President, Weis Associates, Award-winning business author, international speaker & consultant
VIP Member, Women in the Boardroom
Former Chief Administration Officer, Mayo Clinic
Corporate Board Director, Sentry Insurance
Corporate Board Director, RTI Surgical, Inc.
Shirley’s keys to success:
- Know yourself, and know what kind of board work you are best suited for, and where you can add value.
- Corporate board service involves different skill sets to executive work: learn and understand the rules of the game.
- Serving on a corporate board is a real job: you must do your homework, and be ready to adjust your game for the specific business and as board members rotate on and off.
Shirley, tell me how did your journey to the boardroom as a corporate director begin?
I have always been interested in board service and served on a number of not-for-profit healthcare boards during my career as a senior healthcare executive. By serving on non-corporate boards, I learned a great deal about board processes, deliberations and working with professionals from other industries.
What characteristic did you exhibit that you believe was a critical factor in your successful candidacy for your first board appointment?
I was determined to join a corporate board, so I studied the “corporate board game” to learn the rules of success. This involved talking with colleagues who were already on corporate boards, networking with board recruiting firms and asking for recommendations as appropriate. Although most board seats are obtained through referrals, I was recommended by a search firm that I had gotten to know over the course of several years. The key behavior for me was “persistence.”
How did you prepare – in every sense: emotionally, intellectually, practically – for your first board meeting and in what ways did that preparation pay off?
My preparation for the first board meeting involved doing my “homework.” I read everything I could about the company so that I would have a good foundation of knowledge. I also made a point of researching the backgrounds of the other board members so I had a better idea of who they were and what were their areas of expertise. On an emotional level, I prepared to listen and learn the “rules of the game” for this corporate board. I have found over the years that it is helpful to emotionally “get up in the stands” so that I can watch the dynamics of a meeting or situation. I use this technique often when I am new to a situation or when I feel myself becoming emotionally involved in a situation.
What has surprised you about the reality of board service versus the expectations that you had coming in?
I have thoroughly enjoyed the two corporate boards on which I serve. They are very different industries with different challenges due to their size, market dynamics and historical success. I have found both boards to be interesting in terms of the actual work being done as well as the interpersonal dynamics with the management and other board members. I believe I was pretty realistic about what board service would entail, but have found that I need to be constantly adjusting my “game” as board members rotate off and on to the boards, as management changes occur and as the industries change. Being on a board is a real job that requires the board member to engage and do their homework.
What have you learned about yourself through serving as a corporate board director – how have you grown?
I have enjoyed being able to continue to add value and make a difference through my board work. Since I am not involved in the day-to-day challenges of business operations, my board work allows me to share the knowledge and wisdom I have gained over a long, successful leadership career. The board member role also enables me to see the “big picture” even more clearly than when I was involved in operations. The corporate board director role is almost like being a grandparent — you visit often, make and share your observations and allow the management team to deal with day-to-day issues. If all goes well, you do not have to intervene or use a “heavy hand” to correct performance.
Help, hindrance or both – how does board service complement your professional career?
Board service is a real complement for me at this point in my professional career. I have the time, energy and experience to dedicate to corporate board service. I have made many great contacts and enjoy interacting with other talented professionals.
What is the ONE essential piece of advice you’d give to other senior-level executive women who are on a journey to their first seat at the table?
Know yourself and do your homework. It is important to understand who you are, what your skills are and why you want to serve on a corporate board. It is also vital that you research the company or companies that you are interested in working with to be sure you understand the work they do and how they add value. Corporate board work is interesting, but it is real work and takes time away from other activities. So be sure that you are truly able to juggle your current work with what will be required of you as a corporate director since you have a legal obligation to be an engaged, informed and valuable member of the board.
What is your favorite leadership quote that has inspired you on this journey?
I’ve used this quote from Albert Einstein in my award winning book, “Playing to Win in Business” —— “You have to learn the rules of the game. Then you have to play better than anyone else.” I believe this is particularly true for women as we make our way into the corporate board room. The board room has its own rules which we need to study and master to be effective. As always, we have to play better than others in order to be noticed and appreciated.
Shirley Weis is the award-winning author of “Playing To Win In Business”, former Chief Admistrative Officer of Mayo Clinic, corporate board director and president of Weis Associates. 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
The opinions and experiences expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily reflect those of Women in the Boardroom.