BDO in the Boardroom Podcast


Episode 1: Getting Women in the Boardroom

Join BDO in discussion with Coco Brown, Founder and CEO of the Athena Alliance.


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nicole: Welcome to the BDO podcast series, Getting to the Boardroom, where we interview a distinguished series of public company board members on how they got there. We kick off our series with the CEO and founder of the Athena Alliance, Coco Brown. The Athena Alliance is the premier organization dedicated to advancing diversity in the boardroom by preparing executive women for board service and facilitating board matches. Athena has worked with over 300 boards and over 600 board members since its inception in 2015, making a significant impact and shape to the modern boardroom. Coco, we are thrilled for you to be joining us today on this hugely important topic and we're especially excited to get your point of view as it relates to getting women into the boardroom, so welcome.

Coco: Thank you, it's great to be here.

Nicole: Wonderful. Well, I thought I'd kick it off with a question around how the 21st century boardroom differs. How is it changed from boardrooms in the past?

Coco: Yes, it's a great question. If you think about centuries past, and the focus of boardrooms for as long as we can remember back before this more modern century, the focus was very much of a backward-looking view on the organization; a view of the organization based on the financial metrics and the financial measures of the company and whether or not those were being achieved quarter over quarter, making sure to stay within regulatory and legal boundaries, and then also succession planning, but specifically for the board itself and for the CEO. So, you have these traditional committees of audit and risk, compensation, and nomination and governance that's spent most of its time really looking backward and looking through the details of how the organization operates in the way that I described. In the 21st century, organizations are being held to a much bigger bar for success. They're being looked at not just from the perspective of shareholders and shareholder return, sort of financial metrics, and whether or not the company is in legal compliance, but a broader understanding of the world as a whole and “stakeholder,” and whether or not the company has long term viability and health based on what stakeholders expect of them which is the society around them, the customer, the employee, etc. And really what's happened is there's been three massive fundamental shifts that have driven this change.

One is certainly the shift from businesses being the ones in charge to the consumer being in the ones in charge, you know? So, moving from businesses telling consumers what to buy and what to think to consumers telling businesses how to behave and what to make. And this has been enabled by just massive connection. You know we can really connect to any information without, you know, with the exception of government intervention, any information, anywhere, anytime and word of mouth carries very, very quickly. So, businesses are now being expected to relate to and understand the perspective of the broad human populous that they touch.

The second thing is that there's been this rise of conscious capitalism . . . This understanding that it's not enough to focus on quarter over quarter results; that purpose and culture drive profit; that if you don't have a real connection to society, you really won't be long term viable from the perspective of your bottom-line metrics. You can just look to companies like Boeing and United Airlines and Uber and WeWork, and these companies to give us some indications of how the sentiment of the public affects the business as a whole.

And then the third big thing is the rise of what I call the “feminine archetype,” which is saying that in the boardroom in order to meet the needs of a very dynamic world you need to have greater capabilities around relationships: to the go to market strategy, to customer experience, to people and different ways of working, organization, structure etc., Things and capabilities that really live within roles that women have more historically played in customer success: marketing and human resources and those roles are being more and more valued in the boardroom.

Then of course, there's what everybody knows, which is that technology is changing everything and every business is a technology business now, and so the boardroom of the past that you thought about, organizations from the perspective of your old business model of 25 year plans, and being able to slowly meet goals that have been set over a long period of time have been disrupted by the fact that everything changes so quickly in a technology driven world, and every company needs to be a technology driven company. Which really changed the entire dynamics of how all the businesses operate. When every company has a different way of doing sales now, a different way of doing marketing, and board members of the past may have grown up in a different business model world than they do now.

Nicole: Very interesting! And so what I'm hearing you say is the expectations of board members and how boards function is very different than it used to be, and in terms of how that might be an opportunity for women, can you speak to those things at all?

Coco: Yes! There's definitely an expectation that boards need to operate differently, and the first step in that is that you see committees becoming, sort of bulging, right? Like now, audit and risk is also cyber risk and then also, well wait a minute, what about technological innovation? Where does that fit? Is that under audit? Is that under comp? Is it non-gov? It doesn't really fit anywhere. You see compensation sort of bulging into this people and culture arena. So a couple of things are happening. Boards are being tasked to think differently about the skills matrix that they've historically looked at, the kinds of people that bring the right skill to the table. It's no longer just former and current CEOs, and former and current financial experts, CFOs, etc. It's roles that historically have not been in the boardroom, but where you are more likely to find women. For example, 55% of CHROs are women. The compensation committee is being, in very modern boards, you're seeing Avalara, as an example: Kathy Zwickert was brought on to that board because of her HR background, in part to really broaden the view of what that comp committee is to be much deeper into the organization in terms of thinking about culture and people and systems that will work around the people organization. So, you know that's one opportunity for women is that CHRO function, that has always been an expert in compensation and succession planning and evaluation, etc., in equity structures, is also an expert in people structure and the modern people structures, and how to bring that thinking around global workforces, gig economies, multigenerational workforces into the boardroom.

