Early on in her CIO career, Jean Holley knew she wanted a seat on the other side of the boardroom table.
That was 16 years ago, when few companies fretted much about the obvious lack of women or people of color on their boards. Anyone who did draw attention to those bastions of white, 60-something retired CEOs and CFOs likely would be told of the unfortunate “lack of qualified candidates in the pipeline.”
“That pipeline argument is such baloney!” scoffs Holley, who serves on three public boards today and has made board diversity the centerpiece of her mission and purpose. “You just have to know where to look.”
And she does a lot of looking. As the chair of nomination, governance, and compensation committees for all three of her boards—security provider OneSpan, equipment rental company Herc Holdings, and Accord Financial Corp.—Holley has interviewed dozens of potential board directors. “At about 15 minutes in, I know if this person is a fit or not,” she says. “And I will give instant feedback if I don’t think this will be a great match. I don’t mess around!”
She also consults with other boards on diversity searches and has volunteered with board readiness training programs for a number of national organizations and Atlanta’s Women in Technology organization.
Touching base with this high-energy CIO-turned-board member recently, we talked about how CIOs can avoid rookie mistakes while seeking their first board seat and what the legendary Grace Hopper taught her about embracing her own power to inspire other women.
Maryfran Johnson: You’ve coached many women technology leaders on how to clearly express the value they bring as board candidates. How do you pitch the Jean Holley brand?
Jean Holley: I’m a corporate board director, and I love helping companies find and unlock value. I help to optimize corporate strategies and operationalize those plans. That includes finding and aligning the right talent with the right incentives.
I’m really good at looking around the corner and seeing what others don’t see. As a former CIO, I’m an expert in material weaknesses and in finding and fixing sub-optimal business processes. Lately I’ve developed a new one in ESG (environmental, social, and governance), since I’ve served on a number of board committees concerned with those issues.
What are the mistakes you see CIOs making as they start pursuing that first public board seat?
The No. 1 mistake I see is saying ‘I want a board seat’ without having any clear idea about what industry or company size they’re looking for. That’s like saying ‘I want a CIO job’ without any specifics or knowing where you can add value. The next mistake is failing to realize that your board resume and bio are very different from an executive resume. A board CV isn’t a chronological list of your roles and responsibilities; you’re dealing with a completely different audience in the boardroom. If that understanding isn’t reflected in your vocabulary as you’re interviewing, you’ll be filtered out of the running. You have to be able to articulate the value you bring to this different table. This is a real job with real pay. The third most common mistake I see is failing to ask for a job description of the open board seat. Would you interview for a CIO job without understanding what they’re looking for?
Looking at your career strategically, what was the best decision you’ve made?
It was joining my first board, 16 years ago, when I was still an active fulltime CIO. I had turned down a big Fortune 3 company to take the CIO role with Tellabs in Chicago instead. When I interviewed with Tellabs, I shared that I wanted to be on a public board to ensure they were supportive of that plan. It was the best decision I ever made because serving on the board of a public company made me a better CIO. It helped me understand the board lingo and how to communicate much more effectively with my own company board and peers.
What do you wish you knew or understood earlier in your career?
I should have started helping to build the pipeline for diverse board candidates sooner. Today it’s my passion and part of my brand. I saw the need for helping boards find these candidates, but I was so busy, I didn’t make the time to help build that pipeline. I networked, of course, but I didn’t network with the purpose of diversifying boards. I know I could have been more influential in moving this along.
I remember talking about this (mentorship issue) with Grace Hopper, who was such an icon for women in engineering and computing in the ‘80s. I had the opportunity to know her after she retired from the Navy and was working with the government systems group at Digital Equipment Corp. Grace was humble, wicked smart, and enjoyed quietly sharing her knowledge and experiences. One of the things she told me was that she knew she was blazing a new path for women engineers, but she wished she’d made that (awareness) more visible sooner in her career. This is something that has stuck with me.
Hanging out with an industry legend like Grace Hopper must have been amazing. Do you have a favorite Grace story?
I was based in Chicago and there were numerous times I was her escort, introducing her to our technical DEC customers. I recall driving around, stuck in traffic with Grace, and we could have cared less as we were in deep discussions on how to mathematically model certain problems for analysis. One time we were on one of DEC’s helicopters together flying from Boston (Logan) to Merrimack, N.H. The gate attendant wanted us to take extra boxes with us but we knew we were maxed out on weight. Who would know this better than two geeky engineers!? She and I looked at each other and instantly said “No, you don’t overload a helicopter.” We laughed about it as we recognized we were both a “different breed” of women. The gate attendant didn’t see that coming, for sure!
This article originally appeared in CIO’s Career Strategist newsletter.