She Who Dares

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of Betsy Atkins’ career achievements. She has served on more than 38 boards and been through 13 IPOs. A three-time CEO, she started her career as an entrepreneur co-founding several successful digital tech and consumer companies, including the US$5.4 billion Ascend Communications.
She’s currently CEO and owner of Bajacorp, an early-stage VC firm focused on software, technology, energy and healthcare; Chair of Google Cloud Advisory Board; and sits on two public boards: Wynn Resorts and SL Green. She’s also, somehow, found the time to write three books – her latest is Be Board Ready: The Secrets To Landing A Board Seat – and regularly contributes to WSJ, Forbes and Financial Times. Here she talks integrity, opportunity, hard decisions and hard positions.

FOLLOW UP, FOLLOW THROUGH & EXECUTE: “I think one of my true differentiating strengths is my follow up, follow through, and execution when it comes to business. Anything I say I’ll do, I am relentless about always following up in a complete fashion and closing the loop.”

INTEGRITY IS EVERYTHING: “Early in my public board career, I felt anxious and uncertain about escalating something I knew would cause a very strong, emotional backlash. I came across an impropriety as part of my audit committee participation. I brought the issue up in public, and it did cause a huge storm since it was embarrassing to the individual who was doing something improper. It was very uncomfortable, and that person turned out to be very vengeful, so it definitely had collateral damage and impacted to my career. However, I felt I had done the correct thing. I thought I had taken the correct moral and legal step. It was a calculated risk, but I feel from an integrity point of view, I did the right thing.”

YOU HAVE TO PUT IN THE WORK: “The best business advice I have ever received is that you need to be willing to take a risk and take on more than you think you are able to achieve. Push yourself. Do the extra work. You will come out with a good outcome when you are truly putting in the work. That has been my experience.”

MAKE HARD DECISIONS, TAKE HARD POSITIONS: “The worst advice I’ve received is to look the other way when something bad is happening. That is often the road that people tell you to take because trying to right a wrong causes confrontation and can be uncomfortable. That said, if you want to be valuable, you have to keep your integrity, be willing to make hard decisions and take hard positions, and learn to disagree without being disagreeable.”

MAKE SURE YOU CAN LOOK YOURSELF IN THE MIRROR: “In my experience never compromise if it is illegal, in the gray zone, or immoral. If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror a week from now; year from now; five years from now, and hold your head up and feel you did the right thing, then you should not compromise. It may mean that you need to rotate out of your role in a gracious and diplomatic way. No reason to leave a lot of broken glass when you exit.”

SOMETIMES, BUSINESS SIMPLY ISN’T FAIR: “When I was the VP of International Operations at a tech company, my boss promoted, and gave more favourable compensation, to a male colleague. This colleague significantly underperformed my results. It impacted me by driving home that often business is simply not fair. The frustrating nature of who you know, and where your relationships are, can sometimes be more influential than the actual quality of the work you perform.”

THE MORE NETWORKS YOU CAN BUILD, THE BETTER: “It’s important for women to strengthen their networks because there are fewer women in the workforce at a senior level than men. As in any organisation, the more networks and relationships you can build, the better. The more you can help your colleagues, and those who are both below and above you in the organisation, the more impactful you are going to be in achieving your goals. It is a natural and easy affinity for women to help and strengthen their network with each other. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to build your community of helpers.

INVEST IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP BANK ACCOUNT: “In my experience, the way you build a network and strengthen it, is you need to help others. Go out of your way; extend yourself; contribute ideas, work, and introductions; help your colleagues succeed. When you do that, then there is a positive balance in your relationship bank account. They should feel willing to support and strengthen your network in reciprocation.”

WHEN NEGOTIATING, DON’T GRIND THE OTHER PERSON DOWN: “I’ve learned that it’s incredibly important that everybody save face and be able to have a win-win outcome in any negotiation. If you negotiate so hard that you grind the other person down, they are never going to be fully committed to making the agreement work. Allow upside for the other side and always follow through on any commitment you’ve made. No renegotiating after the fact!”

DON’T HIRE PEOPLE LIKE YOU: “To build the right team, identify the specific skills you need that you don’t have. Hire for that skill. Don’t hire people that are like you. Hire people that are different from you and fill a gap/skill you do not possess. The cultural part of the team has to be that everybody has the same intensity, drive, cycle time, sense of urgency, and determination to win. If you are not aligned on those cultural attributes, the team will never be effective.”

BE MINDFUL OF WHO YOU SURROUND YOURSELF WITH: “Surround yourself with people who are positive and upbeat. Find people you will learn from and grow with. Invest in friendships and personal relationships. Having this fabric is a key underlying strength to emotional wellness. Emotional happiness and wellness correlates to health. Make sure you eat well and get at least seven hours sleep.”

YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE: “Every day you make a decision first thing in the morning before you even get out of bed… Am I happy? Decide to be happy every day. Decide to do good. Decide to work hard. Even if you don’t feel like it, smile… it will improve your day.”



Q: Describe yourself in three words?

A: Determined, generous-hearted, mentoring.

Q: What virtue/virtues do you admire most others?

A: I admire intellect and when I can learn from others. I also admire courage when people raise difficult subjects in an effective and diplomatic way.

Q: What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?

A: It might surprise people to know that I am a devoted gardener and huge nature lover. I grow fruits, vegetables, tons of flowers and herbs. My gardens are my pride and joy.

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