If there’s one thing Gilbert Fuller has learned through his career, it’s that having a good board to help guide a company can make all the difference.
“Every company sooner or later has to deal with some serious matters that require complete engagement and having to deal with tough problems,” he says. “What I really enjoy about board service are the lively discussions with bright people. There are so many issues a company faces, such as cybersecurity, all the rules and regulations that seem to come regularly, issues like succession planning, which is fundamental to the success for any corporation. These challenges are there and it’s exciting to talk about them and try to come up with solutions.”
Mr. Fuller’s background has well prepared him with a wealth of experience to draw from as a board member for USANA Health Sciences and Security National Financial Corporation. An MBA helped launch his career, and over time, he became drawn to the financial aspect of the business world.
In the mid-1980s, the company he was working with went through a peaceful acquisition, and a few years later the business asked him to relocate to the Boston area to be the conglomerate’s vice president and treasurer. He was busy in this role when a European company attempted—and ultimately succeeded at—a hostile takeover.
“For me, that hostile takeover was very serious and involved some big challenges,” he says. “What I gained from that experience was to learn a lot more about capital markets and what to do with crises and how to cope with them, hopefully successfully.”
The company fought a long legal battle resisting the coup, but the end result was that he and his employees “got the opportunity to do something else.” That’s how he found himself back in the Salt Lake area where he became the CFO of USANA.
Through his experience on both sides of the boardroom, Mr. Fuller says he’s seen the role of boards change and grow throughout the years. Technology has been a contributor to change, as have legal requirements and scandals such as the Enron, Worldcom and Bernie Madoff fraud cases.
“In the old days, you could almost be clipping coupons, if I can use that term. Not anymore. Boards have to be transparent with issues, be that cybersecurity or succession planning or corporate strategy,” he says. “You have to be engaged like never before.”
Patricia Jones has had many titles throughout the years: business owner, data analyst, state senator, and mother. And all of these have taught her valuable lessons as the CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute as well as a member of various boards of directors.
“I think every job you have helps you prepare you for this kind of directorship because knowing how to interact with people and how to include people but also having a sense of focus and purpose about what you’re trying to achieve is extremely important. I think that kind of focus was generated from perhaps my years in the legislature where you really are focused on many different things,” she says “I think being a mother can help you focus on those sorts of things and know how to manage money and know how to manage people. Being a business owner was another thing. I think everything you do in life helps prepare you for board directorship.”
Ms. Jones, co-founder of Dan Jones and Associates and a member of the Utah State Legislature for the first 14 years of the century, has seen a subtle shift in corporate goals as companies have begun to prioritize social responsibility and ways to make their community and world a better place.
“No question, that is something I’m seeing. I think boards are becoming more purposeful in what their mission is and really looking and focusing on issues that will better our societies and communities and families,” she says.
Another trend that excites Ms. Jones is a markedly increased effort to form boards with directors from different backgrounds and perspectives.
“There’s a big push right now for women to be included on boards, and the research shows you need at least 30 percent of gender diversity for you to really reap the rewards that all the research shows that you can. I am seeing more women and I’m seeing that women interact differently in this setting,” she says. “Having a critical mass of women and a diverse board brings in that kind of nuance, that creative and innovative thinking that boards are really seeking right now and that’s helped me see how different people can manage and interact with each other where you can really bring great rewards to the mission you’re trying to accomplish.”
Diverse boards mean more creative boards, she says, and companies who have a closer pulse on society around them. It’s a move that ultimately benefits companies and communities alike.
“When you have a diverse mass of people on a board, whether it’s gender diversity or cultural diversity or religious diversity, those are the boards I like to serve on because you get to see magic happen,” adds Ms. Jones. “You get to see new ideas that are welcome and appreciated. If you have a good chairman of the board who’s willing and who goes out of their way to get the diverse kind of thinking in a board, then you really do see magic happen. You see more creative thinking and you have more creative products and services.”
Any career that starts with helping to build and launch the International Space Station is destined to succeed. Gretchen McClain’s has soared, and now she is relishing in sharing her insight and expertise with companies as a part of their board of directors.
“They’re driven by the economy a little bit differently, they all go to market a little differently, they’re uniqueness from each one of them,” she says of the seven companies for which she serves as a director. “Part of being on the board is ultimately to quench my curiosity of learning as well as to work with directors that are so accomplished and talented that they can continue to challenge my mind. I think I’ve got great boards. To me, as long as it’s global, it’s technology driven, and I can see a big picture of where we want to go, that’s what excites me.”
The role of boards has changed in recent years, she notes. Boards have always been concerned with good governance, but today’s board additionally focus on strategy with an eye to what will help the company succeed five or ten years down the road. Talent development, succession planning, and long-term vision for the company’s direction are all bettered by the strength of its board, she says.
After leaving NASA, Ms. McClain’s career took her through the ranks of a number of different companies; when she was CEO of Xylem Inc., she rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Her technical background and the variety of types of companies has made her well versed in the needs of businesses both public and private.
