Oct 19, 2023 Nurole logo
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Building a board portfolio: how to get board roles, develop non-exec skills, construct a portfolio and manage impostor syndrome, with Shellye Archambeau (Fortune 500 Committee Chair & NED)

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Shellye on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

How do you get that first board position? How do you build it into a portfolio? And how do you manage doubt and set-backs along the way? Now on the boards of Fortune 500 companies, Shellye Archambeau began building her board portfolio whilst she was a Silicon Valley CEO. In her podcast conversation with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings, Shellye answers the following questions:

  • Why did you take on your first board role whilst you were still a CEO?
  • How did you make the time to be both CEO and board member?
  • How much time did you allocate for your board role?
  • How did you develop your non-exec skillset?
  • How did you use the audit committee to develop your strategic value?
  • How did you gain credibility as a non-exec in a new sector?
  • What’s your approach to reading board papers?
  • What are the right questions to raise in board meetings?
  • What role have pro bono roles played in building your portfolio?
  • How have you thought about the overall construction of your portfolio? 
  • How did you turn one board role into a portfolio? 
  • How do you strike a balance between questions and advice?
  • What does a good board member look like to you?
  • When have you experienced impostor syndrome the most severely?
  • What tactics do you have for overcoming impostor syndrome?
  • What can boards do to minimise potential impostor syndrome?
  • How do you know when to quit, when to stick, and when to swerve?
  • ⚡The Lighting Round ⚡

📚Shellye explores many of these questions further in her book "Unapologetically Ambitious" (Fortune 10 top business book 2022). Order a copy here -https://amzn.to/3KFlgqG

Oliver Cummings: I want to kick off talking about your first board position, because you took your first one whilst you were still an executive. And there's a nice book that came out of a group of McKinsey Partners, where they were looking at the highest performing CEOs. And one of the characteristics they identified was that the [00:01:00] CEOs had one independent board role. 

So I always encourage people to do this, because I think it gives them a different perspective on their role and makes them better at their role as well as being an enjoyable experience in itself. But I'm fascinated to hear how you thought about that decision to take on a board role alongside your CEO role because many CEOs say “I haven't got time.”

Shellye Archambeau: Yes, it was actually interesting, Oliver. I knew there was a board of directors, right, for each company, but I really didn't know - early in my career - what the board did; if that was actually a job, right, etc. None of that really came to light until I was in my early thirties. And then I learned, oh wait, the board hires and fires the CEO?

I had already decided I wanted to be a CEO, but now I added that to my career aspirations as well. I was like, “okay, I want that job too”. So I actually aspired to be a board director, not realizing or even knowing around how it could affect my CEO career. But I did the [00:02:00] research, and the research all shows, , what skills, backgrounds, experiences boards look for.

And the number one requirement for getting a board seat on a good public board seemed to be board experience. I was like, ‘okay, this is a conundrum, right? How does that work?” So I decided that, all right, good news is I want to be a CEO and having CEO experience is actually very valued. So terrific. What I'll do is I'll get my CEO role.

And then as soon as I get my arms around being a CEO, then I'm going to go after a board seat. That way I'll be able to build this experience, so that when I'm ready to serve on boards for a career, I'll have experience. So I did. So I took over, I became CEO of Metric3 when I was 40. I took on my first public board, which was Arbitron. I think I was about 43. And the good news is, you're absolutely right. Being on a board absolutely helped me with my CEO role and managing my own board.

Oliver Cummings: Can you bring that to [00:03:00] life for me a little bit with some examples? In what ways did it help you become a better CEO? 

Shellye Archambeau: So, first of all, it just gave me a perspective and an understanding of what board members are looking for. And of how, when they come into a board meeting, you're living your company every single day. And your board is your board. And you think, okay, so they are too. Well, they're really not, right?

They come in, I mean, they pay attention, et cetera, but they don't know it as well as you. So it's everything from getting rid of the acronyms, or making sure we have a glossary, because what I find is every company has its own language. Second, one of the things the CEO did was talk about  - right at the beginning - what's working, what's not, what's going well, what's not.

