Views From The Boardroom...
With Helaine Suval - President, Corporate Board Director & VIP Member
Helaine’s keys to success:
- Never burn bridges and be on your A-game at all times, as opportunity can come from anywhere.
- Your skills and track record can make you a great candidate for boards outside your immediate and chosen profession.
- Inquiry can be a more effective and empowering problem solving approach than advocacy.
Helaine, tell me, how did your journey to the boardroom as a corporate director begin?
My journey to the boardroom started with a consulting project. I was consulting with a plus size fashion retailer on growing their ecommerce and omni-channel business. I worked with the CEO, CFO, the board and the management team to develop the strategy, present my findings and gain leadership support to deliver on the objective of growing the online business dramatically. The strategy worked, and I was invited to join their board of directors. It was my first board experience, and the fact that I knew everyone on the senior management team and the board, had presented to the board, and had built my credibility made the transition to the Board role relatively easy. I was the first women (outside of the CEO), and the first outside director that they invited to join their board.
What characteristic did you exhibit that you believe was a critical factor in your successful candidacy for your first board appointment?
A track record of successfully delivering results in each role and situation. Strong interpersonal and communication skills. Never burn any bridges – you never know who you will cross paths with in the future, so always handle every situation professionally. A willingness to always go “above and beyond” expectations and help others. People are always watching, whether you realize it or not, and assessing your viability for a future role. In my case, it was for a board role.
What have you learned about yourself through serving as a corporate board director? How have you grown?
Serving as a corporate board director has allowed me to leverage my years of industry and business experience to provide oversight and thought leadership to the businesses. Identifying growth opportunities and initiatives, assessing current strategies, looking at the competitive landscape and identifying areas of opportunity, developing customer centric strategies, evaluating capital expenditures and avoiding risks are areas that I have been able to impact. Using my knowledge of the industry, asking questions, listening to others and providing guidance and judgment around the issues being discussed gives me a great deal of satisfaction! I truly enjoy the interaction with my fellow board directors.
Help, hindrance or both – how does board service complement your professional career?
I have held two board roles in the last few years – both have come about through my professional network and services. The first I’ve outlined already. My ability to deliver results, combined with my “people” and leadership skills have helped to pave the path to board leadership for me. The second is a board seat that I currently hold, with a consumer products company in my field. I have known the management team for a good part of my career, and when a board seat become available, the CEO reached out to me based on our long-term working relationship, and my knowledge and expertise in digital retail and marketing. The combination of his having seen me grow businesses over the years, combined with my skill set, made me the right candidate for this role.
What is your favorite leadership quote that has inspired you on this journey?
My favorite leadership quote that has inspired me throughout my career and my board service is “Use inquiry, not advocacy to influence others”. I had a professional coach when I was part of a global leadership team project, and she identified this as a way to approach problem solving and influence others. I have found this to be such a wonderful approach – if you use inquiry, and ask the right questions to get the team to answer those questions, you don’t have to advocate or “force the issue”. The team/board arrives at the solution/resolution, but does it without feeling defensive or as though they have been pushed. It is a remarkable tool that I share with my mentees consistently, and it is amazing to see how effective it is!
Suval Consultants provides strategy, leadership and guidance to clients based on Helaine Suval’s 30 years of experience in successfully building businesses. Check them out here.
“Views From The Boardroom” is an exclusive series from Women In The Boardroom, where corporate board directors share their experience, insight and wisdom and their view from the boardroom. Corporate board directors interested in participating should email firstname.lastname@example.org. Interview by Angela Leaney for Women in the Boardroom.