“As you take on business, you learn about the business and the needs of strategy,” she says. “When you’re on a board and you’re helping a company think strategically about where they should go, you think about different ways and different models that work in different industries. It’s not always [directly] applicable, but those are some of the lessons you learn. That diversity of learning that I gained by doing different jobs helped me to ultimately prepare myself for a board position.”
Having that experience at the top of a company, too, has helped the University of Utah alumna gain a greater perspective of the role of boards and how to be most effective on them.
“I think I learned this being a CEO: Actually having to talk to the board and be part of the board in that way, that’s [about] leading with the power of vision: really laying out what are we doing and where are we trying to go rather than just getting into the day to day execution,” she says. “If you can inspire people with a concise, consistent strategy, you can get extraordinary talent and get them to lift their arms and engage and say I want to be a part of that and you can lift and inspire them in a different way. … That’s what I try to think about being on a board.”
David Petersen’s job began shortly after receiving his M.B.A. Newly married with his first child on the way, he was desperate for a job. But not just any job. At the time he asked a number of business leaders in his community for the best place to work. Every single one of them had O.C. Tanner on their list.
Back then he started as a marketing analyst, and knowing what he does now, he’d be the first to tell you he “offered very little at first.” Now he’s celebrated more than 35 years with the company and is a member of the board to boot.
“Our board is fantastic. We have a mix of former executives, outside members, and family members of the Tanner families. And all of us have one thing in common: a deep understanding of the purpose of our company and an appreciation for what we’re trying to accomplish.” Everyone is invested, he says, and that makes all the difference.
O.C. Tanner is a private company, which means their board has the opportunity to look completely different from the board of a public company. It’s not, Mr. Petersen says. They run their board as a sounding board pertaining to strategy and the future of the company. There is accountability. There is governance. And the expectations for performance are same as any public board. The only difference is that those expectations are set for the long-term. Not the short-term.
Not only does he serve on the board at O.C. Tanner, but Mr. Petersen has severed on several nonprofit boards as well. These, he says, are a privilege, and a chance to learn more about how corporate boards should operate as well. Nonprofit boards distill everything they do down to a single mission or goal for their community. And that enables board members to rally behind it. To really invest in what they are trying to achieve and to want it to succeed. Corporate boards should be the same, he says.
In fact, they are. Mr. Petersen is of the belief that we only ever hear the negative stories associated with boards who have gone rogue or maybe weren’t as hands-on as they should have been. But most of them are. They care deeply about the company they are serving and they want it to succeed. Each director is chosen with care and most of the time they take that role pretty seriously.
Mr. Petersen takes is seriously. He believes that a board of directors group is no different than a group meeting on the ground floor. Whether it’s a team meeting in the marketing department or a team huddle on the manufacturing floor, it’s all about collaborating, coming up with good ideas, and allowing leaders the opportunity to listen. That’s how groups are able to think strategically and make good decisions for the companies they serve.
Between his early training as a software engineer, his return to school in his mid-40s, and a career of investing in tomorrow’s companies, Greg Warnock brings a highly analytical perspective to the boardroom that = helps him make objective decisions for the company’s benefit.
“In the boardroom I think of myself, above all, as a fiduciary. I’m representing people who are not there, and I’m keenly aware of that,” he says. “I don’t identify as much with the role of an employee, as I’ve never really had a normal job, but all of my life I’ve been representing investor money in one way or another, or shareholder money, so that’s the mindset I bring to the boardroom more than any other.”
Throughout his career, Mr. Warnock has seen his share of boards. The difference between the good and bad is as stark as day and night.
“When I see boards in a high-functioning setting, it’s usually comprised of a large contingent of independent board members who are steeped in industry experience… They bring contacts and relevance and information that’s valuable,” he says. “But then the board itself needs to know to make decisions collectively as a group: when to speak, when to lay your point down, when to feel like you’ve been heard and move on.”
A good board can be an invaluable resource to a company, while one that is lacking is a wasted opportunity for expertise.
“A well-organized, well-functioning board can be a tremendous resource of vast knowledge to a CEO or to a founder,” he says “Many CEOs and founders come to the board experience thinking about control and influence when they should be thinking about resources, knowledge, and decision support.”
“When I can compare two boards, maybe I’ve been in two different board rooms in the same day, the remarkable differences that I see and the contributions boards make based on how they’re managed and how they’re organized is vastly different and I wish I could communicate that to boards more broadly,” adds Mr. Warnock.
When those factors align—when a board is functioning well and the company’s leader is utilizing its expertise well—Mr. Warnock says he finds a lot of satisfaction and excitement in helping a company reach its full potential and those affected by its performance benefitting from its success.
“When there’s a deep discussion about the customer experience and what it feels like to do business with a company, that feels important to me,” he says. “When the team and talent of that company are well taken care of and well provided for, careers are being developed and individually are being really well treated and they’re having a good experience with the company, those are the moments I’m most proud of.”