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Editor’s Note: This conversation is a part of our ongoing “Future State Of” series. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Corporate boards are making more crucial decisions than ever, as they work to help manage risk and set companies up to win in the future economy. Few people understand that dynamic better than Shellye Archambeau, the former CEO of Silicon Valley risk management software firm MetricStream, and a current board member on a number of major companies, including Verizon and Nordstrom. Taher Behbehani, GM and SVP of Samsung B2B, sits down with Archambeau, author of a newly released book, “Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms,” to discuss how boards are operating in a marketplace affected by COVID-19 and how Silicon Valley has changed during her time in the tech sector.
Taher Behbehani: Hi Shellye, thanks so much for your time and insights today. You’re on a number of boards of very impressive companies. What has been going on in these boards in response to the current crises?
Shellye Archambeau: Boards are focused on governance and risk management, so we spend a lot of time looking at risk and mitigation plans. But no one had as a risk that the economy would suddenly shut down and that everybody would have to go home and not move. So, I don’t fault anyone for missing this particular risk. Frankly, I thought everybody has responded very well. Initially, leaders had to make sure employees were safe, that customers were safe and that companies could continue to operate. We had to understand our cash position. And everyone responded as you would expect in terms of that overall focus.
And then it shifted pretty quickly and became focused on strategy. Because the kinds of changes we’re going through right now are impacting people. They’re impacting buyer behavior, they’re impacting habits. And whenever you have situations like these, trends in general tend to accelerate. And we’re seeing that. Suddenly videoconferencing went from being less than 10 percent to probably 80 percent of how communications are happening. Trends have gone from taking years to all of a sudden happening in a matter of months. Which means we’re in a time of big disruption, and with disruption comes risk. But with risk comes a lot of opportunity. I always like to say, risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin.
TB: Are the boards you’re on meeting more or less often?
SA: Since the beginning of March, I’ve had more board meetings than I had all of last year. So yes, we’re meeting a lot!
TB: What are the leadership traits you see in your companies that the executive team needs to be enhancing?
SA: If you look at managing global operations — especially during heightened change and major disruption — there are several leadership skills that are so important. One is the ability to be clear. Clarity of communications, clarity of focus, clarity in terms of setting overall priorities. Because when so much change is happening all at once, if a leader isn’t clear about what is critical to the business going forward, then there is a lot of wasted energy.
The second aspect of leadership that I think is important is empathy. Right now, employees across the board are stressed, and there are mental health challenges as people try to figure out how to operate in this upside-down world. So, leadership right now without empathy is a dangerous place to be. Because when employees can make a change, they will. And we all know that we’re in a talent shortage. Now’s the time for empathetic leaders.
TB: You were one of the first African American CEOs to run a tech business in Silicon Valley. What has changed, and what’s going on now in Silicon Valley?
SA: In some ways, Silicon Valley has changed a bit, and in some ways it hasn’t changed. When I first arrived in Silicon Valley, I was shocked at how little racial diversity actually existed. I always thought that because Silicon Valley is innovative, fast-paced and leaning forward that diversity would be part of it, too. So, that was a shock.
Today, there are absolutely more African American and Hispanic founders of companies than there were back then. Are there as many as there should be? No. Are they getting as much support as they should be getting? No. Do they get as much visibility? No. So, in some ways we’ve improved. But we haven’t actually created an environment in which they are able to succeed at the rates that they should be. I do think today there is more intent to make changes than there has ever been. And for that, I am cautiously optimistic.
TB: What gives you hope when you look around in terms of diversity?
SA: There are probably three main things. One is the fact that for the first time we are actually talking about race. Race was one of those things that was taboo to discuss. It was so taboo that it wasn’t even mentioned as one of the taboo topics. So, the fact that we’re talking about it is good.
Number two, if you look at the people who are protesting, writing about it, advocating, making their voices heard, they represent the entire country. The diversity of the people who are out there wanting to see change represents and reflects the country. That wasn’t the case before, either.
And third, businesses are actually engaging and really leaning into this issue. And again, this is the first time. They sat on the sidelines during the Civil Rights Movement. So those three aspects of change is why I’m cautiously hopeful.
TB: If you look at the workforce in the companies that you are involved with, how do you think it will shift in the near future?
SA: I think companies are realizing that a lot of the roles that they thought had to be at headquarters, don’t have to be. And what that’s going to do is open up a whole other set of talent. Because if I can actually leverage talent for certain skill sets wherever it happens to be, versus it having to be right in my backyard, it actually expands the pool. Which I think is good for the country.
TB: Tell me about your new book, “Unapologetically Ambitious.” What inspired you to write it?
SA: I wanted to share the lessons, tactics and approaches I’ve learned and the things I used to achieve what I have. It’s a book about how to get what you want out of life professionally and personally by being intentional. By setting goals and putting plans in place to achieve those goals. By making choices and strategic trade-offs. By overcoming impostor syndrome. By learning how to work with challenging bosses. The book is very practical and tangible. If you don’t walk away after reading my book with at least five new ideas or approaches that you can use, then I’ve totally failed.
TB: I really look forward to reading it. Thank you.
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