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Dreamforce 16: Lessons Learned from Women in the Boardroom

Claire Hughes Johnson, Clara Shih and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy

Research shows that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attain significantly higher financial performance on average than those with the lowest representation of women board directors.
This year, we were fortunate enough to hear from a powerhouse panel of women, including our very own Clara Shih, who have earned a boardroom seat and have had the opportunity to impact change from the top. The panelists shared insights on driving change and offered advice on breaking into the world of corporate boards.
(Watch the full recording of the panel discussion.)
Road to the boardroom
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Founder and CEO of Joyus, currently serves on the boards of Ericsson and TripAdvisor. She was deliberate in her quest to join a public board. While many considered her to be too junior at the age of 30, she made her mission known and her colleagues took note. Sukhinder saw the growing need for both digital and international experience in public boards. She joined a nonprofit board before taking on her first public board just one year later.
Clara Shih, Founder and CEO of Hearsay, noticed that tech and digital were becoming increasingly important. As a new CEO seeking a Fortune 500 board position while also running her own board at Hearsay, Clara was tapped by Sheryl Sandberg to replace her seat in the Starbucks boardroom. Reflecting on that moment, Clara said, “Credit to Sheryl Sandberg for seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Claire Hughes Johnson, COO of Stripe and board member of Hallmark Cards, Inc., was thoughtful about what she could commit to. Her first board was with a nonprofit school, before joining Hallmark’s private board. Claire highlighted the importance of finding the right fit and focusing on the issues you care about.
She went on to provide additional context, describing the major differences between nonprofit, private and public boards.

  • Non-profit boards focus on giving, fundraising and providing operational advice.
  • Those on private boards typically get pulled into as much as they want which. VC’s don’t have as much strategic influence.
  • CEO’s don’t want public boards to run the executive team, but rather represent shareholders.

A goal or a reflection of success
So, what’s the secret to  joining a board? Well, if you aren’t a CEO, at what are you a domain expert? Boards are all about specialization and bringing that experience to table, which means you need to be the best in your field. Claire was quick to point out that joining a board shouldn’t be the goal. If you have demonstrated a specialization, it’s a signal. Have awareness of your network; you have to be out there. That wait to get tapped thing doesn’t work for everyone. Similar to looking for your dream job, consider what it is that you care about, what products you use and whether you are in a position to learn more. What is it that you represent? What constituency you are representing? You have to advocate and campaign for yourself.
The importance of paying it forward
It’s no secret that once you’re on a board, you’re likely to be approached for new opportunites. When these women can’t take on additional responsibility, they always pay it forward and advocate for other women who are looking to join a board. The issue of advocacy is so important to Sukhinder, she founded theBoardlist, a curated marketplace to help discover and find exceptional women leaders for private company boards. theBoardlist aims to accelerate gender diversity and business performance in the boardroom. To date, over 2,000 women have been nominated, 50% outside of Silicon Valley. Sukhinder believes high quality supply leads to high quality demand.
Influencing change from the top
An important role of any board member, especially at a public company is around governance. You are incentivized to see something no one else is. Building relationships with the management team, providing insight and asking the right questions are critical first steps. It’s no surprise that the boardroom is a great place to discover best practices. Sukhinder has been able to impact change with succession and talent planning as well as recruitment at Joyus. She’s also brought efficiency to the boardroom. Gone are the days of presenting a deck with a hundred slides. Instead she encourages the board and executive team to identify ten issues ahead of time and determine what can be influenced in those five board meetings throughout the year. Clara has brought several best practices from the boardroom to Hearsay, including the introduction of strategic planning meetings as well as financial and operational planning in the fall. She went on to say, “I feel like I’m a better CEO at Hearsay because of my experience on the board.” Claire always comes back from her Hallmark board meetings with a new perspective on the challenges that the hundred year old company faces. She is constantly inspired by the company’s commitment to reinvention.
The need for diversity beyond gender
Women are not the only demographic to come up short in the boardroom. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity across minorities as well as sexual orientation. All three panelists agreed there are far greater issues at hand and no one has tackled them well. We need tools to grow the pipeline of diverse candidates and surface it to exist. Public companies are ahead of this as they are much more methodical and know the skill sets they need to add. Private companies often struggle. It’s viewed as more of an afterthought. If a recruiter takes three times as long to hire for a position, so be it. Companies need to have representation that includes international, minority groups and even those with experience from outside of the industry. Due to the many legal requirements that employers face, it’s important to represent who you are and talk about it as part of your identity, especially when networking. You are your best advocate in promoting your brand. If you want to be on a board, speak up and let the company know about your ambitions. A diverse board always results in better outcomes.
The panelists left those in the room, and millions around the world watching live, with a sense of inspiration and empowerment. The lessons learned and actionable steps provided truly resonated with the audience. No doubt there are many more women (and men) well on their way to the boardroom after hearing from Clara, Sukhinder and Claire.
Check out our full Dreamforce coverage here!

Myriah Wood

Myriah's background is in both product and acquisition marketing as well as business development.

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