2017 DirectWomen alumna Kelly McNamara Corley joins Jenny Hochenberg from Platinum Ambassador Sponsor Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP to share insights into her own board journey and tips for other women lawyers considering board service in the future.
Jenny Hochenberg: Kelly, you have such a long and inspiring career in law and regulatory and government relations matters. I am curious, when in your career did you first start thinking about board service?
Kelly McNamara Corley: I started thinking about board service as part of my career path, probably about four or five years before I retired from my job as General Counsel for Discover. I had served on the boards of nonprofit organizations, and I had served as a visitor on the board of visitors for George Mason University, my alma mater. I enjoyed board service, but I had never thought about it as a career opportunity.
Hochenberg: What motivated you to think about corporate board service as the next chapter in your career? What do you think are the particular rewards of being on a corporate board?
Corley: There are many rewards I have found in being on a corporate board. The first reason that I decided I wanted to serve on a board was I enjoyed working with our board at Discover. I had an opportunity to serve the company and the board as corporate secretary. Through that experience, I really gained an appreciation for the board’s role and the benefits that the board provides to a corporation. Seeing it from the role of corporate secretary, I became even more interested in the possibility that I might be able to serve another company as a director at some point in my career.
I liked the collective decision-making and collaboration of a board of directors. Boards are only effective if the board members can listen to one another, respect one another, share perspectives, and hopefully, those perspectives are diverse. But then ultimately come together as a unit to provide oversight and guidance to the company.
I love that collective process where a board thinks through the risks and opportunities that present themselves to a company. I like the relationships. I enjoy learning new things, and board service requires you to digest a lot of complex information in a relatively short period of time, and then be able to add value in some fashion. I like the pace of learning that board service presents.
Hochenberg: Why do you think lawyers should consider board service? How do you think lawyers can best position themselves for board service? You mentioned your role as corporate secretary. How did that help you for the next step when you were not the secretary, but when you were a board member?
Corley: Starting with that question of how serving as secretary, or any role where there is an opportunity to be visible and interact with the board, might help prepare you for board service. First, I’ll say there are a lot of different roles. It could be the corporate secretary. You can take on a compliance function and report to an audit committee. You could take on a risk function. You might be involved in mergers and acquisitions transactions and have an opportunity to present matters around mergers and acquisitions to the board. At Discover, our lawyers focused the board on key legal issues that they needed to be aware of over time. Any opportunity that a lawyer has to be in the boardroom and interact with the board – see how the board operates and what is useful and valuable to the board – is an excellent opportunity to learn if board service is something you are interested in for the future.
There are many reasons I think lawyers make great board members. I think we learn the role of the board as a legal representative of a company. We know the difference between what a board member’s role is and what management’s role is. As a board member, that is an important distinction, and I think it is something that lawyers know well and have had the opportunity to see firsthand in their practice.
I think lawyers ask great questions. They ask probing questions. They turn every rock over to understand an issue, and I believe that inquisitive nature is beneficial to board deliberations.
I think we’re also able to distill complex information. I mentioned to you that you have to be a quick learner. For the board that I serve on right now, our board books are no fewer than 400 pages, and we have a week to two weeks to digest all that information, prepare our questions, and be ready to go. The ability to work through a lot of complex information, find what’s relevant, and then be able to fashion questions to get underneath the data to ensure that you are performing your oversight role, is something most lawyers are comfortable with – we’re comfortable going through a lot of paper! That is an attribute that serves us well.
We don’t shy away from risk, but we also like reward and opportunity. The ability to balance the risk management and growth of a company through strategic opportunities, is something lawyers are very good at and comfortable doing.
Finally, I think we develop a broad perspective over our careers. We have seen a lot of things. We keep an eye on the external world and the risks and challenges that other competitors are facing. We have to be aware of what our stakeholders think, whether it’s a regulator or shareholder consumers. We bring a broad, multi-dimensional perspective to board service that can be helpful to corporations.
Hochenberg: How did DirectWomen help you achieve your goal of being on a corporate board?
Corley: DirectWomen played, and continues to play, a key role in my board service.
I’ve told others that I think of the DirectWomen Board Institute as a ‘board boot camp.’ It’s not easy, but easy things are not very rewarding. So, the effort that you put into your time with DirectWomen – whether it’s honing your elevator pitch, working on your bio and resume for board service, or, even more fundamentally, just really thinking about your experience as a lawyer and translating that experience from using legal terminology to describe the contributions you’ve made in your career, to telling it as a story of a business enabler, a strategic partner, an individual that can manage risk and reward, somebody who is curious and inquisitive – is well worth it. For me, it was a process of self-discovery as I thought back on my career and tried to take my legal hat off for a minute and put on a corporate board member hat. It was great for me to work with the professionals at DirectWomen and my colleagues who were going through the program to think about the contributions I had made and how they could be helpful in this next chapter of board service. In a nutshell, I would say DirectWomen has played and continues to play a critical role in my work as a board member.
Hochenberg: As I was reading your bio, I saw that you were working full time, and you were pursuing your legal degree in the evenings. You are also a mom. I have a little one at home. So, do you have any tips for women lawyers who are facing similar situations and are integrating a legal career with motherhood?
Corley: My biggest tip would be to go easy on yourself and for other women to go easy on themselves. Sometimes we try to be everything at all times, and then we are disappointed in how we’re doing. Having made it to a point where my daughter is now grown and taking care of herself, I can tell you that you can cut yourself some slack because you will do fine. You will have a successful career. Your child will grow up and will love you, which is the most important thing, perhaps. It will all work out at the end of the day. I fretted a lot during that process and wondered how I would keep it all together. But women are strong and capable, and we’re pretty darn good multitaskers. It will all work out. My best advice would be not to be hard on yourself as you are working your way through the process.
I think maybe one other thing I would say is – I made sure that when I was with my family, I tried to turn off work. There were times when we would have some significant activity going on at work, and I might not be able to do that, but I tried to make my family time, my family time and not have my phone on checking messages all the time. You can do that. It’s hard sometimes to turn it off, but you don’t want to get to the end of your career and be super proud of what you have accomplished professionally, but you missed too many things with your family.
You are setting an excellent example for your children. It allows you to demonstrate to them what work ethic looks like and what it looks like to have a professional and accomplished mom. All of those things are important and will be more important as your child grows.
Hochenberg: Thank you, Kelly. It was lovely to meet you. I appreciate you taking the time and sharing your tips. I’ve always been a believer that you need guideposts in life and, to me, the guideposts are often successful women. It is always good to keep perspective, to know what is important and what is not so important, and not lose sight of the things that really matter and how to get there. So, thank you.