My Personal Journey

The unexpected lessons I learned from my cardiac arrest

In the early morning of Nov 7, 2020, walking alone on a beach in Maui, my heart stopped. It didn’t beat for about 4 minutes before I had the incredible luck of being found by a doctor who did CPR and saved my life. Obviously, a lot more drama happened after that, including being put into a therapeutic hypothermia coma for a couple of days and a long stay in hospital with a beautiful view of the West Maui mountains but the definitive moment of luck/grace/lightning was being found by someone who knew CPR. And because he knew CPR I not only live, I live without brain damage.

Of the people who have a cardiac arrest outside of the hospital only 1 in 10 live. That’s a 90% chance of dying. And then, if you live, a serious chance of cognitive impairment. This is such a shocking statistic it took me some time to absorb it and gave me a great deal to think about.

Because of the nature of my cardiac arrest I remember nothing. Nothing from the event itself, nothing from a week before (I don’t even remember flying to Maui) and certainly little for the week after I woke up. I can’t report on a near-death experience. I didn’t see a light, feel my soul above my body, or any of the other mystical experiences people report. A shame because that would certainly have been interesting.

No, all I can report is the huge shock I felt when I realized I had died without a plan!

I had lots of time in hospital to think about this—there wasn’t much else to do. I didn’t have the energy to watch TV or read and because of Covid couldn’t have any visitors. I was stuck in bed because I was weak from the cardiac arrest and beaten up (CPR does a number on your ribs). As I tried to make sense of what happened I realized that I try to plan everything, but I cannot plan for what I cannot predict. I didn’t predict strokes in my 40s and so did not learn how to manage stress until it was too late. I’d thought about a global pandemic only because of the books my husband loves to read but certainly never predicted it would shut down all my travel. And I didn’t predict my heart would stop without warning.

So my first tough lesson: I can’t assume I can plan what happens around me when I die. This never occurred to me! I had always assumed I would die from cancer like my Mum, or flu, or at least something where I would have a few days or months to get my business in order and give direction. I used to think about “what if” and “would I have time to visit Rome one last time once I know I am dying?” kind of thoughts, not how to take care of the family if I drop dead.

I had written a letter to my family 6 months before my heart failure because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I figured at 60 I had some chance of dying if I got it so I wrote a letter thanking them for their wonderful love and giving direction on the party to throw should I die (the important things like which champagne and red wine to serve and to play U2 all night). But in that letter I didn’t give them my passwords, how to get into our budgets and bank accounts and which professional calls need to be made in the event – which was exactly what my husband Bret actually had to deal with.

However, I did get to observe how hyper-organized my family is in a crisis and how they care for one another. Bret was with me in Maui and my 89 year old father was living in a community in Cupertino when I had my adventure on the beach. The police found Bret from a note in my pocket with our condo address on it (my Covid test form for the state of Hawaii) and the news went out across the phone lines. Within 24 hours the family had reconfigured. My sister flew from the UK to be with my father (in case the worst happened), our son flew to Maui to support his father, our daughter moved into our home to help her cousin with the dog and cat sitting since our stay would be extended. Rapid reconfiguration to make sure everyone, two-footed and four-footed, had support. I was impressed.

A clear difference from what happens on the professional front where I learned (for a second time) that I am not indispensable in any professional capacity. Yes, I knew this, but ego leads us to believe we’re valuable and would be missed. It’s very clear to me now that the people I work with who like and respect me would miss me (the person) but my wisdom/advice/experience is replaceable. My husband sent the professionally required emails since I would miss a number of board meetings; I watched the reactions colleagues had and value those which were about our relationship. But most wouldn’t miss me at all after the initial shock.

My father taught me that lesson. A colleague of his died unexpectedly one day (I must have been about 13) and my father went to the funeral. When he came home he was depressed and as he talked about the funeral the aspect that had upset him the most was not the sadness of the family, or the grief for a friend, but that as soon as the service was over his peers talked about who would replace the teammate who had died. Their focus was on themselves, and who would benefit from the change. Unless you are Steve Jobs or Elon Musk we are all professionally immediately replaceable. Makes me wonder why we work so hard.

