How to Speak Up and Stand Your Ground in the Boardroom, with Steve Albrecht
The key to long-term success in the boardroom.
Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t going to be easy. It is essential to voice thoughts and concerns as a board director, even if you are the only one. We’re examining the root of Steve Albrecht’s success in the boardroom, and how he owes it to being true to himself.
Steve has served on 10 corporate boards–four public companies and 6 large private companies. He has served as board chair, lead independent director, member of both nomination/governance and compensation committees and has chair the audit committees of every board he has served on. He helped negotiate the sale of SunPower Corp. to Total, Red Hat to IBM and Cypress SemiConductor to Infineon, all at record premiums. He holds a Ph.D. and is a CPA, CIA and CFE. Prior to serving on boards, Steve was an expert witness in many large financial statement fraud cases. He was a professor at the University of Illinois. Stanford and Brigham Young University.
In today’s episode, Steve reflects on his impressive experience in the boardroom and key decisions where he stood out and set his career apart. You won’t want to miss this episode of Boardroom Bound!
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Boardroom bound episode 118 cultural development and acceptance in the business world with Beth
Hello, and welcome to this episode of boardroom bound. My name is Alexander Lowry, and this is the podcast dedicated to intentional leadership in the boardroom. My goal is to give aspiring and existing directors, the tips, tactics, and strategies necessary to transform your confidence and build a successful career. As a board director. Quick reminder, you can get all of today’s show email@example.com. And in today’s episode, we’re speaking with Beth Albright. She is a chief HR officer by background, and we are seeing more and more of that skillset being placed into the boardroom. And that alone would be a great reason to talk about that on today’s episode, but even better is during this pandemic crisis, Beth has gotten placed under first public company board. And so she’s going to peel back the onion, share what that’s actually like, not only being placed on a board, but what has been like during these turbulent times, this is a very honest and transparent episode, and I’m excited to share it with you. Let’s jump into it.
Beth Albright. Welcome to the boardroom bound podcast.
Thank you, Alexander is great to be here.
Well, there are many reasons I’m excited to have you on the show today. One is we all know that the world has changed quite a bit in the board space has to, and in my opinion, there was already a trend where we were seeing more chief HR officers being asked to join boards. And I think that’s a very good thing. And I think from what everyone I’ve talked to in the board space, ed has exacerbated that trend has accelerated because of the pandemic. So having you on the show and talking through your back on your experiences and what you’ve gone through during this time, becoming a new board member to company will be really insightful for audience, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of my skis, which I usually tend to do here. I’d like to start out for our audience to understand your background, your experience, and how you got to where you are today before we dive into some of those stories.
Okay. well I’ll, I’ll go all the way back. I started college as a physics major and ended up finding my way into labor industrial relations, which is a union management which is actually a much better fit for me. And my first job out of school, I was in the construction industry. So you’ll, you’ll notice a theme of my career kind of being in a non-traditional role. So I was in construction as labor industrial relations. I actually was assigned to the field. So I was out in the construction field for a floor Daniel, which at the time was the world’s largest non-union construction company. And so it was a great experience. Unfortunately in the second year of my marriage, I traveled 264 days, and then they went to the downsize and they said, that’s, we’re going to keep you.
And I said, I can’t live this life anymore. So so I quit and and then I came over to HR and you know, we, we used to think HR did the boring stuff. You know, the comp the benefits, the hiring and labor relations did, you know, organizing attempts, unions, situations, tickets, injunctions. But I came over to HR and I started in chemical manufacturing and that’s kind of where I built my career in chemical manufacturing at a unionized site from there, I moved into corporate. And then and then from corporate moved companies and was put on the global stage as nature, a global HR business partner. And I kind of grew up in my one company from, and ha’s I had seven jobs in nine years. So it was a wonderfully progressive, although not planful career and then Dow bought Rohm and Haas.
And I was asked to help put these two monolithic companies together and lead the HR integration of that of that integration of that merger. And it gave me exposure to the highest levels in, in the company. And I decided I did not want to work for the new company. So I resigned again, and I became the head of HR for a company that had recently gone into a private equity portfolio. So I became the head of HR of a private equity company. They were rebuilding the organization where the company was going bankrupt and the PE to did a debt to equity swap, took them private. I was the entire executive team CEO, CFO, head of HR business unit leaders. And we were brought in to rebuild the company. So so you’ll see there’s, this transformation starts to emerge as a, as a theme for me and did that for a little bit and then got contacted by a family owned and operated company.
