In each issue of C-Suite magazine, we highlight stories of public company board members who have started their first directorship within the past two years, providing perspectives and impressions of their new roles. This feature is brought to you by the Equilar Diversity Network (EDN).
The following interview participants are affiliated with EDN Partners Athena Alliance and Women in the Boardroom.
What was your path to joining the Sterling Bancorp board, and what led you to decide it was the right fit?
Maureen Mitchell: To answer that, I need to take a step back and address how I came to decide on board work. A few years ago, the trajectory of my career collided with several key events in my life, personal and professional: the birth of my first grandchild, the sale of a business I was actively engaged in and the death of a close friend.
I had served on boards in the past—both industry boards and nonprofits. I enjoyed the experience and the intellectual rigor required. So with my retirement from a senior operating role, pursuing board service seemed like a logical next step. But first I needed to examine what type of board made sense. The director selection process is part science and part art. That’s because the intangible quality of board culture—something you can only grasp from meeting with other board members and the leadership team—is so key.
The Sterling board seemed like a perfect fit: It leverages my 30 years of financial services experience, primarily in B2B, as well as my familiarity with the regions it serves. And I was in complete alignment with the firm’s philosophy of full transparency.
Have there been any surprises in terms of what you expected from the responsibilities of a public company director?
Mitchell: If there have been any, they have all been on the upside! The Sterling board and leadership are fully engaged, and promote challenging and transparent dialogue.
All that being said, however, board service requires commitment: The expectations are rigorous, and there is consistent call on your time for board meetings as well as committee work. Significant engagement is required to prepare, and become fluent in aspects of the business and the regulatory environment.
That’s why it is so important to understand what board service demands prior to making a commitment. After all, the commitment is mutual: The company is investing in your success as well, and unnecessary board turnover can be disruptive, inefficient and costly.
What advice would you impart to other executives seeking their first board seats?
Mitchell: First, start with three foundational questions: What value do I bring? Where would that value be most beneficially used? And, am I willing to devote the time, focus and commitment required to be a successful director?
Second, it’s important to remember that the role of a board member is fundamentally different from that of a senior operating executive. Your role is a fiduciary one—to provide oversight and set the strategic direction of the company—for which you will be held accountable.
Finally, as any director will tell you, you must be systematic about the process. I sought guidance and sponsorship from my network—former colleagues, clients and executive search professionals—and joined key industry organizations, including the National Association of Corporate Directors, Women Corporate Directors and Women in the Boardroom. These and other industry advisory groups offer essential resources, such as educational materials, coaching and webinars, that are critical tools for those preparing to enter board service.
Maureen Mitchell is an independent board director and a senior advisor with The Boston Consulting Group. She has been a strategic leader in the investment industry for more than 30 years, working with companies such as GE and Bear Stearns. She recently launched an executive coaching practice.
Ms. Mitchell’s board experience is extensive. In addition to her current service on the Natixis/Loomis Sayles Mutual Funds and Sterling National Bank boards, she also served as a director of Fieldpoint Private Bank & Trust Co., several GE subsidiaries, and the Investment Company Institute Board of Governors.
Ms. Mitchell writes and speaks frequently on investing, business transformation, client management and advancing women’s leadership.
Please describe how you came across the opportunity to serve on the board at Axon.
Julie Cullivan: My background has always been in technology, with 30 years of experience. About a year after taking on the role of CIO at FireEye, I noticed that other executives were joining boards and advisory boards. I thought it would be a long process, but I was vocal with individuals in my network that if the right opportunity were to come up, to please keep me in mind. I wasn’t actively looking, but also was uncertain how long the process could take. I connected with Athena Alliance because of Coco Brown’s strong background with women in tech leadership. As much as Athena Alliance is about matching women to boards, a lot of it is about preparing them for the journey. I joined as one of the “pioneers” thinking it would be a long journey.
Shortly after starting my conversations, Taser, now called Axon, was looking to bring diversity to their board. My experiences also aligned well with the background they were looking for, particularly someone with technical, digital and security experience. Having a CIO title is what really led to my candidacy. I met with their CEO and he was open and honest from the beginning that it’d be a process, meeting with 20-something people. What he liked about my background was the variety I brought to the table. I had a finance background, go-to-market perspective and experience in transitioning business models. It was interesting because the variety of experience was beneficial in this case. In other situations, boards are sometimes very specific on what they are looking for.
Ultimately, I received advice from headhunters and countless others on how to pitch myself during the interview. In the end, as I interviewed, the CEO and other board members realized that my broad set of experiences made me an ideal candidate.
Given your background, how does the mindset shift in a boardroom position?
