Even though everything is still virtual, Eileen O’Neill Odum and I were happy to be back and teaching another bright class of MBA students at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. This time around, discussing CEO and Board Leadership was especially interesting considering everything going on, from continuing to navigate the pandemic to lengthy discussions on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
We have had a roster of fabulous CEOs and accomplished board members zooming in to share their words of wisdom. They were all spectacular as the students had lively exchanges, and this was a year like no other where our class had the opportunity to discuss many new topics.
As reported by Baron’s after years of market-led efforts, US regulators and policymakers have been signaling interest in advancing corporate disclosure on critical sustainability issues including climate change. Now is the time to enact an effective regulatory framework for environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) disclosure in the US. The question is not only about what should be done, but also how to do it.
Further adding to the topics that we’ve never covered in previous class sessions, there have been compilations of activism going on with major corporations. A big point of discussion was on Exxon and how they are under fire for not converting their fossil-fuel-focused strategy. Causing one of the most expensive proxy fights ever, activist investors have already won two seats on their board and are likely to pick up a third. This year has been an eye opener for ESG issues, and major energy companies—such as Exxon—are being forced to confront growing shareholder concerns about climate change.
Corporate boards need to increase their focus on these topics and come up with measurable data. Our speakers and students discussed these topics in-depth during our Q & A-style classes. Eileen and I began sessions by posing several open-ended questions, which generated wonderful discussions on the topics for the day.
Meet the speakers listed from week one to week nine:
Carol Mills is an experienced tech CEO and board member, and her current boards include Zynga and Entertainment Partners. She has served as Executive Chair, Lead Director, and Chair of Audit, Compensation, and Governance committees for Adobe, Blue Coat Systems, Ingram-Micro, White Hat Security, and Alaska Communications.
Who better to lecture on the fundamentals of high-performance boards? The students got a great kickoff to the class content as this was a great first lecture and introduction to the main content of our class and its teaching objectives. I sat on a board with Carol where she was Executive Chair and I experienced her exceptional skill set firsthand.
Mike Millegan serves as an independent public board director for Portland General Electric (POR:NYSE), Wireless Technology Group (WTT:NYSE), CoreSite Realty Corporation (CORE:NYSE), and Axis Capital Holdings Limited (AXS:NYSE). He is also the Founder-CEO of MAG 3 LLC and the former President of Verizon Global Wholesale.
Mike did an incredible job describing the principles of obtaining your first board seat and how to keep it and add value quickly.
Jeff Roe is the President and CEO of Premera Blue Cross. Roe joined Premera in 1996 and served in roles leading the company’s employer and individual market segments, and he became President in January 2014.
As an exceptionally articulate CEO, Jeff answered a lot of questions about navigating the pandemic with his board, and he spoke to how he works with his board and why it works so effectively. We had several students from the healthcare industry that provided lots of great dialogue. Jeff is constantly one of our most popular speakers, and he is always so effective and well prepared—one can tell he loves to talk to students as he speaks with such passion and clarity.
Phyllis Campbell is the Chairman of Pacific Northwest for JPMorgan Chase & Co., and she is currently on the board of Air Transport Services Group Inc. (ATSG) as an Independent Board Member. She is also serving on the Diversity Advisory Board of Toyota, SanMar, the Allen Institute, the Global Advisory Board of Women Corporate Directors (WCD), and the US-Japan Council where she was the immediate past board chair. Previously, Phyllis served as an independent director for Alaska Air Group from 2003–2020 and was on the Nordstrom board of directors.
Phyllis talked about the major responsibilities of being a board member and how the duties have expanded over the 25 years that she has been an active board member. She spoke about how important topics such as DEI, ESG, employee wellness, culture and engagement, digital transformation in some cases, and increased government regulation are now part of every board member’s responsibilities. Phyllis is always so well prepared and popular with the students.
Katherine Regnier is the CEO & President of Canadian-based software company, Coconut Software: a customer engagement solution strategically engineered for the banking industry. She is also a founding board member of Co.Labs and is a member of the UW Foster School of Business Advisory Board.
Katherine’s story was one of constant challenges around getting a startup off the ground, which included hiring top and diverse talent, raising capital, and creating meaningful board relationships. The students were fascinated with her startup journey and appreciated her A+ CEO perspective.
Alex described the transformation of Workfront from a company that sells a departmental project management tool, to a company that launched the work management category with an enterprise application platform.
A key part of that transformation was focused on gender equality, where during his tenure, the percentage of women working at the company increased 23%, Workfront doubled its number of women managers, and they won national awards such as “Best Company for Women” and “Best Company Culture.” Workfront became known for its focus on DEI and recently completed a successful strategic acquisition of Adobe.