Another area where you see opportunity for women is with the CMO or the CCO, the chief customer officer, which didn't even exist 10 years ago. Those roles are 32% women and 35% women. And so there again you have a lot more women in those roles that have the closest connection to customer, to the end stakeholders experience with the product or service, and it's play in the world and how to bring that to the world. That sort of capability is necessary in the boardroom as well, because how we're bringing products to the world is very different today than it was in the past, and educating the board and leading the board, as the board leads the company and stewards the company. More of those kinds of roles are being brought into the boardroom and that's providing opportunity for women.

Nicole: Fascinating and in terms of innovation in the boardroom, what I'm hearing in the trends of what you're saying, is that things have changed the impact of technology and sort of a reshuffling of the dynamics and change. So how is it that you've seen or experienced women being innovators in the boardroom?

Coco: Yeah, this is one of my most interesting “ah-ha's,” because women are the ones who are being brought into the board from newer perspectives, right? These different roles that didn't used to be in the boardroom, including, I've mentioned CHRO and those sort of go to market roles, but also the chief information officer. 19% of those are women, whereas women are only 11% of CFOs. So, you see women coming in from these technological roles: Chief Product Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Officer and those roles are not only bringing women newly into the boardroom, but also bringing capabilities into the boardroom. And so, women are driving more of the innovative thinking around boardroom structure. I mentioned Kathy with regard to compensation committee, sort of evolving at Avalara, but there's also women like Allison Davis who created the Innovation and Technology Committee for the Royal Bank of Scotland and now she has a historical financial background, but she drove this innovation, because the board is stewarding large investments in full digital transformation both internally and externally for the Royal Bank of Scotland. It's becoming a very different business model and the board needs to know how to steward that. So, I see women bringing innovative thinking to the boardroom around how the board configures itself. You know, really, what are the right committees? How the board thinks about and educates itself, in terms of being the long-term strategic stewards for the business and really taking the responsibility to say, the median tenure of a CEO is 5 years. Which means half of CEOs don't last 5 years, but boards are committees and collectives that last over the long haul. How do they make sure that they have a long-haul view that includes the world as it is today? And so, a lot of that thinking, I see women bringing to the table naturally, because they're coming into the organization disruptively, you know, into the boardroom just as different skill sets than the past.

Nicole: Great. Very interesting and in terms of other thoughts you have, you know, sort of open-ended question here. Anything else that listeners out there that are contemplating getting on a board or how to position themselves into that next step? Any guidance, any thoughts, anything else that you might like to add?

Coco: Yeah, one thing that I have also come to realize is that the work we do at Athena, which goes beyond the boardroom, but uses the boardroom as the final frontier of senior leadership. It is the place from which companies are stewarded into the long term and they operate very differently. They operate very like a C-Suite, but they operate very differently than any other function within the organization. So, getting there, getting to that space requires a different approach than we have historically used, in our careers, any of us. You know, we sort of climb a career ladder and this is not unique to women. This is male or female. As you climb a career ladder you sort of, and you may move over to a different ladder, but you're incrementally adding from one thing to the next. And as you talk about yourself you say, well in my last role I did this, and I was elevated to that. When you're looking to jump into the boardroom it's, this is going to sound kind of funny, but more similar to your high schooler preparing to go off to college. They have to build an entire strategy around that effort, that includes thinking deeply about: Which are my reach schools? Which are my match schools? Which are my safeties? You know, where really can I apply? If you will. So similarly, in the boardroom you need to think about, where does my scaling and overarching contribution to business fit to different business models and different business sizes and stages? And then you need to think also about the way that you know high schoolers will think about applying to colleges: What do I bring to the table? You know, what is my story? I'm going to tell my story in a series of essays and when you weave them together you see a picture of my potential, my passions, my capabilities, who I am, my character and you have to do the same thing as you're approaching your desire to join a board. You have to think about: Who am I, character? Who am I, passion? Who am I, potential? And how do I bring that to a boardroom? And you need to be able to tell that story in a bio very well, and also in the way that you present yourself. I think those things are extremely important. The third thing I would say is you have to realize that board seats are achieved through your network. It really is about who knows you, and how many click throughs and impressions you're getting, and so that takes effort on your part. It's like asking people to write letters of recommendation. You know, you can't just hope to get in, and somebody will find you. Yeah, yeah. It takes strategy and it takes outreach and letting people know what you're trying to accomplish in getting them to work for you.

Nicole: Absolutely. Well, I can't thank you enough for all of your thoughts and your perspective. I mean, clearly you see across many organizations and many boardrooms, and that's so insightful, I'm sure, to our listeners and women who are trying to get there. So, Coco, thank you so much for your time today and all the work that you've done at the Athena Alliance and we certainly wish you well and hopefully in the future we'll be able to have you back again. Thank you so much.

Coco: Thank you. It was great to talk to you. This is great what you're doing.

Nicole: Thanks so much.

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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