When Bret called family and close friends to tell them what had happened (and many of these calls were before he knew what the final outcome would be) there were three types of reaction. One group’s immediate concern was for me— what did he know of my status, what was the treatment, what was the prognosis etc.? One group was concerned for him and our (adult) children—what could s/he do to help Bret, what did he need? And the third group was concern for themselves—what did it mean for them? All are very fair reactions. I do not judge that one is better than another but it is a humbling lesson to see and process why people react differently. 

And so to Freddie Mercury’s lesson: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters – nothing really matters to me.” 

Everything I think, or say, or do is unimportant and trivial in the grand scheme of the cosmos. The philosopher Epicurus had it right in ~300BC. Life is to be enjoyed with our friends, death is not to be feared and the Gods have no interest in humans at all. We are simply made up of atoms and once we die we are gone so what matters is how we live. 

I am a deist and don’t believe in life after death and so all I have, anything of importance is right now with the people whom I love and who love me, in the places I love and continuing to do what I can to improve the lives of the people around me. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy my work. I thrive on the intellectual challenge and want to serve my community; I want to continue to support my family. But work has to be seen in context, as a necessary part of life to make a living; I am finally learning my job is not my purpose.

But maybe the biggest surprise for me is that I have discovered I can be happy simply being quiet. I have spent my whole life on the move. Working, traveling, parenting, gardening, housekeeping but now that I need to stay still for a few months I am learning a new way of being. My heart has an electrical problem not a plumbing problem so the cure is rest and a defibrillator in my chest. I now relish the pleasure of dogs sitting at my feet in front of the fire who are happy to have me home all day, walking them a little further every day. Reading, and reading some more. Cooking. Becoming at peace with the silence, although I do miss being with my friends. The pandemic makes it easier to accept because there is nothing else I can do but instead of stressing against it I am learning how to relax into it for the very first time.

Not that I am not longing to travel and be on the go again. I am. I am desperately longing to get back on a plane, put on my Birkenstocks and walked the ancient streets. I will see Rome again before I die.

Photo: Orvieto cathedral © 2019 Penny Herscher

Boards

The critical difference between Governance and Management when you are on a board

This question comes up a lot when teaching wannabe directors. And it comes up with employees who are under the mistaken belief that their board actually manages the company. So let me demystify it now. We don’t manage. At all.

The critical difference is that the board is in place to provide oversight, not to make decisions. Oversight to ensure shareholders are well served. Oversight to ensure the law is followed. That, over time, the decisions the leadership team makes are good ones. Oversight to ensure the company is not damaged by a series of bad decisions. But none of these are the same thing as making decisions.

The CEO and his/her team’s responsibility is to make decisions that move the company forward. And they are the only people that can. They are the people closest to reality with real data about what’s happening on the ground. The board is simply not close enough to the day-to-day to make operating decisions.

Now it’s not so black and white that the board makes no decisions at all. But there are very few such as:

  • hiring (or firing) the CEO – this is always a hard one and usually takes boards too long to realize they have the wrong CEO and yet it is the most important decision a board ever makes.
  • the makeup of the board itself, and the committee structure – yet another decision that in the past boards did not spend enough time on and cronyism prevailed but now, with the emphasis on diversity at the board level, is finally getting enough attention.
  • CEO and pay structure – how much is cash, time based or performance based and is it passing the say-on-pay tests with ISS?
  • major financing or M&A events – clearly big decisions that the board must weigh in on, although in the end it is the conviction of the CEO that must carry the day.
  • response to activists – and this is one place where the board must actively engage, understand the activists position and determine how and whether to respond.

But even all these types, and similar, decisions are made through a process of discussion, consensus and then a vote rather than one person making a decision.

Otherwise, the boards job is to provide oversight and the most effective way to do that is to learn the art of questioning. This can be hard if you have been a CEO or an executive and you are used to making decisions and leading. It can take time to learn how to sit quietly listening, and then think about what question can you ask that will either improve your understanding or help the CEO make a better decision. You’re not paid to talk on a board. You’re paid to be thinking, deliberating and advising. Often less is more.

I heard a great question last week from a panelist on just this issue of how to learn how to question. We were discussing how to help a leadership team review their strategy which can sometimes be contentious because teams do get wedded to their strategies. And yet, you want to help them think through where they may be missing something, or making a mistake. The question this panelist suggested was “What would have to be true for you to be wrong?”. A great question which requires serious thinking about what assumptions the CEO may have that may not be true in the future, but without challenging that the strategy itself is wrong. And the oversight comes as you watch the leadership team respond to the questions, and make their final decisions. You judge on the quality of the decisions over time.