Cullivan: It’s an adjustment. You can’t tell people how to do something, you need to lead them. You really have to consider how you think about certain things and frame perspectives in a manner that is coaching or advice.
Additionally, I’ll say that it makes me so much better at my job, which is not something I realized would be a benefit of serving on a board. As we approach similar issues or topics at my current company, I have a few different perspectives, and I see how other companies are trying to adjust to or address new compliance topics, and it’s helpful in those terms.
In terms of personal responsibility and the commitment you need to make, most of the board members at Axon have been on the board for a very long time. I’m years and years behind on the history and the “we’ve tried that before” and “do you remember when”—I quickly realized that there is an immense amount to get up to speed. The other directors do help, but it’s really up to you to get caught up.
Cullivan: My advice to executives thinking about this is that it’s never too early to start. You don’t know how long it’s going to take to find your first board seat. Don’t underestimate the value of organizations; it’s not just about your network. If you’re really serious about it, make that commitment to yourself.
With more than two decades of experience driving operational capabilities across some of the world’s largest cybersecurity and IT brands, Julie Cullivan leads cross-functional operations, manages execution for the company’s priorities in partnership with the business functions, and runs the IT organization at ForeScout Technologies. She has extensive operational and technical leadership experience, having held prior roles at FireEye, Autodesk, McAfee, EMC and Oracle. Ms. Cullivan also serves on the board of directors of Axon and advisory board for Cobalt.io.
What was your path to joining the board of Harmonic, and what led you to decide it was the right fit?
Debbie Clifford: During my time at Autodesk, I’ve interacted with the audit committee, which sparked my interest in exploring board service. I wasn’t sure why or what being on a board really meant, but that initial spark of interest evolved into a 14–18 month “board journey.” First, I realized I needed to develop a clear understanding of what being on a board is all about, particularly a board member’s role and the governance requirements involved with it. Next, I developed a clear understanding of the value I would bring to a board. I have extensive finance experience, and there’s a need for this skill on boards since the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Finally, I learned that fit is extremely critical. Joining a board is a long-term relationship and I learned that the selection process is extensive for everyone involved to ensure appropriate fit. Because of this dynamic, I decided I was not in a rush to join a board because I wanted to find the best fit for me and for every party involved. You’re all-in when it comes to joining a board.
There are several organizations whose primary purposes are to support aspiring board members, be it through education, networking or otherwise. One of my mentors at Autodesk introduced me to the Athena Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to increase gender diversity in the boardroom. Athena really helped me understand my value, hone my pitch and concisely explain what value I could bring to the boardroom. I also joined the National Association of Corporate Directors, took their basic training courses and became a governance fellow. And finally, after a recommendation from one of our audit committee members, I joined the Boardlist. Ultimately, getting my name on the Boardlist is what connected me to Harmonic.
Harmonic is a company that is going through a transformation, similar to Autodesk. During the selection process, I met every board member and learned more about what Harmonic was looking for, which felt like a fit with my experience. I learned about Harmonic’s strategy and got excited about it. I really admire the Harmonic board for seeking to add a diversity of experiences and viewpoints in the boardroom.
What went into the board’s decision to add you as a director? Has your extensive background in finance played a role in your boardroom duties thus far?
Clifford: After my first board meeting at Harmonic, I quickly realized that many of the issues the board discussed have a financial aspect to them and require an operational business background to readily understand them, both of which are a fit with my experience. Also, my experience with business transformations played a role in my nomination.
What advice would you impart to other executives seeking their first board seats?
Clifford: Do the research. Understand what is required of board members and why you want to be on a board. Join the NACD and become a governance fellow. If you’re a woman, join the Athena Alliance and get your name on the BoardList. Network, network and keep networking. Most board seats get filled through referral, so you get your name out there as a candidate. Don’t be in a rush—fit is absolutely critical. Recognize that joining a board is a long-term commitment. Ensure you are comfortable with the company, the board, the management team and the value you will bring to the table.
Debbie Clifford currently serves as the vice president of financial planning and analysis at Autodesk, a leading 3D design, engineering and entertainment software company. Most recently, she was a lead architect of Autodesk’s financial transformation from selling perpetual licenses to becoming a SaaS provider. Ms. Clifford has held a variety of finance positions of increasing responsibility during her tenure at Autodesk, partnering with product, marketing and sales leadership. Before Autodesk, she was director of financial planning and analysis at Virage, a video search software company, which she helped take public. She began her career in public accounting at Ernst & Young. Ms. Clifford holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science with a business specialization from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She serves on the boards of Harmonic, Inc. (NASDAQ: HLIT) and Geohazards International.