And that was really helpful as a board member to get that context in that setting.  So I brought that into my CEO report. Okay, what's working, what's not, right, where are we focused, etc. So that was helpful and my board appreciated it. [00:04:00] 

One of the other things was just around strategy. So, yeah, we had our strategy discussions, we talked about market, competition, work position, right, all those things, and here's what we're planning to do. But I hadn't been spending much time talking about scenario planning, around risks, , et cetera, that could come up around the overall strategy. As much as I saw in terms of this other board . But honestly, Oliver, I kept bringing all kinds of things in. You don't even realize, frankly, all that you're learning and bringing to the table. 

Oliver Cummings: Brilliant. So you talk there about: content to include in the board; how to approach strategy … How did it impact your time and your sort of stretch time? One of my observations is the highest performing execs always seem to have more time available. But did you ever feel like, “this is not something I need right now?” Or were you always able to fit it in and accommodate the time that was required? 

Shellye Archambeau: I'm a [00:05:00] big believer in ruthless prioritization. This was a very valuable experience for me. So therefore it becomes a matter of, okay, so where am I taking it from, right? How am I going to create time? And one of the things that I have learned as I've risen in my career is that one of the best things you can do as a leader is make fewer and fewer decisions, the higher up you get.

So, by making fewer and fewer decisions, you're in essence forcing and therefore encouraging and developing your team to make more decisions, to take more ownership, to do, right? All those things, which can then give you the ability to, frankly, better delegate because they're building up better and stronger strength.

But at the end of the day, no, there was never a point where I thought, “Oh my gosh, I'm going to drop this board because I just don't have the time.” I thought it was key to my own development and to my own [00:06:00] overall performance as a CEO. So there would be other things that I would give up. 

Oliver Cummings: Okay, really interesting. One of the things I do as a CEO, inspired by an HBR piece, where they talked about, again, the highest performing CEOs map out their time on a sort of monthly basis and allocate time to it. I don't know whether that's something you did, but how much time did you allocate in your mind across your, on average 168 hour week? How much time did you allocate to that independent board role? 

Shellye Archambeau: The board role itself probably took up, honestly, in the grand scheme of things, uh, it took up less than 10 percent of what I was doing. It was more like 5-7%. Right, in terms of overall time.

And by the way, I completely agree with you with regards to the calendar. That was one of the best pieces of advice [00:07:00] I ever received, was to manage my calendar. And I remember getting it, and that was the time I was, I don't know, probably at a director level, and someone had said it was really important for you to manage your calendar.

And I'm like, manage my calendar? My calendar is being set by everybody else, right? Bosses set up meetings, people set up meetings, I mean, what do you mean manage my calendar? That was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. And then thinking about it, moving forward a whole bit, I realized how important that was, because I'm an intentional person anyway. 

So I said, all right, let me figure this out. And I encourage other people to do that who feel like me - the first thing to do is to actually go back. So, every quarter, I look at my calendar, the past 3 months. And say, am I spending the time consistent with my priorities?

Right? Very simple. Am I spending the time consistent with priorities? And I was surprised when I first started doing this, I really wasn't. I was spending it based on everybody else's priorities. [00:08:00] So anyway, I agree with you. I think that's actually really key that everyone can take time to improve their overall productivity, efficiency and impact.

Oliver Cummings: Someone once said to me, your to-do list is what you want to do, your inbox is what other people want you to do, and your calendar is what you end up doing. So focus on your calendar. Which I've certainly found really, really helpful. 

And so you took on this first board role. You sound incredibly intentional in the way that you go about things. I imagine you took a pretty intentional approach to how, once you got that role, how you went about developing your skill set as a non exec. 

Shellye Archambeau: The first thing I did before I even joined the board was I talked to people who served on boards, who I felt were probably pretty good at what they did, to get their advice. “What’s your advice - I'm getting ready to join the board.” So, when I joined Arbitron, they asked me [00:09:00] what committee I was interested in participating on.

And I said the Audit Committee. Because one of my mentors had said, “join the Audit Committee”. And I'm like, Audit? I mean, oh my gosh, right? I mean, that's so heavy lifting, the whole bit. I'm the CEO, and they were like, nope. If you join the Audit Committee, you'll learn how the company actually makes money, not where the revenue comes from, not where the growth comes from, but how they actually make money.

If you understand how they actually make money, you'll be better in your advice and your counsel around strategy. So, okay, that's what I did. So I've done that every time. So every time I join a board, I join the audit committee. I don't always stay on it, but I join it to begin with. 