And I went and I worked for them. And from there I was contacted by DuPont. They were getting ready to spin a company public. And they asked me when I was lucky enough, I would say to be hired as a chief HR officer for this soon to be new company. So I joined Dow in that capacity. And about eight months after joining, we spun the company into its own standalone private company. We had to unwind a whole bunch of stuff because that was very long tenured, a lot of customized systems and processes. And we knew that that wasn’t going to make our new companies successful. So rebuilt, rebuilt this new company. And within two and a half years, three years of spinning, we were named at the fortune 500, which was fantastic. And I decided that I wanted to do a change. And so at that point, I left corporate America and started entering into, I guess, the gig economy and you know, started focusing on boards and consulting and we started a family foundations. So that’s my 30 plus year career in a nutshell.
And what we did cover in there is during this time, when you are a CHR and obviously doing it for a fortune 500 company is a great story to have, but even before you got that role, you were on the board of Crozer Keystone health system. And it sounded like that was about a dozen, maybe 13 Baker’s dozen years. And tell us about that because it was a very interesting story.
Yeah. So so yeah, I started actually, my very first board was probably back in 2004. I had gone through this program called leadership leadership Inc. And part of that is to help people prepare to be on nonprofit boards and volunteer boards. And so I had started being on boards and I got contacted by a recruiter actually for Crozier Keystone health system. It was a large health system in the area that we live at a five hospitals, three ambulatory centers and several specialty centers like burner and, and sleep centers. And had been on the board for several years. And what we were finding is that community hospitals, the nonprofit hospital community hospitals were actually dying because the industry was consolidating. And I was me and two, three other people from the board were asked to be on a strategic strategic planning subcommittee to look at these strategic options for the hospital system.
And what we came up with is we determined that it was best to sell the hospital system to a for-profit in order to actually say that. And so we went through that process of finding a buyer vetting it. And of course we, we pass this before the full board, but we were the ones who get really spearheaded it, of course, with the CEO. And eventually we did sell it in 2015 and then myself and a couple of other people stayed on the subcommittee stayed on to deal with the quite the tail end of stuff. Like what do you do to go from a nonprofit to a profit? How do you true up the costs? We did that through a foundation and there was some legal battles, but but it was a large hospital system, very complex. And I’m actually thrilled that it is still fully operational and continues to thrive today.
Well, that is a good story to be able to tell it that ends on a good note. And you’re probably one of the few board members that voted yourself out of office. Right? You don’t see that very often, but it’s a reminder that you are there for the shareholders, the stakeholders you are trying to do the right thing, not looking out for yourself as number one, so kudos to you for exemplifying that.
Thank you. Yeah, it was important because it’s actually the largest employer in the County at the time. I don’t know if it still is, but it probably is. So there were a lot of, a lot of entities, you know, shareholders, employees that are relying on this hospital system to survive you know, for their livelihood. And I think that’s really important that the board members, you know, we’ve got to do what’s right. And what’s best for all shareholders and stakeholders in an entity.
And you have a different type of experience now that you’re on your newest boards. Maybe you can tell us about that.
Yeah. So I joined a public board in may of 2020, and it’s been very interesting to join during a pandemic because the, because because management and the board is trying to figure out what, what are we, what are we doing at while I’m trying to figure out the company and build relationships with the new with my, my, my peers. And so the first two meetings I were in were actually over the phone. They weren’t even video and we didn’t go to video until until I think my third meeting and that includes them on the comp committee meeting with our comp committee, which you can imagine it was, it was an interesting process. Now I will tell you though, that the lead director of this board of darling is phenomenal and the process to get on the board. Can I talk about the process a little bit?
Okay. So the process to get on the board is there was a job posting and one of the organizations that I belong to, you know, had it available to their members. And I posted to it, but I didn’t know the company and it was actually a third party posting. So as it turns out, it was actually through NACD, which I think prime, many of your members are familiar with that organization. So I, I submitted kind of blindly to this very generic job posting. I got a call from NACD. It was a little awkward cause I had no idea why they were calling me, even though I was a member. And then I realized, Oh, this is the job posting the third-party job posting. So I would say that call happened somewhere around somewhere around March of 2019 a member I joined in may of 2020. So it probably to give you the timeline from the first call to the, Hey, you’re one of the finalists it took till about July. And then interestingly enough, they said you know, we want you to talk to the lead director, which I did. I passed to the, to the final, final candidates. They brought down three and I was informed that they were bringing me, which has an HR background. They were bringing down a person who had a finance background and they were bringing down a person who had a cybersecurity background.
Clearly this board has no idea what, and then I thought, well, they don’t choose me. Then it’ll be okay because clearly they didn’t want an HR person, not me.
