By Eve Tahmincioglu
Can three women directors bring a “fresh” perspective? D&B sits down with one of the newly minted female board members, Betsy Atkins.
Wynn Resorts CEO and chairman Steve Wynn stepped down in February following sexual misconduct allegations. While the casino mogul has denied the charges, the company he founded has been dealing with the aftermath.
One recent move the new CEO Matt Maddox describes as a “turning point” for the company was the appointment of three new board members, all women.
Earlier this year, the company announced it’s expanding the board from eight to 11 members and bringing on Betsy Atkins, Dee Dee Myers and Wendy Webb as independent directors.
In a statement, D. Boone Wayson, Wynn Resorts chairman said: “We are confident that their extensive and wide-ranging expertise will provide fresh and valuable perspectives to support the company’s leadership team and business strategy.”
Webb is CEO of Kestrel Advisors, which advises corporations on growth initiatives, governance, investor relations and strategic issues. Myers is an executive at Warner Bros. Entertainment, where she is executive vice president for worldwide corporate communications and public affairs. Atkins currently serves on the boards of Cognizant, SL Green Realty and Schneider Electric, and is a member of the board of Volvo Cars.
The following is a Q&A with Atkins, a three-time CEO and founder of Baja Corporation, an independent venture capital firm and author of Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director, about the appointment:
D&B: You are one of three women appointed as new directors to Wynn’s board, including Dee Dee Myers and Wendy Webb, what was the gender make up before you all joined? Will more women be added?
Atkins: Before I joined Wynn along with Dee Dee Myers and Wendy Webb, there were eight board members and one was a female, at that time it was 12% female. Now the board has four women bringing us to 36% female. This is the highest percentage of gender diversity on any public board in the gaming sector.
D&B: When you were approached about joining the board, who reached out to you and why do you think they turned to you?
Atkins: I was contacted originally by Anne Sheehan who is the former director of corporate governance at CalSTRS. She felt I would bring a valuable perspective and she introduced me to the search firm, Diversified Search, who was leading the search.
D&B: What were your initial thoughts about joining the board? Were you apprehensive? If so, what did you do and what eventually convinced you to join?
Atkins: Wynn is a very intriguing company since it is global and in the premium end of the hospitality and gaming sector. They are especially intriguing because the company has multiple major components ranging from hospitality (hotels), premium food and beverage, to premium retail and premium gaming. I was of course apprehensive about the negative press and wanted to understand the culture of Wynn. What really convinced me to join the board was meeting the three board colleagues I interviewed with; chairman Boone, Robert J. Miller, the governance chair; and special committee chair Patricia Mulroy. What especially impressed me and motivated me was the caliber of the [executive] leadership team. I met the CEO, GC, CFO and other senior execs. This is a company of extraordinary leaders with clear vision, incredibly high-energy, results-oriented and execution-oriented, who are deeply culturally sensitive and going to continue on their strong performance heritage and take the company forward in this next phase.
D&B: What are the “fresh and valuable perspectives” — as Wynn’s chairman D. Boone Wayson stated — you think you can bring to the board?
Atkins: I would really hope that my background as a tech entrepreneur and experience with digital transformation, AI, machine learning, mobile enablement, marketing automation, branding and advanced technology such as AR/VR would be a complimentary perspective to others around the table. Additionally, having served as governance chair at the largest food and beverage company, Darden, where we took them from worst in class to best in class (according to ISS) in a year might also be a useful perspective. The other viewpoint I hope to bring comes from having been governance chair at Chico’s where we focused on ecommerce and seamless Omni channel consumer experience. The full breadth of my corporate governance learnings come from having served on 25 public boards.
D&B: Do you see this as a “new era” for Wynn? How so?
Atkins: I truly believe Wynn is committed at all levels from the board through top management to building on their strong service culture and refreshing it with a focus on diversity, gender sensitivity (including training and equal pay), and maximization of the female talent pool. The reason I believe this is more than lip service is that Wynn has taken the step of establishing a culture and community department which will encompass and further the company’s efforts on leadership and development, diversity and inclusion, community engagement and gender equality. This effort includes a women’s leadership forum where the four Wynn female directors, along with the Wynn leadership team, will have regular town halls, events, and fireside chats to promote engagement and advancement of the female employee base. Lastly, CEO Matt Maddox, within 60 days of assuming his role, completed a comprehensive learning and listening tour to meet with employees to get their views and communicate the commitment to enhancing the culture to build on the talent of the 25k employees with a renaissance of cultural renewal and sensitivity.
D&B: What needs to happen at Wynn to change the culture and what will be the board’s role in the transformation? Do you have a plan? If so, can you share some details?
Atkins: The first step from the board perspective is for special committee chair, Pat Mulroy, to complete the incredibly thorough and comprehensive investigation that she is leading with Gibson Dunn. The scope, the breadth and the depth of this investigation is to identify areas in the company’s culture for focus, retraining, and augmentation, if needed. However, the cultural tone at the top set by the board is fully supportive of all of the programs that are already being rolled out — the CEO listening tour, the efforts of the culture, and community department to begin specialized training, and the woman’s leadership forum, to name a few.
D&B: Whenever sexual harassment issues surface at companies, there is often a move to bring women in. Some see it as no more than tokenism. How do you fight that perception?
Atkins: I think bringing in three directors voluntarily and doing almost a 30% board refresh is a pretty remarkable testament that this is not tokenism. Very few boards that I am aware of have done a 30% refreshment voluntarily. That is a very large amount of new people to onboard, train and get productively into committees, etc.
D&B: Are there particular challenges for a board when the CEO of a company steps down as a result of sexual misconduct allegations? How do you build trust in leadership at an organization on the heels of that?
Atkins: Organizations are rattled when they have an abrupt change of leadership for any reason and certainly sexual harassment is emotionally charged. The way to stabilize an organization is for the CEO to be very visible and fortunately Matt had been well known and esteemed throughout the company and has been the identified CEO successor for a long time. CEO Maddox’s reaction demonstrates how seriously he considered the criticality of company culture and tone at the top. His in-person, front-and-center engagement with all of the employees, meeting all of them in small- and medium-sized groups to hear their concerns and share the vision for the company as a continued leader in the premium experiential hospitality and gaming sector has gone a long way to stabilizing, energizing and reinvigorating the organization worldwide.
D&B: Does corporate America in general have a sexual harassment problem? Are things getting better, and what role has the #MeToo movement played?
Atkins: I think that corporate America generally does not have a problem with sexual harassment. There are always isolated incidents. I think the issues are concentrated in certain industries such as media and entertainment and there is some visibility/questions around Silicon Valley issues. I think that the visibility created by the #MeToo movement has been very helpful to create a no-tolerance standard and to enable women to more readily surface issues and get them addressed.
D&B: Are you hopeful things are changing? Why?
Atkins: I definitely believe things are changing in terms of gender diversity from the boardroom to the senior leadership level. Corporations, investors and all constituencies are best served when there is broad cognitive diversity in decision-making and leadership. I define cognitive diversity as diversity of gender and thought, different industry backgrounds, and geographical diversity. This creates an environment where the maximum pool of talent is included which always yields the best results. But in the end it’s important to understand that women bring cognitive diversity to the table and that’s critical for companies, especially in the hospitality industry. Women are exemplars of the consumer, and over 55% of travel decisions are made by women. When you look at our constituencies, half of our customers are women and more than half of our employees are women. Certainly investors want the best business judgment at the table. You get that when you have cognitive diversity; and you get cognitive diversity with gender diversity.