Oliver Cummings: That's really interesting. So tell me how you go about that process, because I've certainly seen some audit committees where that's not what they're doing.

So I'm curious to understand your experience and how you [00:10:00] use audit committees, because I've seen some that can be quite box ticking in the way that they go about these things - very dry . And often you sort of see it when you've got former auditors. And they're sort of much more technical. So it sounds like you brought a very sort of commercial lens to it. 

Shellye Archambeau: Yeah, so what I mean, when I say you learn how they actually make money, yes, you're still going through the balance sheet and the whole bit, but because you are and in detail, you can see what I call, “revenue that's empty calories”. Empty calories is revenue that comes in, but frankly, the dollars to get that revenue, it goes right out.

So it looks great because you're growing revenue, but you're not growing profit. When I say how they make money, I'm talking about understanding how things flow. So when you say it's technical, yeah, I think it's very technical. You actually spend time going through and understanding how all this comes together.

You see how capital is spent, right? Return on capital, you see, I mean, all those things. So the fact that you're actually living in that audit committee, yes, there's a lot of [00:11:00] things that have to do with that. But the fact that you're in the audit committee, you're looking at the numbers, you're seeing what flows. 

They highlight what's happened with this quarter, right? They don't just say, here's the revenue, here's the expenses, whatever. They say, Oh, our margins are up because blah, blah, blah, blah, right? Our margins are down because of blah, blah, blah, blah. You start to learn what is really driving the overall business.

But the key is it's the lens that you bring to it. Right? So, if you walk in saying, what I want to understand is how we actually make money and that informs the questions that you ask. So, if you're not understanding, you're asking questions, right? To understand and that's the format. You don't ask those kinds of questions in the board meeting, not in terms of that detail.

So, it allows you to learn faster, right? So, that overall set of dynamics. Does that make sense, Oliver?

Oliver Cummings: Absolutely. I came from an investment background. We always used to have: revenue is vanity; profit is sanity; cashflow, reality.

And as an investor I [00:12:00] always used to take that atomic approach of making sure I could understand the unit economics from the bottom up -  completely discombobulate the organization and understand every little thing to then rebuild it up. And then once you've done that, you have a much greater understanding of, as you say, the sort of the strategic impact of different initiatives, rather than just getting the glossy version of whatever's happening on the surface.

I love that strategy of going to the audit committee is a great way to enrich your learning journeys. And what else did you do? I'm pretty sure that wouldn't have been the only thing that you would have done. How else did you think about that learning? 

Shellye Archambeau: Getting the industry. First board I joined was Arbitron. Arbitron was a media ratings and research company. Okay. I was in tech. I was not in media. So this is a new space for me. So therefore it's starting to read up and understand what's going on. You'll set up the Google alert for the company.

So anytime something's happening, you're kind of seeing [00:13:00] what's going on, but it's trying to get the context, right? I'm not going to become an expert. And they didn't bring me onto the board to be an expert in their industry. That's the other thing to remember. I don't have to become an expert. I'm just trying to understand the context, so that when I'm hearing things, when I have ideas, right, so that what I say is relevant versus being completely irrelevant.

That's the perk. So yes, doing the research, I call it doing the homework to get ready is important. Obviously, they send you all the decks right in advance. It's making sure you actually read it. But don't just read it. Think about it. So what are your questions upon reading it? Literally ask yourself, did you read the whole thing and you have no questions? You haven't read it properly because there's no way you can talk through and review all this going on with the company and not have any questions. 

Oliver Cummings: Do you have a strategy for going through a board pack? [00:14:00] When I go through a board pack, I'll normally have hundreds of questions, and then I will end up filtering them down, figuring out, “okay, if i'm only going to ask three or whatever, these are going to be the three or these are the key themes that I think are really important that we we focus on. What's your strategy to ensure you're as effective as you as you can be with the questions that you ask?  

Shellye Archambeau: . I jot down my questions. Anytime the questions get answered, I cross them off. The good news is all my boards today are electronic. They either use Diligent or an equivalent. So I literally just write them with my pencil on all this stuff.

And then once I've gone through it once, then you can look at what pages you actually marked and then go back and say, okay, what questions actually weren't answered. Right? Some questions I'll actually send before the meeting. 

If I think something's confusing, I'll actually send a note to whatever executive that's responsible for that area and just say, I was reading X [00:15:00] and I was confused by blah, blah, blah. I'm probably not the only one. When you present, you might think about including X, Y, and Z.