So next time you look at a board and think they are powerful think again. They are, but in a very narrow and yet important way for the health of the company and its shareholders.

Photo: Arches National Park © 2020 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Men to avoid: the ones who tell you to slow down

There is nothing more demotivating than someone above you in your chain of command telling you to slow down, to be less ambitious. Especially if you are a woman and the teller is a man.

This behavior is, of course, not new. So many of our mansplaining experiences are captured in the new book Men to Avoid in Art and Life by Nicole Tersigni – I’m using one of her captioned paintings here to illustrate my message. A laugh-out-loud joy of a book and Twitter meme.

I was coaching a young woman recently and she was extremely frustrated that her boss has told her to “slow down” and be “less ambitious”, in a way she knew was coming from her age and gender. This young woman is mid twenties, smart, high energy, driven and very ambitious. She is an immigrant and has worked hard to get a college degree and now her US citizenship. She has big plans for herself and her career and having spent several sessions with her now I can see she is an employee you would want in your company. I’d want to tap into the precocious, precious combination of intellect and willingness to work really hard.

But that was not the case this time.

I can relate because the same happened to me early on in my career. If you are a young female in tech, more driven than the men around and above you then you are threatening to them. It is easier to put you down, tell you to “be patient” than it is to tap into your energy and drive because you just might overtake them as a result!

Good managers understand this. They see the potential and feed it. Stretch you, give you tough projects that challenge you. I was happy to work really hard and lose sleep if it meant I got a bigger opportunity both to win for the company and grow my skills. It’s your right as a talented employee to be stretched if you want to be stretched.

So if you find yourself being held back, being told to slow down, to be a little more humble, it is time for you to move on. Find yourself a new manager within your company if the problem is a local one with your manager, or if it is a result of the company culture find a new company to work for. And don’t be afraid to be visible so your new manager, or a recruiter, can find you.

Photo © Chronicle Books

My Personal Journey

The velvet-lined rut

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am a privileged Silicon Valley executive with no grounded reason to complain. I have my home, my family (our adult kids came home) and a living that creates a comfortable lifestyle. So don’t feel sorry for me.

But here I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, back in lockdown in a state where the infection numbers are going in the wrong direction, turning sixty today. Wow – that’s a big number. I’m not afraid of it, but as I look back on the lives I have led, and look forward to the lives I still plan to lead, I cannot believe I find myself living a life which, while comfortable, is a velvet lined rut where I can’t see over the edges to the track and the fields and the horizon beyond. And which is not the life I chose.

I have always traveled since becoming a working adult. I’ve been all over the world, as have most tech execs, meeting people, learning, stretching my mind on technology and culture. I’ve always traveled for fun too. Back to Europe at least once a year, even when the kids were little. Dragging the family to Asia, to Europe, to Central America, to the Middle East, to Italy and France over and over, reveling in the art, food, history and excitement of the new experience.

Travel is a choice. Some people never have the choice because of their work but many office professionals do. There comes a point in a career where you choose whether to concentrate your career near home, or not. Some people don’t want to be on a plane every week. They prefer the stability and security of being home every night and choose a career path accordingly. But I never chose to be domesticated the way I have to be now.

I thrived on the variety and stimulus that comes with a mobile lifestyle. Visiting customers, factories, conferences and international colleagues. For some, like me, the movement became the purpose. The lack of repetition, the continuous joy of moving from place to place and experience to experience. The visual stimulus of art; the palate stimulus of food; the ability to wander free, accountable to no-one in the moment. Human beings are, at their core, nomadic and with me that desire is right at the surface.

So lockdown is a challenge. A maturing opportunity – at sixty – to grow up maybe? To stop searching and stay in once place? At fifty I wrote that I recognized the loss and challenges of aging, “Clearly only a healthy dose of humor and self-depreciation is going to get me through this.” At fifty five I retired to sit on boards and travel. At sixty aging has now taken over my body so I can’t worry about that any more – so I serve on a number of boards, 100% on zoom, but no travel! Unthinkable. Especially when I now know we (office workers) can work from anywhere. The lockdown proved that if nothing else. I could do my job from Italy as easily as my living room, if they’d only let me in.

