By: Silvia Davi
Betsy Atkins is a 3-time CEO and serial entrepreneur and founder of Baja Corporation. She has co-founded enterprise software companies in multiple industries including energy, healthcare and networking. She is an expert at scaling companies through hyper growth and leading them to successful IPO and acquisitions. She is the former Chairman and CEO of Clear Standards, which was acquired by SAP, and co-founder of Ascend Communications ($5 billion in revenue) which was acquired by Lucent for $23 billion. At Baja Corporation, Betsy has built 3 early stage funds and has made early investments in companies such as Yahoo, eBay and Selectica.
Betsy is a corporate governance expert with an eye for making boards a competitive asset. Her corporate board experience is vast and covers multiple industries including: technology, financial services, healthcare, retail, automotive, manufacturing and logistics.
Silvia Davi interviewed Betsy regarding her latest book, Be Board Ready.
What inspired you to write your newest book “Be Board Ready” and how does it differ from your other two books?
I was inspired because when I speak at conferences, so many talented people are eager to find out what the pathway is to joining a board. Having served on the second most boards in the country, I have really thought through the different avenues and pathways to getting on a board, and I wanted to share that.
What advice do you have for leaders that aspire to serve on public company boards?
Clarify the perspective and advice that you bring, and ensure it is directly relevant to a board that you want to serve on. If you can come up with a compelling and persuasive set of valuable insights that you are going to bring to help build the business, than you have a real story to tell the CEO and other board members on why they will want to add you. Distill your experience down to differentiating characteristics, experiences and attributes so you can position yourself in a way that is unique and complimentary to the other current board members.
What is the biggest difference from being a CEO to a Board Chair?
The CEO’s primary focus is leading, operating and building the company on a full time basis. The Board Chair is focused on only leading the board not the company. The Chair works with the CEO to develop the agenda, collects input from the board members and facilitates communication between the board members and the CEO and the board. The role of the board is to represent the shareholder, to review and approve the operating plan, the financial reporting and continuity of leadership of the company. The board’s role is to provide oversight, mitigate risk and future-proof the company for the long-term health of the enterprise.
When it comes to board diversity, what qualities are you seeking?
I look for cognitive diversity. If everyone sees things from the same lens, they will all see the same opportunity and miss the same risk. I think that diversity includes gender, ethnic, global and experiential (tech and relevant business experience.) These attributes are what I would define as a cognitively diverse set of backgrounds.
As a successful female C-Suite executive, what perspective do you have on why the number of CEOs or female leaders on boards hasn’t changed in nearly 10 years?
It is changing significantly now, I believe. The catalyst occurred in 2017 when the large index funds like SSGA, first issued a withhold vote against 400 companies in their index due lack of gender diversity. This catapulted gender diversity to the front of everybody’s mind. In 2018, Heidrick & Struggles reported that 38% of vacant or newly created board seats filled went to women. Versus less than 28% for 2016, which is the biggest year-on-year increase they have ever recorded. They are projecting 50% by 2025!
What do you think needs to happen to see more gender diversity in leadership in the US?
I think that it is already happening. In the US we see the highest percentage of women in the C-suite, directly reporting to the CEO, more than any country in the world. Europe mandated, in several countries, that 40% of every board must be occupied by women. That said, Europe’s C-Suite has significantly fewer women leaders. It is from the C-Suite that the new CEOs are selected, and the US has the richest pool of female C-Suite talent. So I am hopeful that in the coming years we will continue to see more women CEOs. We are already seeing most corporate boards aggressively targeting to be 30% female in 2019 or by 2020 at the latest.
For entrepreneurs starting new fast growing companies, what management advice would you give them?
Stay focused on the customer. Your market will tell you if your service or product is working. As Jeff Bezos said, when you have 70% of the data that your products or services are ready for market, get it out there! Get customer and market feedback, and iterate and optimize and improve. Relentless focus on the customer experience is the differentiator between a successful business and one that ultimately fails.
What are some of the most exciting corporate governance trends today?
ESG is the biggest board trend I see. Environmental, Social and Governance are the three major themes I believe will dominate corporate governance in the coming years.
How do you personally balance being on so many boards, and what was your journey to get to where you are today?
I am careful to only accept board engagement where I can commit 100% of my time, energy and focus to make a maximum contribution. I invest my board fees in my team so that I have the ability to be able to leverage myself effectively. My journey over the past 25 years has been focused on a new differentiated model for board engagement. I hold myself accountable, to not merely providing oversight, but to be an asset and an accelerant to the company and earn the trust to become a mentor and consigliere to the CEO.
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