I'll do that kind of thing. And, first of all, management totally appreciates that. If I was the CEO, I would totally appreciate that. So do that. So you still get your question answered, right? And you get it highlighted a whole bit. And some things I think, alright, it's really, it's not so much to do it differently, I just have a question, so this is fine, because I think everybody would be engaged.

So, two different buckets. What I want to ask in advance, if I think something's confusing, I think it'll put either the executive of the company in a light that says they weren't prepared, or they weren't thinking it through, or they weren't whatever, then I tell the company in advance. If it's just a discussion point, right, clarifying that, I'll ask in the meeting itself. 

Oliver Cummings: That's an area I've been thinking about a lot in the post COVID world, where the reason for meeting in person has maybe shifted quite a lot. And I ask myself a lot, “what is [00:16:00] the purpose of meetings?” And in person as opposed to remotely or writing things asynchronously put writing down on paper through a sort of google doc or whatever with a series of comments.

What are the key questions to raise in the meeting itself versus that could be addressed asynchronously? You've talked about the bucket there of those where you just want to clarify or you think something hasn't been covered, but are there also questions where it's not necessarily clarification, but actually it would be better addressed asynchronously anyway, versus in the meeting itself.

Shellye Archambeau: Questions in the meeting are when I think it'd be helpful for the board as a whole, right, to have the context or the understanding. If we do that asynchronously, I'm getting educated. But it’s just me, right?

Oliver Cummings: But you could do it in a Google doc or some sort of shared document, depending on what system you're using.

Shellye Archambeau: yeah, but we don't have that. We don't really create any kind of shared docs and things. [00:17:00] There's so much for people to digest, right? Kind of in review, creating a whole other space where okay, read all this, but then also pay attention to what's happening here. All the time.

I mean, again, people are busy. You want to keep board members focused. I haven’t seen that being very effective. It’s effective for management, but not necessarily for the boards that I'm on. 

Oliver Cummings: That's really interesting. So, if you have the opportunity to do that, it sounds like you wouldn't actually want to do that. Why is that different for the management versus the board? Is it just a question of time, available time?  

Shellye Archambeau: No, it's focus. Management is 100 percent on this company and that's it. Board members have a variety. They might have 3 or 4 companies or more. They may have an operating job already. They're not in there checking every moment. Right? To pay attention to what's happening and what's going on.

So they very much need to be led and fed. [00:18:00] Right? Versus creating something that says, “Hey, always pay attention to what's happening here”. Plus you don't want to send anything that's board related outside of a protected environment.

Oliver Cummings: Absolutely. Okay. You've also taken on a couple of roles in the not for profit space. Now I will often encourage people to take on pro bono roles because I think it's a brilliant thing to do on a personal level. They're significantly less competitive on the platform, at least on average, we get something like 10 applications per nonprofit role, whereas we probably get 40 for the commercial paid roles.

So if you're looking to get your first board role, it's an easier place to start. I think often when you come to apply for those paid roles, it shows someone you understand what it is to operate on a board and be non executive and it gives them someone they can reference. But I'd be interested to hear what you've taken out of those pro bono roles and [00:19:00] how you've thought about taking them on. 

Shellye Archambeau: I completely agree with you. I think it's a great place to start. I took on my first nonprofit board role in my late 20s, so I've been serving on nonprofit board roles forever. And a couple things. One, even though it's definitely different than serving on a for profit company board, whether it's private or public.It does help you begin to understand kind of the role of governance, right? 

The role of how to communicate and be effective in a group, where people are coming together again, different perspectives, different backgrounds, but all with the intent of trying to help and support the overall company. So, I think it helps you just to build confidence that when you ultimately serve on a for profit board, you come in with a bit more confidence.

Oliver Cummings: Makes a lot of sense. Now when you look at your portfolio as a whole of board roles, do [00:20:00] you have sort of archetypes within your portfolio where you like to have a mix of a certain type? Or how have you thought about that overall construction? 

Shellye Archambeau: On the for profit side, I look at board roles as areas where I want to be able to contribute, but I also want to be able to learn and I want to spend time, where I like to spend time. So I like disruption. I like challenge, so I enjoy working with companies that are going through transformation. 