This pandemic is a dramatic loss of freedom for everyone. But life is now distilled down to its essence – the pure spirit. There is no room for frivolity, no room for superficiality in the face of so much tragedy and restriction of movement. My only choice is to learn to appreciate the velvet in my rut and cherish the time – not knowing how long it will be.

Photo: Pompeii © 2011 Penny Herscher

Leadership

Stop focusing on your startup valuation!

It never ceases to amaze me how hung up entrepreneurs get on the valuation of their startup as they raise money. It came up in a coaching session again yesterday.

In the abstract yes, valuation matters. It tells you how much of your company you are going to sell in order to raise money. It sets a baseline for you which you will (hopefully) exceed on your next raise. It’s a validation that your work has value.

But it is NOT a measure of pride, or ego, or size.

Your valuation, like a stock price, is a reflection of the perceived value of your company at the moment in time when you are raising money. There will be times when the startup market is hot and you can command more, there will be times when it has cooled because of an economic downturn, or a global pandemic, and your valuation will be lower. Or the market your idea is in is hot, or not.

What matters more than valuation is: Are you getting the right amount of money to give your idea life? Think about the next one, or two, major milestones you need to achieve to prove your idea will work and is scalable. Then figure out how much money you need to raise to get 90-120 days past the critical proof point. Add to that number to allow for the unexpected and that is how much you must raise. Once you have that you are looking for an investing partner who shares you vision and will be with you on the journey.

The other consideration is what value opportunity are you creating for your employees? The higher the valuation on funding the higher their option strike price and so the less money they will make when you finally reach liquidity. Now, if your company is a rocket ship, the difference between an option price of 50 cents or a dollar doesn’t matter, but at a later stage the difference can matter and when there is a preference stack on your company getting greedy can wipe out your employees’ opportunity. We’ve seen this happen with unicorns who achieved huge valuations only to have them come down dramatically on sale or IPO. So don’t lose sight of the need to make your employees money as well as yourself.

I have written before that all venture capital firms are not equal. Some are good, some are awful. The same applies to angels btw. I have seen short-sighted angels do more damage to young companies and entrepreneurs than I would have thought possible by focusing on their cut and not the long term health of the company.

It is more important to a) raise the money you need and b) find a long term investing partner than finding the best possible valuation. If you own 40% of your company but it is worth $20M at the end you have short changed yourself and the impact your idea can have if, instead, you own 15% and it is worth $1B.

Photo: Stone canon balls Jordan © 2017 Penny Herscher

Boards

How boards must change

“The full weight of responsibility for change rests with those who control the institutions” – White Fragility:Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Our institutions in the US are led predominantly by men. Women would simply not have the rights we cherish today, such as the right to vote, if the majority of men in power had not supported them. 

Companies have been paying attention to gender diversity among employees for some years now. It’s been talked about at length but it was not until California mandated that boards include women, and major investors like Blackrock began to use their weight to require female directors, that many companies have moved quickly to bring one, or more than one, woman onto the board. Finally, when faced with a potential fine or a “no” vote from a major shareholder, boards listen. European boards would not be 40% female unless it was the law. Setting, and meeting, serious targets works to bring about change.

But our institutions are also led by people who are predominantly White, or if you are in technology, White or Asian. Which means we, the leaders, carry the responsibility to create the change needed to make our workforces, our leadership teams and our boards racially diverse. It’s both the right thing to do, and we now know diversity creates better decisions and better results so there is no business reason to object.

As Omar Johnson says in his compelling Open Letter to White corporate America “Inside your company walls, you need to hire more Black people. Period.” 

I am horrified by the recent murders in the Black community. The human and social cost of systemic racism in the US is sickening. I am humbled by my ignorance and committed to getting better educated and taking action. I must do better. Our companies must do better.  

The way I, and my fellow directors, can effect change is to be committed, supported by action, to helping our companies become truly diverse at all levels. Racially diverse and gender diverse. It will take time but boards and governance committees are responsible for reviewing our ESG programs–Environment, Social and Governance–and to show progress. This was a growing area of focus which is now in the bright spotlight of current news. Several large institutional investors had started to demand diversity at the board and executive levels, which will add fuel to drive change.

As directors we must ask the questions and require the metrics which will drive meaningful, ongoing improvement to racial diversity in our companies. It’s past time.

Photo: The Alhambra Spain © 2018 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

I know why my Grandmother drank gin at breakfast

It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.

But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.

Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.

I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.

I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day. 

