BDO in the Boardroom Podcast

Episode 4: Quest for a Board Seat – Remaining Persistent, Opportunistic and Continually Learning

Join BDO in discussion with Bob Tirva, Audit Committee Chair of Resonant (RESN) and CFO of Sonim Technologies.


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 Bob Tirva. Bob has served as a member of the Resonant’s board of directors since October 2018. Additionally, Bob serves as the chief financial officer of Sonam Technologies, a leading US provider of Ultra Rugged Mobility Solutions. Prior to Sonam, Bob was the Chief Financial Officer of Intermedia, a leading cloud SaaS and business application provider, where he was responsible for all of Intermedia's global finance functions. Prior to Intermedia, Bob was Corporate Controller at DropBox from 2014 to 2016, where he was responsible for developing the company’s accounting organization. Before Dropbox, he spent nearly 14 years at Broadcom Corporation, where he held a range of financial roles of increasing responsibility, including: Senior Vice President, Principal Accounting Officer, and VP of Finance. He also has career experience with IBM Corporation, Navistar Financial, and Ernst and Young. He holds an MBA from the Yale School of Management, and a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame. Bob, that is a great background. So grateful to have you join us today and come on-board to share with us a little bit about your journey to the boardroom. Welcome and thank you.

Bob: Thanks Nicole, it's great to be here.

Nicole: Absolutely. Good. So, I would love to understand when you were considering joining your first board. Did you have a strategy, a thought process, or an approach that you took? I would love to hear a little bit about that.

Bob: Sure, sure. Well I'd like to say I had a well-planned, well-reasoned strategy, but those things are not often happening the way people think they'll happen. Sometimes they just stumble into things. And for me, my first move towards a board was joining an organization in Orange County, California, called the Forum for Corporate Directors. That's a nonprofit group that provides education for corporate board members and I thought it was a great way to meet and get advice from existing board members. And it just so happened that the FCD, as it's known, was looking for corporate experience on their own board, which at the time was made up mostly of lawyers, accountants, and other service providers. So, I ended up joining the board of that nonprofit forum for corporate directors and it was a great experience for a few years and that's what ended up being my first board.

Nicole: That’s a great story, because I think a lot of times getting on a not-for-profit board can give us some great experience and exposure to others that can be really beneficial in the long term.

Was that some of your thought process as well and if so, how might that have been the case?

Bob: Certainly, I mean networking with other board members was key to moving into that area of serving on boards and I learned a lot from being at FCD. I'd say that one of the things that I learned was that board positions are pretty rare, so it's important to get the word out to as many people as possible that you're interested, and that is usually what leads to eventually finding something that falls in place.

Nicole: It's a great path to try to do just that, right, through the nonprofit route.
Excellent, and so that was your first board experience. So, I'm assuming you continued to sort of leverage your network? Or those that you knew to continue on your path to obtaining more board roles?

Bob: Yes, that's correct. I mean, for me, I know that looking for key attributes that would be helpful to a board, in my own case, being a CPA, being a chief financial officer, having that kind of financial expertise fits in with the requirements of an audit committee, which is a key component of a public company board. But I don't think that in and of itself is enough to qualify. There are many people who have that in their background. My other experience with technology companies was also something that played a major role in finding the board position at Resonant. Resonant is a technology company that is developing new 5G cellular technology, and I had spent many years at Broadcom which is also in the cellular wireless space and so that fit, plus the need that Resonant had for an audit committee person was kind of key to that search.

Nicole: And it happened to be right combination of your skill set that makes a lot of sense. Was there someone that identified you and said you would be great for this? Or did you have, someone who headhunted for the role? I mean, how did it materialize that you found out about it and then went through the process?

Bob: Sure, well actually in my case there was a little bit of luck involved, because Resonant was looking for a CFO and they called me, because of my CFO experience and I actually ended up talking to the company, in that sense of possibly becoming the CFO. And that ended up not working out, but at the same time their audit committee chair resigned for another role and so they had an opening on their audit committee, just as I was interviewing with the board for a CFO role and it just so happened that they thought, well, if it's not going to work out on the CFO side, why don't you become our audit committee chair? Actually, everybody on the board thought you would make a good addition to the team and we’ll just move the chair over to this other side of the table.

Nicole: Great timing. Yeah, absolutely. Now that makes a lot of sense and so the saying goes, “we know what we know, but sometimes we don't know what we don't even know we don't know,” and I would love to know as you stepped into that position, what were the unforeseeables? What was the, you know, 'cause clearly you had some very particular expertise, which resonated - pardon the pun with Resonant, but which resonated with the board, and why you would add value in an obvious way. What were some of the areas that were gaps in your experience that you identified once you were on the board and you're like, wait, whoops, I'm going to need to know that that's an area of opportunity of growth or development. What was that? Or if you can speak to that at all.

Bob: Sure, yeah, I had the experience from being on the corporate side, so I presented to boards. I've been part of board meetings and audit committee meetings through the years wearing my corporate hat, and I'd always approach these meetings in a sense of having to prepare for them and bring something to the table for the board to review. And so, doing the opposite of that where you kind of sit back and wait for someone else to come in with something and you're trying to give advice, or trying to sort of review the material that they send and give them feedback is really challenging if you haven't done that. I mean, it sounds simple, but in reality, [you] kind of want to reach in and help create some of the material yourself and becoming a reviewer and an advisor is, it takes a little bit of practice, so I'd say that that's one thing.

Another thing is, as I said, my experience was in the broader, board meeting with many participants and presenters and then after that, the management team leaves and the board talks among themselves, and so that's the part that was interesting to me. I hadn't been used to that. And there's certainly discussion around the effectiveness of management: how good of a job they're doing. Do we need to replace the CEO or the CFO? And that to me was something I hadn’t experienced . It was kind of funny because, it made me think back to my days of walking out the door thinking I did a great job and wondering, now, if the board was talking about replacing me as soon as I left the room.

