DirectWomen Success Story Interview: Meet 2012 Alumna Susan H. Alexander

2012 DirectWomen alumna Susan H. Alexander joins Krista Carver from Platinum Ambassador Sponsor Covington & Burling LLP to share insights into her own board journey and tips for other women lawyers considering board service in the future.

Krista Carver: For our first question, how did you lay the groundwork for getting your first board position, and how did you prepare yourself more generally for board service?

Susan Alexander: I think it has been beneficial to have been a corporate lawyer all these years. I have had the pleasure and good fortune to work with many boards throughout my career. I’ve seen boards that work really well, and I’ve seen boards that haven’t worked so well, and I have seen the difference that an individual member can make. That was really helpful context as I thought about the contribution I wanted to make on a board.

Throughout my career, I always felt it was essential to remain connected to the community. As you might imagine, I was very involved in the legal community. I spent time working with groups like the Association of Corporate Counsel and other bar organizations like the Boston Bar Association. I was also involved in other, non-legal community groups. For example, I sit on the board of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Each of those experiences exposed me to consensus building in settings that were very similar to corporate board service. Being involved in the community helped build my network and helped me think about what was developmental for me and what I could bring that would be helpful to a board.

Carver: You said that you’ve seen how an individual can make a difference on a board. Can you tell us a little bit more about that – what you’ve observed and what others might be able to learn from it?

Alexander: We all understand the group dynamic, and we’ve all been in situations where there are people who, when they speak, everyone listens. For me, the goal was to be one of those people. My advice is to be careful when you speak. Be sure that you have a point and that your point is clear and succinct. The best point may not necessarily be what the other directors are talking about. Sometimes the most important contribution is when someone brings a different voice to the conversation. It can change the whole dynamic of the meeting and help advance the discussion.

When I first joined a board, it was interesting and challenging to think about ‘what is the right way to be present here’ and ensure that I was making valuable contributions without getting ahead of myself. It’s carefully picking the moment and not being afraid to be that different voice in the conversation or to introduce a new element, but not doing that all the time. It is all about balance and continuously challenging yourself to be clear and constructive.

Carver: So, if you had it to do all over again, would you do anything differently?

Alexander: I don’t know that there isn’t a list of things you would do differently if you have examined life. I actually think that I was at the right point in my career to join boards.

It’s tricky because being on a board takes a lot of time if you do it right. It takes a lot of mindshare. We all have hectic jobs and lives, so I think to be the person you want to be in the boardroom, it needs to be the right time and the right opportunity.

I’m on one public board now. I’ve been on a private board previously, and I sit on a large not-for-profit board, and that is plenty. There are other opportunities out there that I would love to pursue; however, I’m only allowed to have one for-profit board in my current work, and I understand that. It’s not something easy to do in your spare time. It’s something to do when you feel like you can appropriately commit yourself. As a board member, you have fiduciary duties that are important and require your time and attention.

Everything is timing. Life has chapters, and those earlier years when my kids were little and when I was working around the clock, were not the right time to be committed to board service. That was the time when I was dedicating more of my time to community commitments. I honestly can’t overstate the value of community involvement both in terms of just getting your head into a different place and continuing to build a network that is personally and intellectually satisfying. That network building will help prepare you for the time when you are more senior in your career, and you are ready to be both an executive and a board member.

Carver: How would you pinpoint the time for that transition? When did you think that you were ready to take on board service?

Alexander: If an opportunity presents itself and it’s something that is the right thing, but just not the perfect time, you shouldn’t say no. You should try to say yes. That has been a philosophy of mine throughout my career – ‘try to say yes.’ At the same time, try to keep things in perspective. If an opportunity presents itself, consider how it will grow and develop you. With every opportunity you take on, it’s helpful to consider how it will change you, make you better, and teach you something about yourself. That is what I’ve tried to do with my career, and I don’t think board service is any different.

Getting on a board takes a while, so it is good to start thinking about your board journey early. Before you’re ready for board service, talk to sitting directors and ask what they like about serving on a board, where they feel they bring value, and where they think you might be able to bring value. Start to tell people you are thinking about board service. That will both help you narrow down the type of opportunity you are looking for and help you know when it’s the right time.

On the time issue – we are amazing women. We can do anything we want; we just have to assign the right priority to it. I think you will know when it’s the right time.

Carver: What advice do you have for lawyers who aspire to board service? How can they fight against the ‘lawyer bias’ or the notion that lawyers are not a good choice for board positions?

Alexander: I think for lawyers, in particular, we have to think about our value add a little bit differently. There is this perception that lawyers just don’t make great board members, and I think that is quite wrong.

Interestingly, that perception attaches to lawyers in a way that it doesn’t attach to finance or marketing executives. They are seen as broader than somebody who is ‘just a lawyer.’ So, I think it is essential for younger lawyers interested in corporate board service in the future to raise their hands for broader experiences and leverage those experiences to gain breadth and practice making a broader contribution.