Joe Payne is President and CEO of Code42, the leader in Insider Risk Management. Joe recently co-authored a book called “Inside Jobs.” With more than 20 years of leadership in high-growth software companies, Joe has broad experience in delivering software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions to enterprises across numerous industries. Prior to Code42, Joe was Chairman and CEO of Eloqua, where he led the company’s successful IPO in 2012 and subsequent sale to Oracle for $957M in 2013.
Joe spoke about a CEO’s relationship with their board, which included the do’s and don’ts, the good and the bad, and the reconciliation of each along with creative problem-solving. This informative discussion led to the students’ reacting with an avalanche of questions. Joe’s vast experience as a long-time CEO and a board member of many successful tech companies lends huge credibility to his remarks. The learnings of a skilled successful board member in demand are priceless.
Sunny Gupta is the Co-founder and CEO of Apptio. He is a market and product innovator with a customer obsession that led him to uncover significant untapped demand for an analytics-based business management system for CIOs. Since founding Apptio in 2007, he pioneered a market category (Technology Business Management or TBM) and drove the company to become the market leader in a disruptive industry with significant scale. Sunny led Apptio to an IPO in September 2016 (NASDAQ: APTI), as well as its acquisition by Vista Equity Partners in January 2019 for $1.94B.
Sunny talked about his journey coming from India to the US and describing what an incredible opportunity he unknowingly had ahead. The focus of his remarks was starting Apptio and building a large successful company that he took public. He discussed his deep private and public board experience, the significant differences between the two forms were very informative. He remains CEO at Apptio and has only Vista board members, which he described as a unique and very positive experience.
Brad Tilden retired in March 2021 after a 30-year career with Alaska Air Group. He was most recently Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Air Group; Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Airlines; and Chairman of Horizon Air. Over three decades with Alaska, he also served as Executive Vice President of Finance and Planning, Chief Financial Officer, and Corporate Controller.
Brad spoke to the formal CEO succession plan that the Alaska Board used in naming his replacement. The board considered three internal candidates, and after a thorough vetting and interviewing process, Brad and the board made the decision effective April 1, 2021. History repeats itself since the last three CEOs of Alaska were named in a similar manner. The students asked about DEI and ESG programs within Alaska, and Brad’s very candid comments about Alaska’s wonderful achievements were tempered with progress needed in some other categories. The students positively reacted to that conversation as great questions were immersed, and the students were left with a positive view of Alaska Air Group by Brad during debriefing.
Ken Denman is a General Partner at Sway Ventures and a voting member of the Investment Committee. Ken brings nearly two decades of CEO experience to Sway Ventures Consumer and Enterprise Investments, garnered through successful transformations at several companies. Ken is a former Silicon Valley technology CEO and now stays equally busy as a public and private board member and venture capitalist. He is a member of the boards of directors of Costco Wholesale, Inc., VMWare, Inc., and also Motorola Solutions, Inc., where he is the Lead Independent Director and Chair of the Nominating and Governance Committee. Along with Ken’s background that covers the landscape of board experience, he has had CEO roles of successful public and private companies, he is a technology Venture Capitalist, and he holds Fortune 500 company board seats.
Ken’s remarks to the students are always limitless, and the discussion questions are always varied and filled with teachable moments. His philosophy as a board member is “nose in and hands out,” which speaks to the ability to provide guidance and support without the need to control or dictate everything. This year, he covered ESG and Risk Management as a competitive advantage, board and management differences and suggestions for reconciliation, and the need to pay employees a living wage with solid benefits—which seem obvious, but sometimes one would be surprised. Ken was the final speaker of our class and generated great questions; he finished our Spring Quarter with great enthusiasm.
Along with all of the traditional board duties—CEO’s performance and succession planning, auditing, compensation, governance committees’ structures and processes, board diversity, leadership, and more—the last few years (and especially in this COVID-19 environment) have raised many more responsibilities to oversee as a director. Board members now have to consider employee wellness and engagement, returning to work, company culture, ESG measurement, and in some cases, digital shift transformations. The board is responsible for ensuring that the company is doing all of these things correctly and in the best interest of its employees and shareholders. The students also learned about how different experience levels are necessary for every kind of board seat: public and private companies, non-profits, and billion-dollar foundations. Having various skill sets and diverse ages, genders, and backgrounds on boards introduce innovative ideas that help with analyzing complicated issues. The most accomplished boards are open to change and willing to listen to challenging ideas.
Eileen and I always take great pleasure in teaching this class at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, and the students are always so engaged—despite conversations happening through a computer screen. A big thank you goes to each of the speakers who shared such valuable information with these future board members! The students take so much away from each presentation, as you can’t learn this kind of material from reading it in a textbook.