As many of you know, my alma mater is the University of Washington where I have been an active alum for many years. The Foster School of Business kindly asked me to co-teach an MBA class called “CEO and Board Leadership” this spring quarter. The class is now in its fifth week, so I wanted to share my experience so far with the UW second year MBA students.
While I have board experience, it’s not about what I know as much as who I know, and I know many smart CEOs and Board members. Several of them have agreed to visit my class as guest lecturers.
One of our first guests was Chris Cabrera, CEO and founder of Xactly Corporation. We were privileged that Chris also brought with him his Chairperson, Carol Mills. Have a CEO and his Board chair kick off our session was a perfect way to introduce the CEO/Board dynamic. Carol has severed on boards such as Adobe and Blue Coat. Given her extensive background, she helped mentor Chris as the company grew. With Chris as CEO and Carol as Chairperson, Xactly went from start-up to $100 million in revenue, to an IPO and then was sold to a private equity firm. Through it all, Chris managed to remain as the CEO, which is a rare event after such major changes. Carol and Chris exemplify how a good board will work cooperatively with a CEO through growth periods.
Our next distinguished guest was Phyllis Campbell, CEO of JP Morgan & CO, Northwest. Her background as a successful CEO and prominent board member brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the class. Phyllis currently serves on the board of Alaska Airlines and was a member of the Nordstrom board when they explored transitioning the company from a public company to a private one, a fascinating case study on its own. As a board member for Alaska Airlines, she was involved in the recent merger of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America. Phyllis was also the CEO of Seattle Foundation, where she managed a large non-profit organization. Her combination of experiences is rarely seen these days, and the students eagerly listened as she shared insights on taking a company private, mergers & acquisitions and the differences between a for-profit board and a non-profit board.
Our next guest was Paula Reynolds who was the CEO of Puget Sound Energy. Paula also sits on various boards. However, she focused on one of the main challenges many CEOs and boards face today, which is shareholder activism. Shareholder activism is when a large shareholder aggressively tries to take over company governance because they believe their ideas can drive up the shareholder price. They will sometimes try to use a shareholder vote to put in a new board of directors who will be more loyal to them than the CEO. Paula had to deal with such a situation and shared some of the strategies she employed to manage a very difficult situation. Her take on the experience was fascinating and invaluable to the students who many not realize how often shareholder activists attempt to take over a company’s management.
Large, publicly-traded companies are not the only entities that have a board of directors. Even start-up companies often have a board. Katherine Regnier is the founder and CEO of Coconut Corporation. You may remember her as one of my Neal’s Running Start entrepreneurs. Since joining Neal’s Running Start in 2016, she has raised over $4 million in venture funding for her company. As an early-stage company, she walked through how in the early stages, the CEO needs to carefully choose the board, like a marriage. She spoke to the students about the importance of leading the board, rather than letting them lead the company, and partnering with the right investors to set the board up for success.
Ethics in business, especially in the technology industry, is a hot news topic these days as more data is used for machine learning and artificial intelligence. Ethics, or the lack thereof, had a huge influence on the 2008 market crash as well. Bob Dickey is the former COO of SafeCo, and he joined our class to talk about the ethics of business and especially in operations and finance. Bob worked with the audit committee of SafeCo’s board of directors to enforce truth and transparency in financial governance. Boards must know the truth about the company’s numbers and operations. Bob talked about his experience with managing ethical policies and even dilemmas in managing a large corporation.
These distinguished guests demonstrated the importance of solving big problems in a group environment. CEOs and their board function best when they are collaborative and cooperative. Massive problems like the ones faced by Wells Fargo, Uber, Facebook and Volkswagon, require a team of smart people working the problem together.
Admittedly, most of my time in my day job is spent mentoring entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are very different from MBA students. While entrepreneurs are on a blazing path to get a company going, MBA students usually work for bigger companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks. These students are looking for a steady path of promotions within their current companies.
My goal as their teacher is to help them gain confidence as they take on bigger roles and responsibilities within their current employers. We want to send them back to their companies ready to lead the teams through inevitable trials and innovations that can force change.
Over the quarter, I will continue to post here and share not only the great experiences I’m having with the students, but perhaps deep dive into some of these topics I’ve mentioned, like shareholder activism and ethics. Consider it my own version of an MBA refresher course for you entrepreneurs out there. Stay tuned for other great guest speakers over the rest of the course. If you have specific questions about the class or interests about the topic of CEOs and the Board, let me know. I’ll try to work in all your questions over the series of blog posts.