So I flew down sometime in August. I got very positive feedback. Immediately. They wanted me to come back down and meet with the management team, which happened in September. And then I thought we’re good. And I talked to the lead director. He goes, you’re our gal. We’re good. We’re going to bring you on, but we’re going to bring you on in the proxy season. So I was very nervous because a lot can happen from September until may. But the reality is because it was going to go into the proxy. The proxies are developed somewhere around February, you know, to get out to the shareholders, to vote before the, the annual meeting. So it shortened the timeframe. But in that time they did so many good things. They assigned me two board buddies. They were there’s 10 people on the board.
I was actually the fourth woman. There were two women who both lived in Fort Myers. They flew me down and I had lunch with these with these two ladies, they had been on the board one only two years, one about five years. And so I could ask them any questions, kind of like inside questions. And, and it gave me kind of a safe place to go. And you know, like for example, Oh, you know, are we allowed to fly first class when we go to the board meetings? I don’t know that these are the types of questions. And tell me what it’s like to work with the management team. Tell me what it’s like to work with the lead director, et cetera. So I had my board buddies, they helped me with a lot of details and logistics. I was also able to visit a site, one of their larger men, one of their larger processing plants before I joined. So of course find NDA and all that stuff, but it gave me time in which to really do some onboarding that you don’t necessarily have the luxury to do before you join the board. And then they sent me a whole bunch of information that again, I had time in which to digest. So by the time I was voted onto the board, which I have to tell you, it was quite unceremonious.
I don’t know what I expected. I don’t know if I expected like fanfare, but it was just in the course of the, of of a phone annual meeting, which was new because we were already into the pandemic. So all the face-to-face meetings were canceled. So it was over the phone. It was you know, many, any opposing votes, the votes had already been cast to the proxy. So it was really just kind of very quick and simple. So I was like, huh, okay. It was a big deal, but not so much on the phone. And and then I, and then I started joining meetings. So that timeline was quite long, but it did allow me a really nice foundation in which to start
Well, kudos to Darlene ingredients for having a really robust onboarding experience. And I’m going to guess that might’ve been slightly different, not in the pandemic, but it sounds like either way, intentional and thoughtful and not every organization does that. So that’s a great thing. And you’re embodying that, that you can, you can, you can experience that positivity and it they’ll let you be successful and be set up. And you’re, you’re, you’re highlighting that would in many cases, most people want to do it. I’m ready to jump right in. Let me start now. And I’m sure you said they sent you some materials, probably like a thousand pages, like a typical board packs. You could get used to it, to the fact you had a lot of time to be prepared and be ready is really good. And I would love since we’ve, we’ve talked about your background experience from an HR experts perspective, as you think about boards, and I’m sure you’ll be on other boards in the future. And if they were turning to you and say, you know, Beth help us think about the right way that we should be building and designing our onboarding processes. How would you describe what you think people should be doing?
Well, I, I love the idea of the board buddy, because there are, you know, even though I was a, a C-suite executive, there are a lot of questions you have that you almost feel silly asking and having a safe place in which to go and ask those questions was, was very good. So ha having like that board buddy, the safe place and someone to look out for you because the lead director that, you know, they’ve have a lot of stuff to, to work on, but, you know, kudos to Lee director. Also, he calls me before and after every meeting, at least he has so far, it’s probably going to stop soon. Just to check in, am I, am I ready for the meeting? Any questions? And then how do you think the meeting went? And you know, so, so they’re, they’re very attuned to helping, helping me inculturate.
And so that would be one of the biggest things is at the end of the day, while board members are still very smart business people, they’re still human beings. And you know, that that feeling of inclusion, I think makes a huge difference because then they can find their voice quicker and they also learn the nuances want to be independent, but you also want to understand the nuances of the boards so that you can be as effective as possible because if you step on landmines or you do the nuances poorly you’re not going to be an effective board member.
Very true. And I’d also love to circle back to the laugh that we had about the three finalist candidates and how different they were now, maybe it was industry experience or something like that. I’m sure your HR mindset was sort of waiting. I can’t wait to get into board and actually find out what the story was and figure this out. And without sort of, you know, relieving releasing trade secrets, do you still feel the same way about an hour? Is there a very clear, intentional plan? Because I think for many of us, we’re kind of wondering what is going on inside the boardroom. How are they deciding these sorts of things? It’s a black box.