Nicole: And so, yeah, that's an incredibly different perspective that you get when you're in the board seat versus when you are, like you say, in that CFO role, right? Eye opening for sure. And so, any mistakes? I know that’s sort of a vulnerable question, but because I think we've all made them at times, but were there any mistakes that you made that were really great learnings by chance that you could share?

Bob: Oh, I don't know about mistakes, it's more of being able to fit in with the cadence of the board that you're working with and it could be very different. Some boards are very, very focused on procedure and proper minute taking and motions, and all the other things that you would see in a carefully scripted board meeting, and other boards kind of just relax on that. They like to communicate amongst themselves. And there's kind of an assumption that they've approved all these things during the course of the meeting, even if they're not formal votes that are taken. It's kind of a group consensus, so I think coming in and trying to force order where there is none can be a mistake. It's more of, if you're the new person on a larger board, you have to follow the lead to some extent and so you establish yourself.

Nicole: Got it. Fair enough. And in terms of the conversation around diversity right now. You know, there's a lot of that as it relates to boards and I would love to know if there are specific measures, or things that you've done to facilitate further diversity on the board, or to be a proponent of that diversity and how important do you think that is? All of those things, if you will.

Bob: Sure, I think it's very important. I think that boards have this historical view of just being a room full of insiders that are friends with the CEO or the founders or some of the ownership group, and are not really diverse enough to provide different opinions and views, and I think today boards are actively seeking that and in return they, the companies, need to take the advice of the people that they recruit to their boards, because otherwise it's somewhat of a waste to do that if the diversity isn't appreciated both ways. So I think you can see that changes are being made every day to move away from an old-fashioned board and into something that's more modern where you have a wide range of opinions and views.

Nicole: It's a great point that you make, and I'd love to hear a little bit more, because it sounds like you have presented to boards and audit committees for many years and now sit on the other side as a board member. How has the boardroom changed in the time that you've been exposed to being in that room, how is it changed? How is it different now?

Bob: Well, I think really recently it's interesting to see how boards are meeting virtually, and that is important given the current work at home, COVID meeting restrictions. Boards like to meet in person and it's a bit of a social event as well as a governance event and that has changed dramatically, and so people are getting used to video conferencing and virtual board meetings. I think that actually helps to create diversity in boards, because then the sky's the limit as to how far slung the board members can be in terms of participation. So I think the move towards more technology, even though somewhat forced recently because of the pandemic, is a positive in the long run.

Nicole: Right. And do you think the expectations of board members on an individual level have evolved or changed? I mean there's different conversation, certainly now in a boardroom, then there was even 10 years ago around things like risk and cyber, right? Do you think the expectations of the individual board members, do you think it feels different now?

Bob: I think it does. I think just getting back to the point around old-fashioned boardrooms and kind of rubber stamp boards. I think board members today expect to provide input, real input and they expect the companies to take that input seriously. And it's not just simply approving or ratifying what management brings to the table. It's something that should provide value in both directions.

Nicole: Very good, and in terms of when we think of innovation. I think especially in the Bay Area for example, I know you reside as do I, we think of innovation in terms of technology, etc. But I think there's an opportunity to innovate in the boardroom as well, based on all the things we just chatted about. The difference now of the role that the board plays compared to what it was even 10 years ago. Are there things that you've brought from an innovation perspective to the board or to the conversations that you're having with fellow board members?

Bob: Well I don't know if I brought those to the current board that I sit on. I think that's a very innovative board to begin with, so I'm happy to be a participant there versus an innovator, but I think that some of the things that I've learned, I think, to be well received in other future boards. Maybe, as you said Nicole, we live in a high-tech area and there's a lot of innovation here. There are many companies throughout the country, in the world, that they're not as far along the curve on innovation and technology, and so bringing in that type of diversity onto their boards can only help and help them get advice in getting a little bit further along in advanced technology into their own companies. Whether they're a technology company or not.

Nicole: Yeah, fair enough. I think that's a great point. And are there any other thoughts or comments or advice you might have for other folks that have not gotten the public company board seat that are still aspiring to do so? Any other last  comments or thoughts, advice, pearls of wisdom?

Bob: Sure, sure, I would just say to be patient and persistent and get the word out to as many people as possible that you're interested in doing this, and you never know where an opportunity would come from. As I mentioned, my own opportunity really came from a CFO search that morphed into a board search on the fly and so it was something that was unexpected, but the openness to talk to another company just to find out more about them is what will lead you down the right path. And I do remember, before I had become a CFO, I had gone to BDO and other roundtables about how do you become a CFO, right? For aspiring CFO's, and it's sort of the same story. You keep pushing and pushing and somebody has to give you the opportunity eventually, but it's probably not as easy as it's just the first door you knock on. And so I think it's important to, as I said, get the word out as far and wide as possible and be prepared for some rejection and people saying you don't have the right experience. And then eventually, once you get that opportunity take advantage of it.

Nicole: Great words of wisdom and advice there, Bob. That's super helpful and thank you. Anything else on your side? Any questions that I didn't ask you that I should have?
Bob: No, I think you covered it. I think this is a great chance to chat about this.

Nicole: Well and your background, obviously, and your path is great experience to share. Lots of great takeaways there. And like you say, you never know where something is going to lead. You're interviewing for a job and all of a sudden it flips into a board seat. So, I think it's a wonderful story and some great advice for our listeners. And Bob, I'm just grateful for your time and thank you so much. Best of luck with all of your endeavors and be safe. Thank you so much.

Bob: Great, thanks a lot, Nicole.

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