And then I want to learn things, so I enjoy being in different kinds of companies. So I spent my whole career in tech, and, first thing I did was a media company, I did a retail company, I've done, I'm now doing a … call it telecommunications, right, slash tech company with Verizon.

Roper has a model for buying companies. And helping to make them better and using the profits that come to buy more companies to grow through acquisition -  very different model,[00:21:00] so I have one tech, right? Of all of them. 

But the reason is I want to learn personally, and then I want to be able to obviously contribute. So all of these companies are areas that I can contribute to because in their own way, they're all transforming and evolving and tech is a key enabler, right? For all that. So that's how I look at it. I wouldn't want to do a bunch of the same type of company.

Oliver Cummings: Really helpful. Now, you talked at the beginning about that Catch 22 situation where you get told to get a board role, you need a board role.

I remember a lady called Terry Duhon, who was one of our first guests on the podcast, talking about exactly that and she talked about her journey where she she went and wrote a book, interestingly,  and then got a professorship - associate professorship - and then got her first board role.

And she sort of talked about effectively how she transformed her profile and made herself stand out as a thought leader in the space. How have [00:22:00] you thought about that differentiation of yourself as a board member that's allowed you to take on so many different roles. It's a challenge. I sometimes hear from people. “Look, I've got a board role, but how do I now start to move across?” And it's one thing to get the first one because you just stand out in a particular area, but then to migrate across, what was your approach to that? 

Shellye Archambeau: The first thing is, you have to be a really good board member. Because the most likely place that you will get the next one is referrals from board members that you're serving with. When people say, “hey, do you know anybody?” You're like, “there's somebody who serves on my board, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

So, the first thing you do is you perform. You make sure that you're really good at what you do. And the second is what you stand for, right? In the boardroom. So, everybody's bringing a different perspective. Should be bringing a different perspective. So [00:23:00] who are you? So, when people say, “okay, so, tell me about Shellye.”

What do they say, so I think it's important to take a major -  I call it a major because you're going to focus on. For me it's governance, which makes sense. I ran a company that was governance with compliance. I know the space. Every board has a governance and nominating committee. So that's the committee that I tend to join. And right now I chair. 

The other thing is skill set. So that's kind of an experience that I bring, and skill set. So the other is tech, right? It's tech, tech and element, how to leverage the industry. So making sure that that's also an area that I always stay up to date, I know what's going on, right, that I can bring that point of view.

And then I tell people, stay in your lane. And what I mean by stay in your lane is, this is gonna sound a little cheeky, but the companies want to know what you know. They don't really care about what you [00:24:00] think. So we all, because of what we've done, we all have opinions. They're coming up with a marketing campaign, well we're all consumers, so we all feel we're marketing experts, everybody wants to weigh in. And that's not helpful.

Oliver Cummings: that resonates a huge amount. It has parallels with those. I don't know if you've come across - I think it's Michael Buginer Stanier - his advice monster concept. He's written a book, but also a podcast or talk on it. He says you should never give advice. And there are three reasons.

One is you probably haven't understood the problem. If you have understood the problem, you probably don't know the right solution. And if you have understood the problem and you do know the right solution, by letting that other person know that, you're sort of saying you’re better than them by giving them that advice.

They're not going to listen to you anyway. And of course we all think we know that we know we shouldn't give advice. But somehow, like our advice is, it is different. We do these mastermind sessions for our board community where we have this model that we follow, where people basically [00:25:00] share a challenge.

People get the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. And then once they've understood the problem, they share experiences they've had. And what amuses me hugely is how really seasoned board members just feel this massive urge to weigh in with advice or what I call quidgestions, which are suggestions dressed up as questions.

And it's just remarkable how difficult it is not to give advice. And I'm curious, actually, to understand how you think about that, walking that line between asking those good questions versus actually sometimes giving people a clear steer because I think your point around staying in your lane resonates so much.

But how do you strike that balance between the question and the advice? 

Shellye Archambeau: I don't know what the company knows. There's no way I can know as much as management knows. Right? So I never say “go do this”. I don't have the content.

But I would say “I strongly consider blah, blah, blah” [00:26:00] right? And here's why. But just see if that's something that might make sense. Right? So that's what I will do. But I never tell, I never give directives, right? Or say you should do this or you should do that. Because people don't have the context. But I do give things that people should consider.