Yeah. So I was very interested and I didn’t ask them until I was actually confirmed to the board on the slate of candidates. And I think what they said is they were, they were looking more for, well not, I don’t think this is what the lead director told me. They, they knew that they wanted these three areas. They were okay with these three areas. Honestly, they really wanted more in the HR because it was a skill gap on the board. And, but what they were looking for was someone that they felt would be the best fit. And somebody that they felt could come onto the board and connect with the existing board members and the management. And, and so they were looking more for style and they said, we’re looking for style first. And then we want the hard skills in one of these three areas because we can always shore it up in one of these three areas. So they were actually looking for style. They liked me, you know, Sally fields. They really liked me.
Well, it’s interesting because culture and fit to me is always what differentiates the final candidates on paper. They’re all winners and they’re all going to be a good fit. But if you’ve made that final round where you’re meeting with everyone at the end of the day, now you’re the chief HR officer. I’ll let you speak to this form, the formal perspective, and maybe how someone puts their best foot forward to show that they’re maybe the head and shoulders above the other final candidates. But that is hopefully what both sides are looking for. To me, it’s like dating. You want to make sure it’s a good fits. You can both be successful in it, but how would you go about it and describe it to others?
Yes. So I, I totally agree with you, Alexander. It is about fit and it is both ways you don’t want to join a board that that you don’t feel like you can be included or that you is, you know, everybody wants to be on the 18th course. So you have to ask the questions and I would say the way to prepare for is, is you have to know the business. You have to know the company that you are interviewing for. And even if it’s outside your industry, there’s so much information in the proxy and the, in the annual report in you know, on their website, you know, in their investor decks, there’s so much information and you, you better do your homework. You don’t have to do the homework on yourself because you know, what your experiences are. I would recommend that you write down kind of like five or six key attributes about yourself that you want to make sure that you weave in when you talk to the recruiters and the board and management team, just kind of like if you were to put down five or six bullets, like this represents who I am, and I’m sure whatever you have in your bio or your profile is really where your bullets would come from.
But but then it’s about being prepared. I did a lot of research on on the company. I wasn’t asked too many specific things, but the one question I was asked is, you know, what are your concerns and about the organization? And I said, it’s a very capital intensive organization. And I only know that because I had done my research and that, you know, and, and it wasn’t about the company. It was just like, it was, it’s a high capital, and that comes with a different type of profiles. So that told them that I had kind of gone through information and synergized it into, you know, some, some key points. So, so you have to prepare you can’t just waltz in and expect that your experiences are going to speak for themselves.
That makes a lot of sense. And now that you are in a, we’ll call it a sort of a weird world of the board, right? You’re on a public company board, but your first, they were just phone and at least now you have video options and someday there might actually be some face-to-face around it.
I think October
That the boardroom is changing and in lots of ways, right? If we put our HR hat on, let’s call it diversity in all its different forms are showing up in the boardroom, which is a wonderful thing. And adding this Nordic technology element. And so when Beth, when you look into the future, it could be the near term and the longterm. How are you thinking of the boardrooms going to be continuing to, to change and evolve?
I think, I think that we’re going to, we’re going to move further away, further away from just pure governance and finance. And I think you have to, and I think that the pandemic has really raised that up. I mean, there are so many more risks, you know, ESG is, is, you know, rising up, you know, reputational risk, how you behave the, the, the role of social media, all of that now have become board level discussions and concerns. Whereas before it was, you know, governance like strong governance, operations you know, being a business leader and understanding operations and finance, but now the complexity of the organizations, the complexity of the, that have gone up to the board and also the cycle time of, of issues. I mean, you think about this pandemic. We probably hadn’t heard about it until started hearing rumblings, maybe early February, mid February, and by March 12th, which was Thursday, March 12th, things were shutting down the NBA the day before I shut down, like everything shut down in my world on March 12th and I think most everybody’s world.
And so the cycle time of one month from, Hey, there’s this thing out there. And yeah, we’ve know, we’ve got some cruise ships that got us from over in the Asia to the U S shutting down was so acute. And you had so many organizations are like, now, what do we do? We haven’t done this before. And it became poor level. So I think the boards of the future really have to understand, you know, like the growing social activism that that’s, that’s going on. Cause you know, the, the, the exponential changes in, in like, you know, the digital space and the geopolitical space. I mean, these are big thinking, things that I don’t think in the past has been. So key to being a good board member and, and, and issues that you have to deal with.
I’d also like to talk about more of your background experience. I’m sure the board was lamenting, Oh my gosh, I wish we’d had Beth on board before the proxy. We could really use that HR expertise. It’s a skill gap. We we’ve never thought about our peoples the way we have now. I mean, do we stop the, having offices altogether for the most part and scatter more people around the different places? I imagine this is accelerating the trend of more and more respect, almost demand for that sort of expertise to be up in the boardroom. Can you speak to a representative of all of your people in those HR expertise space about, you know, the, the value that they’re bringing?