I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.

Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher

Boards

Women Board Directors and Chairs – Why do the numbers remain so low and how we can change them!

I was recently honored to be named board chair at Lumentum, a terrific public company in the technology space. As I thought about my new responsibility, I became curious as to how many other companies have women board chairs and unfortunately what I found was not good.  

First, for context, consider the number of women on boards in the US. While the number of women directors has increased marginally in the last few years, women still make up less than 23% of the S&P 500 directors**.

The situation is no better as you go down the market to smaller companies.  Women only just achieved 20% of director seats in the Russell 3000 halfway through this year (up from 16.4% in 2018). Additionally, while all S&P 500 companies have at least one women director (the last holdout added a woman earlier this year), a staggering 10.8% of the companies in the Russell 3000 still do not have a single woman director.  

Companies in the information technology industry are even worse—woman comprise less than 15% of the board members in this sector (perhaps the only “good” news is that the energy sector is even worse, with women comprising only 11% of the board members).    

And remember, just one woman on a board isn’t enough. We now know that more than one woman in the room changes the dynamic to enable the women to be more likely to be heard and not interrupted and/or talked over, as well as often providing greater representation of the customer base. It’s good to see Blackrock will vote against boards who do not have two women on the board in 2019 and Vanguard and State Street will now vote against boards with no women. Investors can definitely put social pressure on this issue. 

But while we chip away at simply getting to a reasonable percentage of women onto boards, the number for the chair position remains abysmal. Only just over 4% of the S&P 500 or of the Russell 3000 had a female board chair in 2018. While we strive to get greater gender equality on boards, we must also recognize that leadership positions on boards should also be open to women.  

We know it’s time to change. The research is now conclusive – diversity in all its forms makes business sense at every level. 

At the top, California is forcing a change with its new, controversial law to mandate the number of women on boards; other states such as New Jersey are considering following California which will increase the number of boards affected. We see that larger companies, typically under more public scrutiny, are ahead in fixing the problem. Companies with < $1B revenue had 12.8% female directors in 2018 whereas companies with > $20B revenue had almost twice as many at 24.1%. 

Having diversity at the top can also help mitigate risk in the #metoo era. I have observed firsthand that women in leadership positions are able to see and identify problematic behavior very quickly (not that men can’t but many women, including me, have been the subject of the inappropriate behavior and so they know immediately the impact of the problem). Sexual harassment incidents can cause material reputational, and hence valuation, damage in today’s social media era and boards need to be both sensitive on this issue and vigilant. 

I have served on public company boards since 2006. For many years I was the only woman on the boards I served on and even today I am the only woman on one of my four public boards. I’ve learned a lot about where the resistance to change comes from and how powerful it is when a board decides to diversify.  While the law can push change, change can be even more powerful and beneficial when the benefits of diversity are recognized within the boardroom.  

So how do we make change happen so that boards become more diverse, including offering greater leadership opportunities for women at the board level?

First, we must recognize the benefits that come from board refreshment.  In my experience part of a good board evaluation process is recognizing that there should be reasonable board turnover on a regular basis. Over 50% of the Russell 3000 companies made no changes at the board level in 2018. When you think about how fast the world of business is changing this slow rate of change at the board is surprising. 

There are a number of steps related to board refreshment that boards can take to encourage greater diversity at the board level.  These steps can include the following: 

  • Reviewing the skills and experience truly needed by the company and then taking a hard look at whether all directors still belong on the board through that lens. This requires board members to engage in a real board assessment process, assessing each individual director (not a check-the-box process) and can lead to a difficult conversation with a long serving director but it’s necessary to ensure the company has the best possible board in place.
  • Recognizing the potential loss of independence for long-term directors. This one is controversial in the US where the average tenure of a director is greater than 11 years, and in 25% of cases is greater than 15 years. Europe is different. I serve on the board of Faurecia, a publicly traded >15B euro global company headquartered in Paris. In the EU a director is not considered independent after 12 years and so directors will typically be asked to serve only two 4 year terms and this is made clear to a new Faurecia director up front. While most US companies do not have term limits, in my experience there is a basis for the belief that very long-serving directors (however that is defined) can become more closely aligned with management and less independent.  
  • Putting age limits in place. Again, this one is controversial since age diversity, both young and old, can add to the richness of the discussion in the board room.  Further, and as with term limits, hard rules make for hard cases.  I know this personally, as one of the greatest directors I have ever served with was 80 years old and an active chair when he passed away this year but if a director is snoozing in the meeting or out of touch with the industry then s/he should probably be aged out.