A challenge with board service for those of us that are so deep in our role as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, or Chief Legal Officer is that, as a board member, your job is not to operate the company but oversee the company. That’s a very different set of muscles than what most of us flex in our day jobs. It’s the classic, ‘what got you here won’t get you there.’ People do not want you to come on the board and try and run their company, whether it’s in your area of expertise or not. They want you to help think about how they might run their company. They want you to oversee the operations of the company properly. The best boards are the ones where the management team gets help from the board, and they have a comfortable enough relationship that there is a really good give and take there. Over the years, the boards I have felt saddest for are the ones where the CEO didn’t have the opportunity to leverage what the board brought to the table. In those instances, it felt more as though it was performance art for the board and less like a true partnership where the CEO would have had the opportunity to grow and develop with the board and leverage all the years of experience that a well-balanced board brings.

Carver: Do you think the perception that lawyers are not good board members comes from the view that we have our “lawyer hat” on too completely?

Alexander: I think that’s part of it. You’ll hear people say, ‘I can buy a lawyer. Why do I need one on my board?’ I think executives that have had experience working closely with lawyers in business contexts see it differently and understand lawyers’ value proposition differently, too. Ultimately, it is our job to demonstrate our value proposition.

Some of the calls that I get about being on boards or serving in different executive roles are from people I have worked with before. It just thrills me to think that they have been as happy working with me as I have been working with them and that they see me in a broader, different kind of role and think that I could be helpful to them. That’s terrific, and that is why I say everything you do at work, in your community, and everywhere else is a little bit of your audition. All those people you work and interact with are relationships you can leverage. Sometimes when you express your interest in board service, people say, ‘Oh, you would be great.’ They may not have thought of you in that way because they know you in a different context. You just have to open up their thinking a little bit.

Carver: In what way has DirectWomen helped you achieve your goal of corporate board service?

Alexander: It’s terrific in the sense that the organization draws women lawyers from all different types of practice. It is an excellent opportunity to get to know these women, hear their experiences, and see where they are in many different industries and areas of expertise.

I also think the basics that the DirectWomen Board Institute takes you through are beneficial. The focus on ‘what do you bring?’ is terrific. We all know that our experiences have been developmental for us, but just changing mindsets expands your thinking in a very different way. The DirectWomen Board Institute also helped me refine my elevator pitch and exposed me to recruiters who often work at the board level.

For the public company board that I’m on, I was approached by a recruiter I met at the DirectWomen Board Institute. It was a couple of years after the Institute, but it was terrific. My participation in the Board Institute was another audition, and the recruiter remembered me when the right opportunity came up.

Carver: I know you’re a big champion for diversity. What role do you think diversity plays in an effective boardroom?

Alexander: I am a huge champion of diversity because I believe to my core in its power. Without diversity, you are limiting yourself in ways you can’t even appreciate. You will never get the best result if you have like-minded people with completely similar experiences all around the table.

Often it is that initial, what seems like a diverting comment, that actually can take the discussion down the richest path. The board I’m on is half women, half men. The board is ethnically and racially diverse, which is a wonderful experience. It has international members. It has LGBTQ members. It is excellent, and the Chairman and CEO have very intentionally built the board in that way. As a board member, I see the benefit of that intentionality. I think what you see there, too, is that the representation of a single element of difference is not nearly as effective as truly having a diverse board. In a truly diverse boardroom, the diversity aspect of it drops away, and you are left with this vibrant discussion from a variety of perspectives. You have more of an opportunity to help the company and help the management team fully realize their potential. There are all these studies that indicate ‘it takes three.’ I don’t know what the magic number is – I’m sure it is relative to the given board – but I do think if only a single woman or a single person of color sits on the board, it is much harder than if you have a genuinely dynamic and diverse group.

If everyone has the same experience and is tasked with thinking about the same thing, you will likely only get one idea or possible result. So, if the objective is to have lots of ideas so that you can pick the right one, or the best one, you need to have many people thinking about things in different ways. Honestly, having a genuinely diverse board makes it way more fun too. Happy people do better work. And so, I think board comradery is essential. Trust is essential. The boardroom dynamic is something that has to be carefully curated and built, and diversity is an integral part of that.

Carver: Well, that’s all the questions that I had. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with you on this. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

Alexander: Thank you again, Krista. The pleasure was all mine. I love being a lawyer and I love the opportunity that I’ve had to serve on boards, maybe because they both challenge you to think about things in a smart and focused way. I believe that at their core, lawyers are people who want to help – that’s what attracted most of us to the law – and board service is just another way in which we can be helpful. It is wonderful when you learn something, and you have the opportunity to apply it again and again and again, and I think board service can be that for each of us. I believe boards can benefit from the perspective and insight that lawyers can bring, and women lawyers in particular.