those types of things. And they would come to me a lot offline and just say, “Hey, what are you doing to solve this problem?” Because they knew I ran IT for FireEye and then ForeScout and it would be like, Boom! This is what we're doing. And sometimes they take that advice and other times they're like, hey, we think we might go a slightly different path and we talked about it. But I think even just in sort of day to day, what are they doing around security? What are they doing around digital? I've got very relevant experience to help them as they make some of those decisions.

Nicole: Terrific. And how would you say, or would you say, that you're facilitating further diversity on the boards that you're a part of? Are there things that you've done or implemented?

Julie: So I, myself, wish I could take credit for the diversity that Axon’s board is focused on. We now have another diverse board member that represents a new community. So that has been phenomenal. And as we look at what skills and experiences we need to bring on the board we constantly talk about, hey, as we look for those skills wouldn't it be great if we could compliment the team with more diversity beyond, obviously, just gender? And so already we've doubled our numbers. And I expect in the future that will continue to grow.

Nicole: That's fantastic. It takes time, but it's well worth it. Right? Terrific. What other thoughts or comments, maybe advice even, for the folks that are listening do you have to share?

Julie: So, I think I was extremely lucky in terms of, you know, decided to go after pursuing a board opportunity and really within the first year and a half made it onto a public company board. I don't know that, that will happen for everyone and not because I'm special, but because I noticed as I interviewed for other board positions and as I've worked with other peers and folks I've brought in network, that sometimes it just takes longer. Sometimes the path is a private company board. Sometimes the path is a nonprofit. So I just, I do feel like there's gotta be a level of patience and that there has to be an understanding that there isn't the right board for you. It's everything has to align. And I find that the processes just end up taking longer than we're used to in sort of the job hiring scenario, right. Where you're going for a new role often they're really trying to move those along very quickly. Whereas with the board stuff, they start very early often, and then things will happen, right? Uh, COVID-19 will come up and somebody will say, hey, look as much as that's important right now it's more important we focus on the day to day business operation. Um, and so it's just patience, I think is what my advice is more than anything.

Nicole: I think that's great advice. One of the questions I've asked some of the other interviewees on this podcast series is about the merit of being on a not-for-profit board or being on a private company board, as it pertains to helping on the path to getting on a public company board would love your thoughts on that.

Julie: Yeah. So I am no expert in, I've gone through the sessions around, hey, how do you really think about what type of boards you're looking for? And so I have a good idea of when going nonprofit might be the way to go. I know plenty of women that started joining the nonprofit board and that opened up doors for them to move into public board service and/or private, or pre-IPO type board service opportunities. So I think it has absolutely been a stepping stone for some really strong women to get on boards, because a lot of times you're sitting on those boards with other operators or CEOs or executives, right. That now you've built a relationship through this nonprofit. And then that opens up the opportunity for you to potentially, when they're thinking about their next gig, or they're thinking about somebody that they know looking for talent, you've now got somebody that's like, look I've served with them on a nonprofit and they're super engaged and intelligent, bright, and smart, and have a lot of great ideas and opinions, and that does open up doors.

Nicole: Agreed. Absolutely.

Julie: And I do think it's a different experience. Sorry to interrupt you. I do think it is a different experience serving on a nonprofit versus a public company. There are different expectations, I think, in terms of fundraising and in terms of things like that. But I think any of those are great experiences that would help in either direction.

Nicole: No agreed, no fantastic. Great insights. Any last thoughts before we sign off that you'd like to share?

Julie: Yeah. A couple of things. This is my advice. I had originally thought that the path to getting on a board was by leveraging my own personal network and saying, "Hey, former boss of mine, I'm really interested in joining the board, just thought I would let you know." I just really did not find that to be a path that worked for me. I feel like they probably hear that from a lot of people and it's not contextual. But I also feel like sometimes people see you as an operator or see you as what they believe you are, and maybe aren't able to, kind of, think more broadly into, hey, how would this person look in a boardroom setting? So I really do feel like taking advantage of the variety of great organizations that are out, I mean, there are many, many great organizations out there that are trying to help support for diversity that I think are, in my opinion, a better way to really get engaged with people that are really supporting this out in the community. I think there's [inaudible], there’s some amazing things. And I find that to be a better route because I think that there's more energy and [inaudible], and activities happening to really make and facilitate these board matches than in just the normal, hey, if you happen to hear of a board opportunity I'm interested, right. I did not find that as effective

Nicole: As helpful, right. It sounds like you took a more strategic sort of laser approach, and that led to a better result. I think that's very insightful for folks. Instead of casting the net widely, being very targeted in your approach. Right. And I've heard different paths be successful. But I think it sounds like yours was very intentional and that made all the difference. Certainly, your year and a half timeline of getting on a board. That's certainly shorter than a lot of other stories that I've heard. So, it seemed to be beneficial to you for sure.

Julie: Yep. And, I mean, I have some really amazing other candidates, right? I mean, when Axon decided to go look for a diverse board member they looked at many really, really strong women in leadership roles. And I mean, it was a super impressive group of people. And very much when I started the process, it was in the context of this is going to be great experience for me. Right. I finally can do the interviews. I can see what they're like. I can see if my board bio resonates. I can kind of practice. I really didn't go into it with the expectation that it would end up being as successful as it was, but it was like my first opportunity to at least sort of try it out. And I'm happy to say that in the end it worked out that it was a great match. But it was . . . I felt prepared, but I also really felt like it was going to be practice more than anything.

Nicole: Right. Well, credit to you and kudos to you certainly. And such an appreciation I have for not only what you're doing for Axon, but for others to promote diversity and to support other women on getting an opportunity to explore these things, right? So, Julie, I'm just grateful that you took the time to spend with us today and to share about your journey and so appreciate all that you're doing. And thank you so much for being with us today.

Julie: Well Nicole thank you for getting the word out, and I'm happy to help in any way that I can. So, as your podcast evolves and as your interaction with other future, female board members, or other diverse board members, I'm really happy to help in any way I can.

Nicole: Absolutely. Well, thanks so much. Appreciate your time. All the best.

Julie: Take care.
 

If you enjoyed the show, please visit iTunes or Spotify to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Join us next time for another episode of BDO in the Boardroom, and listen to the full series here.
 

 
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