Second, boards must be willing to elect first time board directors. And yet of the <50% of companies who did elect a new director in 2018 less than 25% hired directors with no previous experience (although again large companies were twice as likely to do so as small companies). I’ve heard the objection too many times – “we don’t want to have to work with a new director, it’s too disruptive”. Well guess what? You need to in order to bring diversity and fresh talent into the director pool. I’ve been involved in doing this several times now and so long as a member of the board signs up to mentor, and the candidate signs up for director training, you can absolutely find a rich pool of highly experienced executives who are ready to work hard to learn how to be a great director. 

Third, boards must have a transparent recruiting process. The days where a board hires their golfing buddies need to be over (yes, I’ve seen this behavior). The governance committee needs to be clear and open with the whole board about the specification, the process and the recruiter. Since the majority of directors are still male it is very reasonable to need to hire a recruiter to bring candidates to your attention whom you would not normally meet.

But finally I want to tackle the elephant in the room – the directors who just don’t think diversity is important. Its old school thinking, and time will age these directors out, but in the meantime it’s important for the directors who do believe in the power of diversity to speak up. Male or female, directors should insist that the boards they sit on diversify and insist that board searches target the group that is being sought for the board – be it gender or race diversity – because unless a search targets a diverse candidate the probability is the next hire will likely be a white male who is known to the board. Having led this effort myself, I know great women can be found, although the recruiters have to work harder, and the new director may be a first-time director.

Again, the law can be used to force change. In France 40% of the directors must be female and my experience of the women I serve on the Faurecia board with is that they are smart, engaged and steeped in the industry and markets Faurecia serves. But the bias runs deep. When I was joining the French board a US director I served with had the nerve to tell me that this had led to weaker boards with unqualified female directors. He stunned me with his claim that forcing diversity reduces quality. This is simple bias without any basis in fact or research.  Unfortunately, I know such statements continue to be made behind closed doors—an all too difficult reality to recognize—but I admit I was still stunned to have my fellow director make such a statement. 

So what’s the answer?  Unfortunately there is no single answer.  Instead, it requires a broad attack on a number of issues.  But for my $0.02, the critical first step is recognizing the importance and benefits of diversity at every level and setting determined goals to change the numbers, especially in the board room and including within the leadership of the board room.  

** Statistics from the Corporate Board Practices in the Russell 3000 and S&P 500: 2019 Edition which asks the question Why Aren’t Boards Diversifying Faster?

Equality

Is 2019 a turning point for women executives?

On International Women’s Day today I find myself asking could it be that the momentum is finally building to escape velocity? Escape from a world where the majority of corporate power is held by white men? It feels like it.

The new California legislation requiring the boards of companies who have their headquarters in California to have women on their boards may or may not be constitutional but for the first time it is absolutely forcing the conversation. I’ve been raising this issue for many years now and for the first time I feel the wind at my back. I am now getting frequent inbound inquiries asking for suggestions of women I know who would be qualified as board directors, sometimes even from men who have been die hard opposers to the need or benefit of adding a woman (or one woman more than me) to their boards.

As any recruiter who has been working on getting women onto boards for a while now will tell you this is not a supply problem. There are plenty of highly qualified CxOs who are female and interested. It’s been a demand problem, especially when the easiest objection to put up is the director must have prior public company board experience which perpetuates the bias to older men. Now it’s finally changing.

We are also seeing, on the heels of the #MeToo movement, that executives who sexually harass their employees, or have affairs within their company, are no longer tolerated. Even a couple of years ago this was not the case as I saw to my dismay but it’s clear now the objectification of women in the highest corridors of power holds them down. Some of the most senior executives are now being brought down by their failure to respect the women around them. It’s about time.

We have the largest number of women in the Senate and in the House of Representatives in history – potentially energized by our current political environment – but maybe also because women are finally coming into their own politically.

And maybe, just maybe, the toxic conversation towards women that we see at the highest level of our government is the dark just before the dawn. Are women finally reaching into enough levels of power that the resistance to us sharing power is having its last, blustering hurrah?

I choose to believe so.

