Donna Wells is a seasoned CEO, CMO, and board director—and a passionate advocate for diversity in the boardroom. She’s held C-Suite roles at several Fortune 500 companies. She’s also been CEO of Mindflash Technologies and CMO of Mint.com, growing those companies from product launch to market leadership positions. She is currently a board director at Walker & Dunlop, Mitek Systems, and Betterment and was recently shortlisted for Accenture/Women in IT’s Board Director of the Year award.
In this article, read Donna’s take on the important and evolving work of the board, what to expect your first time walking into the boardroom, and advice for women seeking their first board role.
I’ve had an unusual executive journey, to be sure. Across a 30-year career, I spent about half of my time in senior roles at Fortune 500 companies. I led US marketing and a $2 billion business for Expedia when it was the 3rd largest e-commerce site on the internet and was an executive at Intuit and Charles Schwab as they navigated digital transformation at scale. I led teams of hundreds of people and managed budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars in those roles.
But the other half of my career was as a founding executive at early-stage startups, including Mindflash, where I was CEO, and Mint.com, where I was CMO from product launch to company acquisition.
Unintentionally, I’ve found that the diversity of those experiences has given me a unique voice and perspective to contribute to public, private, and even SPAC board conversations.
On public boards, I’m typically very engaged on questions fundamental to our growth and digital transformation strategies. What are the digital marketing tactics common to successful startups that we could be using? How can we effectively compete or partner with disruptive innovators to grow our business faster, at higher margins, and at our scale? Who might we acquire, and how can we successfully integrate those teams and technology?
On private boards, I’m often asking questions about product, customer, and marketing strategy given my CMO/startup history. But I’m equally likely to be pressing on our risk, compliance, and financial readiness, because of my corporate history. I wear two wildly different hats in private company boardrooms.
As a board member, you must ensure that management has a “first-person” understanding of the company’s capabilities, customers, markets, and competitors. That understanding comes from the time they personally spend with employees, prospects, customers, vendors, channel partners, etc. There is no substitute for that.
In my experience, those deep, first-hand insights are the critical success factor in digital transformation. It’s how management develops (and boards can support) a strategy that allocates resources to the right markets, customer segments, and products—and can win.
The scope of the board agenda is increasing rapidly, as the scope of expected corporate governance expands from shareholder to stakeholder. As a result, I think boards must become much more efficient if they’re going to have a chance of fulfilling their oversight and governance responsibilities across not just financial reporting, strategic planning, and leadership issues, but increasingly, issues related to diversity and inclusion, the environment, and the societal and technological impacts of corporate decision-making.
Fortunately, we’ve learned boards can operate quite effectively virtually. This, to me, represents a big step forward. I liken it to the productivity and quality gains of a software team as they move from a waterfall to an agile dev process. I’m encouraged by the progress I’ve seen in 2020-2021.
I’ve also begun to think that the standard three board committees are not well-suited to the efficient operation of a modern, stakeholder-focused board; we will likely see some changes there in the near future.
Even considering my diverse operating career, I’d never come across an org design like that of a board of directors before. What other team includes peer authority, minimal hierarchy, self-organization, self-regulation, and self-perpetuation and sets its own compensation? The boardroom is distinctly different from the executive suite and I had to figure out how to be effective in that new environment. I’ve found that focusing on the implications of the board’s unique “org design” elements has been helpful in making that transition.
I’d also encourage anyone joining a board to have in-depth conversations with current board members before deciding which committee to serve on. You may think you’re best suited to the Audit Committee if you have a finance background, but you might benefit/contribute more from serving on a Nom/Gov Committee for your first years by learning about the board’s governance processes. It’s not a popular POV, but I do encourage everyone (especially “non-financial” folks) to consider joining Audit first. I’ve found it to be an effective way to learn the company/industry rapidly and in detail.
Athena has helped me frame and sell the importance of diversity to boards in a more compelling way. That has translated into bringing more people of color and women onto all my boards. I am proud of that track record and do not plan to take my foot off the gas.
It has also encouraged me in the direction of continuous education. Athena is great at putting together quality content on topics that are highly relevant and readily consumable…which is critically important whether you still have a “day job” or if you’re trying to stay informed on several boards, companies, and industries!
Know what your unique value proposition is going to be in the boardroom, and in which boardrooms you’ll be able to make the most impact. For your first board, that value proposition is driven by your executive experience and your passions. You need to clearly communicate how your operating experience will translate into, and advance, the typical boardroom conversations on strategy, leadership, and governance. Most bios of first-time board members don’t succeed at this key task. Get help writing your board bio.
Lastly, understand that you are likely to spend a decade in any public board role you take. Make sure the key issues the company will likely face are ones you are interested in, excited by, and want to be more knowledgeable about ten years from now. My rule of thumb? If the articles you’re drawn to reading first are the same ones that will help you be a high-value-add board member for that company… you may be a fit. If not, keep looking.
Athena supports senior women leaders as they strategically expand their network, enhance their executive education, and become stronger leaders in the executive realm. Join Athena to access the learning, community, and opportunities you need to advance your executive career.
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