Yeah. Well, I don’t, I don’t know if I can speak for all of them, but I do love the function. And I think, I think, well, it’s, it’s about time, right? Because you think about boards, in my opinion, you think about boards and what some of their key responsibilities have been CEO succession, right. Which is all about executive management development you know, equity compensation, there’s an entire committee around compensation culture. These are things that in in a company reside under the umbrella of HR HR owns compensation, HR owns succession and development, talent development, performance management, you know, and, and, and yet in the boardroom, they didn’t have HR representative. And that’s always confused. Me actually was at a a function up NASDAQ probably about a year and a half ago. And I, and I was able to ask why, why don’t you see more HR people if culture CEO, succession, you know equity compensation, executive comp are so key to what boards pay attention to, why don’t you see more HR people?
And I didn’t get really good answer. But I think at the end of the day, it’s because HR still has a ways to go to be a business partner that, that, and I tell my, my HR folks all the time, you have to speak the language of business, the language of businesses, numbers, a lot of HR, people don’t like numbers as much. They go in there cause they’re, you know, they’re, they’re more on the, the the softer skills, but at the end of the day, it is about business. It is about making sure everything fits together. So I think that, I think that there are some amazing HR leaders that does that should be on boards and can really add value. I also think that the HR function as a whole needs to continue to evolve and and really learned to speak the language of business. I think that’s one of the things that has helped me is I’m a very strong HR practitioner, but I’m an even stronger business person.
Well, I think that makes sense and that’s good advice for all of us. And when I try to think about how we encapsulate the story that you shared today and your, your own experience, maybe you can try to leave us on a high note here as a takeaway for audience about, can you tell us your top tip for someone seeking their first paid board seat?
Be very clear on what your talk track is in your, in your career. There are several things that there are several things that you’ve done, and it is hard. His really, it was hard for me. Let me just only speak about myself. It was really hard for me to kind of summarize what value I brought to the board, the hardest piece for me. And it took me, honestly, it took me probably 10 to 13 months of continual iterations and revisions to move away from my HR world to something that was more at the governance and strategic level. So what I mean by that is I was very proud of all the stuff that I had done. But at the end of the day, nobody cares that I put talent management programs in every region of the world. Nobody cares about that.
It’s like, that’s nice. What they do care is that I am attuned to culture and how organizations are wired together. So I had to shed my HR hat, which I was very proud of because it was my, it was my career and, and, and change my lens to one of more governance of asking right questions as opposed to the operational mindset that I was in. So I would say the biggest advice I would have is be very clear on how you want to position yourself and challenge yourself as how you present. When you talk to people that you are not stuck in the operational framing that you are more at the governance, ask the right questions and guidance level. Because at the end of the day, that’s where the value is when you come on to the board,
Beautifully said, well, Beth, I appreciate your honesty and transparency today and sharing your wild ride journey. There are lots of good stories. I’ll call it coming out of the pandemic in this different business world. And I think you’ve got a great one. We can clearly understand the value. You’re bringing this board and good decision by Darlington to bring you on. And we were delighted to have you on the show today. Thank you for sharing your insights and helping all of us to be boardroom bound.
Thank you, Alexander. It was a pleasure to be here. And if I may just add one more, because it was all face to face. I reached out to every single board member and asked for a personal video conference with them which I did early on because you can feign ignorance. And just to build the relationship, I got a lot of information, but it was more about building relationships. So that was B the other tip I would, I would tell people is when you are on your first board, reach out and, and start to build personal, even if you’re not able to do it face to face. So anyways, I hope that everybody listening is boardroom bound.
Thank you bet. That’s it. For this episode of boardroom bound, I really enjoyed chatting with Beth Albright. It was really insightful to hear about her experience being placed on the board and the unique opportunities that she’s had, but also what it’s been like for her being placed at our first public company board during very strange times and what that experience has been like and the best practices come out of it and heard guidance for all of us to position ourselves successfully, to make our board dreams come true. If we think about it that way. Now, remember if you head over to firstname.lastname@example.org, you’ll find links to all today’s resources, and please know that the boardroom bound team and I are so proud to be your go-to podcast, for all things that connect, prepare, and empower you to land a board seat. You sure to subscribe to this podcast, you don’t miss any of the high quality content that we’re bringing to you every Wednesday. Thanks for joining me today. I can’t wait to share more stories and strategies from brilliant business minds with you again, next week. Remember to keep tuning in, to be boardroom Beth [inaudible].