Because frankly, there is some pattern recognition to certain elements, um, certain situations, right, that are being faced, so that’s okay. But 90 percent of what I say are questions, and real questions. 

Oliver Cummings: Yeah, fantastic. Now, just going back to what you were saying earlier and flipping on its head a little bit, you're talking about majoring in an area. Could you think of board members that you work with where there are things that they do that stand out for you where, if you were asked are they any good or who's a good board member?

You would say yes and because of x y and z. What is that x y and z without necessarily [00:27:00] embarrassing any individuals? What are the things that stand out for you as you think about board member performance? 

Shellye Archambeau: I think it's wonderful when board members are able to and do ask questions that truly uncover a way of thinking about something or getting to the heart, right, of the issue. Because that's always a hard thing. You're dealing up here with problems, opportunities, challenges, and we're dealing up here. It's all about how you actually get to the crux, to the roots, right.

When board members are able to actually ask the questions that actually get there, that's, to me, that's always impressive. Because the faster you can do that, the more effective, right, you are in the boardroom itself. And so that comes from a number of places. Which is why I always go back to, [00:28:00] , share what you know, not what you think. 

And when you're really bringing your point, your skill set to it, that you're able to do that and bring a perspective that others hadn't seen or realized.

Oliver Cummings: Super powerful. Share what you know, not what you think. I'm going to take that with me ringing in my ears. I want to move on to talk a little bit about imposter syndrome. Which is one of the things that I regularly hear actually from some of the board members participating in our mastermind groups. 

And I'm always surprised and amazed, but also delighted by it. And I think actually, the more I've seen of it, the more I see it as a hallmark of someone with a growth mindset who's constantly questioning themselves. And it's part of their superpower that they're constantly dissatisfied and uncertain.

Both a blessing and a curse, I guess. Sometimes [00:29:00] difficult, difficult to live with. But it's what gives them that relentless curiosity, but I'm really interested because you've written about this in your book and suggest that, amazingly, you are one of those people who continue to experience it.

Can you bring that to life? Maybe with an example and where you've experienced it badly. 

Shellye Archambeau: I've experienced it throughout my whole career. So, when we talk about boards, let me just give you a couple of examples. Really, here I am talking about every time I do my first board meeting. Well, when I went to my first board interview, I had a great conversation with the CEO. And I knew it was great. And I knew that he was going to be moving me forward.

Because he was the first one, and then you go talk to his head, and on it goes. So, now I'm having a meeting with the... Chair of the board. And I am a little nervous, right? I'm going into this conversation, and I'm stiff, right? And I'm tight, and he's asking me questions, and I'm answering questions, and it's very much an interview.

Well, we're [00:30:00] doing this at dinner, okay? And he finally sits down, and he says, “Relax. This interview is really just about getting to know who you are.” He says, “so let's start again.” So I got lucky. All right, I got lucky because that could have gone very poorly, and he would have left and thought this woman is not ready for prime time. Right. But the good news is I had a phenomenal session with the CEO prior.

I know the CEO would probably have said, “Hey, I really like this person blah, blah, blah, blah.” So he was trying to find that. Right. He was like,”okay, I'm not seeing it for the first 15 minutes. So let's see if we can actually get there.” Anyway, we did. The good news is it wasn't fatal. But it was definitely a real thing. 

So, that was one, and then fast forward, right? So, 43 then, or 42 when I was interviewing. [00:31:00] So, anyway, so fast forward, and I've now just been accepted to the Verizon board, right? And so I'm coming to my first board meeting. And I get ready to walk into the meeting and I look in and there's the CEO of Walgreens.

There is the former head of the SEC. There is the former Secretary of Transportation, right? There is, I'm like, oh my god, right? Oh my god! How am I gonna stand toe to toe with these people? Why are they gonna listen to anything I have to say? How, and all this stuff is just in my mind as I'm literally standing there getting ready to walk in the door.

And it was like, Shelly, get over you're going to be fine. Because the key is we always figure it out. We just have to remember to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. And so I walked in and anyway, they've obviously kept me around on the board for over 10 years now.

Oliver Cummings: I love that. It reminds me of the Amy Cuddy TED [00:32:00] Talk about power poses. I don't know if you've seen that one where she encourages people to be in the bathroom raising their hands saying I'm the best before going into those meetings to reverse the chemistry.

