Celeste Ford is Board Chair of Stellar Solutions, Inc., a global provider of systems engineering expertise and a Fortune Magazine “Great Place to Work”. Ford founded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award-winning aerospace company with the vision to satisfy customers’ critical needs while realizing employees’ dream jobs, through high-impact performance for projects on earth and in space. Ford’s significant experience as CEO included guiding the Stellar Solutions “constellation” to cross boundaries between aerospace sectors and geographies, to offer global reach through its international sister companies, and to improves lives through its corporate foundation and through QuakeFinder, its humanitarian R&D effort.
Inducted to the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011, Ford is a valued board member of multiple organizations in the private and public sectors, and an advocate of community and charitable outreach. She was recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, and she contributes well-respected thought leadership to panels and commissions focusing on entrepreneurship and women in business. A mother of three adult children with her husband Kevin, Celeste Ford received her BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Notre Dame and MS in Aerospace Engineering from Stanford University.
What inspired your corporate board journey?
At the time I decided I wanted to pursue corporate board service, I had been the CEO and founder of Stellar Solutions for 25 years, and we had won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award which means we were “built to last”. I knew that I could transition, confidently, from CEO to Board Chair of my company and pursue additional board positions. I didn’t want to be the quarterback that overstays, and I realized that I would have a lot more time to offer to board service in addition to offering my expertise.
How long did it take you to get your first corporate board seat after you started devoting time to the process?
Because I’ve been on boards in the past, I know that even though you may be perfectly qualified, it can still be difficult to land a corporate board seat. I knew it would be hard. I had heard good things about Women in the Boardroom, and in my experience, search firms yielded nothing. All the boards I had been on in the past, I had gotten on because I knew someone who was already on that board. With Women in the Boardroom, it took about a year for me to get a board seat that I was uniquely qualified for, and I credit this quite a bit to the network WIB provides and also the board opening notifications made available to members.
What was your biggest fear when it came to corporate board service?
In general, my board experience is with private companies, and I wanted to be on public boards. That felt like a bit of an obstacle.
What was your greatest obstacle in getting on a corporate board?
Lack of a network. That’s the obstacle we all need to overcome. We need to be able to build a network with the people who are currently sitting on boards. My experience is that people that are on boards are bringing in people they know. Women in the Boardroom helped me to expand my network.
How many corporate boards did you interview for before landing your first seat at the table?
Because I was looking specifically for a public board in this case, I only wanted to interview for those that were a good fit. This occurred with one company sent out by WIB. It was my only interview via WIB, and, fortunately, I was selected for the Board. I have interviewed and served on boards in the past, and my experience is that if a company is taking the time to have you meet the CEO and other board members, you are a serious candidate. Come prepared. I have gotten on the boards of all the companies I interviewed with except one, which changed the requirement for the qualifications they wanted, and I no longer fit. This is my 5th public board in my career, and it will be the second one I am currently serving on now which is a good limit for me. I also have served on private and non-profit boards. Being selected for a non-profit board means there is an expectation for financial support which is something that I learned.
How did you prepare – in every sense: emotionally, intellectually, practically – for your first board meeting and in what ways did that preparation pay off?
I did my homework. I did a deeper dive on the internet and LinkedIn to find something I had in common with other board members whether it be tech or international experience or our alma maters. Researching the company and the people pays off. You need to hit the ground running and add value, but also be a good listener. Being able to find where your unique skills align with your board’s needs will help you immeasurably when starting out. The most important thing, however, is being ready to listen. You need to be a good listener and understand what the operations team in the company as well as all the other board members think is important.
What’s one thing that surprised you about the process of working toward a corporate board seat?
How difficult the process can be.
How did you get connected to your first board seat?
For this board opening, I was connected through the Women in the Boardroom Board opening notifications, and another WIB member forwarded the notification to me as well. For my first board seat ever, it was someone on the Board who knew my experience was needed and lacking on the board (government experience).
How did you prepare for getting on a corporate board?
I told people I was interested in board work. It’s important to get the word out. I tried to be proactive and reach out to companies that made sense for my experience and looked up their board members on LinkedIn to see if we had a connection. However, the board I was appointed to via WIB wasn’t a company I was aware of even though they were in my space. They weren’t on the list of those that I researched and went after. I guess that means we all have to be open to new data!
What has surprised you about the reality of board service versus the expectations that you had coming in – in a positive or maybe not so positive way?
Because I did not have much public board experience or wasn’t a CEO of public company, I found I am a better fit and add more value than I would have expected, especially in industries unrelated to my personal experience. Some topics transcend product/service like culture, cyber security, etc. Also, winning the Baldridge award was good training for discipline around processes and metrics. There is also value to be added that is unique to each individual, and you need to realize you don’t need to check all the boxes of fitting into a certain company because other board members will have complementary experience.
What one piece of advice would you offer to women interested in corporate board service?
Keep trying. The realization that it isn’t easy will hit everyone quickly. If you’re serious, you have to keep trying. Get the word out in a way that doesn’t sound needy with people on boards who can sponsor you. You have to be able to articulate what you can offer. What value can you add?
What one thing do you wish you knew before you started your board journey?
Search firms are not the prime point of entry. It’s really about who you know, and the deck really has not been stacked to promote gender and racial diversity. The shift is happening, but traditionally, boards don’t look like us and are populated primarily by white men. You just have to try harder to get known and be able to articulate how you can help.
What knowledge and/or practice specific to WIB prepared you for corporate board service?
The Women in the Boardroom resources were really helpful. I watched a webinar and looked at some resources by WIB that had been assembled as well. It was a good refresher for me. I think you can always learn, and WIB brought things to the top of my mind that I could address in the upcoming interview I had.
Why should women be interested in serving on a corporate board?
Because women have so much to add. We represent half the population! I’ve met so many qualified women who have had amazing business and life experience. They help companies to be successful by providing a diverse perspective.
How has preparing for board service sharpened your professional skills?
I had to learn new things, especially in the area of financial reporting and legal, for public boards.
Once appointed, what elements of corporate board service surprised you the most?
I was surprised in a good way. Even though all the board members come from diverse industries with diverse experience, there is a sense of teamwork and responsibility to “do the right thing” and add value as a board member. In fact, we are all more alike than different in that way.