Priming the Pump: Building Your Skills for Board Service

Last week, members of the CLUB gathered to hear from a panel of accomplished Board Directors. The topics ranged from what are the key skills needed to serve (and that depends on the kind of Board); to the potential risks that come with serving.

L to R: CLUB Panelists Carly Alameda, Linda Graebner, Nola Masterson, and moderator Olga Mack

An important theme for The CLUB is how we can support more women to be invited to serve on Boards. CLUB member Olga Mack is leading an initiative called Women Serve on Boards @BoardsWomen ‏ which addresses the ‘demand’ side of the process. This is entails lobbying the Boards of large American corporations to include more women on their Board of Directors.

The seminar focused on the other side of the coin, the ‘supply’ side: — preparing a pipeline of experienced women to take up Board positions.

Thanks to Jamie Kitano for these notes. The panelists were:

Olga Mack @OlgaVMack — moderator. Olga is General Counsel at San Francisco-based start up ClearSlide.

Nola Masterson — trained as a scientist, medical science; love of science and interest in teaching people about science led her into sales. Started her own firm, Science Futures, in the 1980’s; went to Wall Street as an analyst to find out what makes stocks change in price. Founded Sequenom in 1993 and sat on the Board because she was CEO. Sequenom had an investor in Europe that was uncomfortable with a woman being on the board, and Nola said she would replace herself with a man if they would invest their $50M! Investors in Sequenom asked Nola to open their San Francisco office to help them raise their 5th fund; and was able to sit on the Boards of start-ups that she invested in. Nola got an offer from a publicly traded company based in Houston who wanted a woman on their Board; she was a little reluctant to join because it wasn’t a terribly prestigious company at the time; they really wanted her for her financial and pharmaceutical expertise — however she is still on this board 12 years later! Nola tries to help young entrepreneurs with the things she never got help with when she was coming up.

Nola said that she has a lot of fun on boards, but it is a lot of soft and hard work (hiring and firing CEOs is hard).

Linda Greabner — started working as a consultant after getting her MBA at Stanford. She got tired of giving advice that wasn’t listened to, so went in-house to two different large companies in sales and marketing. Linda was part of the team that first made salad in bags! Today Linda spends a lot of time mentoring women. Linda has been on a total of 14 Boards, two of her own — and two that were public, and had real challenges. Private boards have been more fun because you can dig in and get involved. Family-owned company Boards are the most challenging; Linda has been on three of these.

Carly Alameda — is a litigation partner at Farella Braun. A few years ago a friend of Carly’s who was on a private Board reached out to her to see if she was interested in sitting on his Board; he knew Carly, trusted her judgment, and though her skill set would complement the current Board. Thought it sounded interesting but she wasn’t sure what the role would really entail. Carly really loved learning about the company and industry. It’s relatively unusual for Lawyers to be welcomed onto Boards.

What skills did you bring to Board service that were helpful?

Nola — knowledge of how you put a scientific advisory Board together; fundraising is also important for private equity backed Boards; bringing people to the company that can help the company

Linda — important to come into the Board with a certain perspective of what the Board’s boundaries are, you’re an advice giver/consultant but not decision makers; Board members make two key decisions: 1) hiring/firing the CEO and 2) approving corporate strategy without getting into the details. Board members are there to oversee the company for the shareholders; having CEO experience is helpful, CEOs want the Board’s help, not for them to second-guess the CEO’s decisions

Carly — lawyer skills of identifying client needs, goals, path, challenges, strengths and figuring out how to diplomatically get the client to get to the right next step; ability to listen to client and understand needs/goals and translate that into an action

Risks — What are the risks of being on a board, what should you consider before joining a board, how can you minimize potential damage to your reputation?

Linda — doesn’t see a lot of risk in joining a Board, any risk is reputational risk; check with each Board you’re currently on, before joining a new Board to make sure there are no conflicts. Linda prefers private Boards more than public Boards, tends not to do start-ups but rather mid-stage companies whether she can dive into the issues facing the company

Nola — the risk on a public Board is that of being sued, make sure there is enough D&O insurance to cover lawsuits (but this can alsohappen on private and non-profit Boards, just less likely); don’t necessarily resign if you see something problematic, try to convince the rest of the Board to take corrective action (e.g., a CEO that is lying to everyone about something, who needs to be fired); finds it easier to be on a public Board because you have oversight.

Carly — have a conversation with your employer (if applicable) about joining a Board to help manage their perception of any risk involved in you joining a Board


Public Boards pay directors. Private Boards may or may not pay directors; and non-profit Boards don’t pay. Also with non-profit Boards — you’re usually asked to be a fundraiser for the non-profit.

ABOUT THE CLUB: The Women’s CLUB of Silicon Valley is a leadership incubator for San Francisco Bay Area women who wish to accelerate their careers. We are a close-knit community We know and help each other in our individual leadership development. Collectively we grow talent through high-impact programs, networking and support. Apply to join!