Brilliant. You actually did talk also in your book about this idea, which I love that if people didn't think you belong, they wouldn't have invited you. So even if you don't believe in yourself, believe in them, which I thought was really powerful as a mental model. 

And you also gave a handful of other tips around sort of overcoming imposter syndrome, which included: power dressing, keeping a list of achievements, talking about it, faking it till you make it. I was wondering if you could bring some of those to life with examples of where they have made a difference for you in your board career. 

Shellye Archambeau: People make first impressions before you even open your mouth. So I needed everything that could help with that. That's why the power dressing thing. [00:33:00] And even, to this day, I spoke at an AFTA, they had a senior leadership , the top 150 executives at the company off site. And the CEO asked me to come speak, and so I did. And then he got up afterwards and thanked me.

And he actually mentioned the dress, because in Silicon Valley -  jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, right, whatever. I'll put on a blazer, I'll put on a ride, the whole bit. Um, so even on stage, he's thanking me and saying Shelley's still our best dressed board member. So that's one.

And then , the one about keeping the list. Frankly, it was my late husband who taught me that. And it goes back to actually getting ready to go into these interviews. For Verizon … yes, I've been serving on Arbitron for about seven years, before I got on the Verizon board, but it was like, oh my God! 

And he's the one who's like, Shelly, and he's just like, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, right, in terms of all the things, and, yeah, you're right, and that's why I encourage [00:34:00] people. I didn't do it, he did it for me. But I think it's really helpful to help you just build that confidence to believe you can do it.

And then, the last one, which is to fake it till you make it. And what I mean by that is fake the confidence. I don't mean fake what you don't know. I mean fake the confidence. Because as I was saying earlier, And this one I use all the time. Um, as I was saying earlier, if you think about it, each of you listening, eventually you always figure it out.

Oliver Cummings: I love that. Super powerful. We recently wrote an article about bystander syndrome. So this idea where witnesses won't help a crime victim where they're, when they're part of a crowd of onlookers, because they don't feel personal responsibility. And it's not until someone points to them and says, “Hey, you come and help me now” that then a person will come forward.

And then the whole group follows. And in my experience, board members sometimes don't raise obvious [00:35:00] points for similar reasons, and I've seen this in our Mastermind Groups where people say, well, there's this really obvious elephant in the room and no one else is raising it, so I assume there must be a reason for that, so I'm not going to raise it either.

Do you have any tips for boards looking to create spaces in which that sort of mindset, sort of bystander syndrome or imposter syndrome, is minimized? For individuals. 

Shellye Archambeau: So one of the, um, exercises. That, um, started doing on one of my boards, and it's so effective that I've brought it to other boards. And that is during the exec session, right, at the end, you literally go around the room, instead of doing the general, which is, okay, anyone have a topic for the exec session, right?

And the chair or the lead director will typically have one or two things throughout and say anybody else had anything. Instead of doing that, actually, it's structured. Go around the room, and everyone shares, [00:36:00] , the two or three things. That excites them as a result of the meeting, right, that they're up to that paper crinkle book and then two or three things that they want to learn more about, or they're a little concerned about, or the right, so share three, , two or three, doesn't, it's not a fixed number, it's kind of what it is, but by doing that, number one, everybody knows they're going to be doing it.

So through the meeting, they're kind of jotting down, okay, what are those things, right, that I've got, and then when we go through the wrap up, In insurance, everybody has a voice, so it's not like you have to break in. You have a term,  it's coming, it's scheduled, and therefore you want to share what's this and what's that, and typically that helps bring out the elephants under the table. So, it works very well

Oliver Cummings: I really love that, thank you. One last thing I wanted to talk about before we move on to the lightning round, is this idea of swerving that you touched on in your book. The whole [00:37:00] section I called swerve. This idea of accepting when you might not be able to achieve your original goals via your original plans, reassessing and repositioning, and it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite books by Annie Duke called Thinking.

in bets. And she's also sort of talked about this concept of knowing when to quit versus the sort of the Angela Duckworth grit. The traditional wisdom is to just keep going and plowing on. Whereas Annie Duke talks about the difference between professional poker players and amateur poker players, is they're really good at knowing when to fold.

They only play 20 percent of their hands versus 50 percent of their hands. And I'm curious to hear how you think about that, because a lot of those looking, particularly those looking to get their first board role will often encounter what they perceive as failure in the first attempt. They don't get their first board role and they're used to having these stellar executive careers.