The movement to put women onto boards is profoundly important. In no way will this lower the quality of directors (as several men have told me) but will instead improve the quality of the conversation and the financial results of the companies. Less group think, less clubby agreeing. More diverse input and, I often see, less of the old and tired conventional input. Women who have made it to the top of their game in 2019 have had to work harder and be smarter to get there – they are often over qualified before they come to the table. If a woman graduated in the 1980s or 1990s I guarantee she has at some point had to out-work and out-smart the men around her to get ahead. The unconscious bias has been powerful and unrelenting but when you meet women directors and CxOs today they are impressive because they have had to be to get to where they are.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that we need to create a world where women have equal opportunity with men. As today’s campaign theme says #BalanceforBetter. Balance so women have equal economic opportunity to make money and lead enterprises. Equal opportunity for political power. This is how we create stronger societies and lasting peace.

And I believe the tide has turned, the momentum is building, and we are entering a world where power can be shared across genders.

Photo: Herculaneum © 2011 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Talk in Powerpoint not in Word!

It’s tough to listen when you just want someone to get to the point.

People talk too much for many reasons: nerves, wanting to be recognized or heard, wanting to look knowledgable or sometimes even because they enjoy talking, have lots of thoughts in their head and want to get them out. If you are with friends in a restaurant and they enjoy your style – who cares? But in the office talking too much will work against you because you’ll suck up other people’s time which they will, eventually, resent.

It’s very important to match your style to your audience – whether you are presenting to 1000 people or talking with 1. But it is much harder to be concise than to let your thoughts flow. It is much harder to make a 3 minute presentation that a 10 minute one. It takes discipline and a great deal more preparation.

Being concise is a skill you can learn, like any other skill or language. It takes work, and practice, but once you learn it it is very powerful.

First, consider Powerpoint and Word. In Powerpoint you write down bullets. Short, smart, impactful bullets. In Word you write many sentences, elaborating and expounding on your thoughts.

To teach yourself to present concise ideas start by preparing your bullet points before a discussion. You’re going into a one-on-one with your boss and you know you need to make some points, and discuss some issues. Prepare by making your bullet point list (preferably 3 or less, no more than 5). Then, when you are in the discussion stick to your points. Don’t run on about one or another, make yourself concisely state your issue/point of view and stop.

If you do this every time before you go into a meeting then the next step is to learn to do it on the fly. You’re in a discussion, you know you have a point you want to make, take a deep breath, count to 5, or 10, focus your mind to only the essential of what you want to say and state 1-3 short points, not an essay. Then be quiet and pause for clarifying questions – which gives you the opportunity to crisply expand your thoughts in response.

It is also important to watch your audience carefully. Are they truly with you or zoning out and politely nodding? If you talk more than a minute, pause and check in with the person you are talking with. Ask an open ended question like “what are the holes in what I’m saying” not a closed question like “make sense?” to which yes is the polite, but meaningless, answer.

With some people you may find having a piece of paper and drawing a picture of your idea, or your key points, may help. Many people are more visual than verbal. Sitting with a large pad and jotting down your points together can help you focus and not ramble on. This physical prop can also help you listen better. Writing down what the other person is saying will help you focus on their ideas instead of simply thinking about your response before they have finished.

Finally, always be aware of time. It amazes me when I meet with people and they talk for 10 or 15 minutes about themselves, what they want to tell me etc. without noticing how long they are talking, especially if we only have 30 minutes! If you need to catch up socially first then schedule that into your meeting time; if you simply need a focused conversation schedule 30 minutes and be disciplined about it. One prop is to wear a watch and put it on the table if you need to learn this. Most people will support you if you are straightforward about why you are watching the time. And if you are given 1.5 hours and your executives, or board, want a discussion don’t ramble on for an hour about generalities (as I recently experienced in a board meeting). Talk for 15 minutes max and then figure out how to make your discussion interactive.

The exception to this, of course, is if you are telling a story or you have been asked to make a speech on a topic. Whether that story is professional, or personal, if you have permission from your listeners to tell a story then take your time. Expound, embellish because that is part of the pleasure for the listener and part of your persuasive power to build the picture in your audience’s minds.

If you are naturally loquacious being concise is a hard change to make but it is an incredibly powerful skill for your career and it can be learned. If you want outside help join something like ToastMasters, or a competitive debate club. Nothing focuses the mind like competition.

Photo: Dante’s Barque, Venice © 2018 Penny Herscher