And so sometimes the mindset is, well, what was I thinking? Why did I go for that? Of course, I'm not right [00:38:00] for it. And then don't. go again. So I'm curious to understand how you think about that. , when to swerve, when to quit versus when, when to grit. 

Shellye Archambeau: I do it based on goal setting and plans. So in setting goals, if the goal is, it can be audacious, but reasonable, because you've done, I say reasonable meaning you've done the homework and realized, okay, I should be able to go do this, um, then keep the goal the same, right? So I mean, a personal example, I've, I wanted to be a CEO.

I have wanted to be a CEO since I was 16. I joined IBM with the idea of being CEO of IBM. And I got to the point after 14 years where I was running a multi billion dollar division. My boss reported to Blue Burster, the CEO. There wasn't anyone higher than me in the organization that looked like me. Uh, I'm doing well, I've expressed well, it's one of the earliest executives names, I was the first black woman to go on an overseas executive assignment, right?

I mean, all these things. Um, but[00:39:00] there were too many signs that I just felt, I don't think I'm going to get a chance to actually compete for the CEO role. So I could have done two things, right? One, well, I'll just give up on the CEO role. No. No. I still wanted to be a CEO. Maybe I just wasn't going to do it at IBM.

So that means changing the plan. So keep the goal, change the plan. And so I changed the plan. Which said, okay, I'll leave IBM. I'll work my way. I was in tech. Silicon Valley's hot. Right? Work my way to Silicon Valley. Um, eventually, and that's where I became. In terms of a CEO. So, to me, that is a... A grit thing in terms of the goal is still achievable.

I just have to figure out a different plan to get there. Now, sometimes you actually have to change the goal. And that could be because, number one, you've decided what, I set that goal, but it's really not what I want to do. Now that I've gotten closer to it, that happened. Um, or two, The cost is more, I mean the cost generally speaking, but that cost is more than you're willing to pay, [00:40:00] and that's okay too.

 Then change the policy. Hold your hand, right? Wait for the next chance. But create and pick a new one, that you're always working towards something.

Oliver Cummings: Brilliant. Shelley, that has been so inspiring, I feel like I need to go back and re-listen to all of this again and take all my notes down. It's time though to move on to the lightning round where I'm going to say a short statement and ask you for a short response if you're ready. 

Shellye Archambeau: Okay, I'm ready.

Oliver Cummings: So first up, the boardroom behavior that irritates you most. 

Shellye Archambeau: When people go down a rabbit hole for just personal curiosity or to just show how smart they are

Oliver Cummings: I love that. Best book every board member should read and why? 

Shellye Archambeau: Think Again by Adam Grant because he really talks about just broadening our aperture of how we think, digest and kind of live in the world and I think that's just perfect for sitting on board. 

Oliver Cummings: I love Adam Grant - he's one of my [00:41:00] favorite podcasters. Favorite quote and why? 

Shellye Archambeau: People will forget what you said. People who forget what you did But people will never forget how you made them feel, by Maya Angelou 

Oliver Cummings: your most significant professional insight? 

Shellye Archambeau: . Go back to the calendar. Make sure your calendar reflects your priorities.

Oliver Cummings: Brilliant. And the worst professional advice you've ever received. 

Shellye Archambeau: Just work hard and things will work out.

Oliver Cummings: And last but not least three things that our listeners should take away from this podcast if they take nothing else away. 

Shellye Archambeau: Number one, be intentional. It's your career. Own it. Two, and we talked about this, which is to pick a major. Be known for something. And then three is when you're in the boardroom, remember, you're there to support, encourage, and yes, govern management. But you're not giving them a test. Make sure you're [00:42:00] doing the right job around supporting them too

Oliver Cummings: brilliant. Wow. That has been such a privilege. Thank you so much. We spend our time looking at how we can build better boards and there's some shocking data actually around how great boards can increase the return on resources by, I think it's more than 30%, but fewer than a quarter of execs rate their board as excellent.

And it's wonderful seeing and meeting and having the opportunity to talk to someone like you and seeing actually what really great can look like and I can see exactly why all those boards are so lucky to have you. So thank you so much for taking the time to share all your insights and wisdom with us today.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Shellye on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Show notes

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