Lori Marcus is an executive coach and advisor, as well as Crenshaw’s Directorship Practice Leader, where she guides executives on landing board roles. Recently, Lori co-authored the book, You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace. Lori has over 30 years of operating experience as a CMO and other executive marketing roles and has significant board experience. She presently sits on the boards of Fresh Del Monte Produce, Primo Water and 24-hour Fitness. In our conversation, we touch on her experience as a director, the current landscape for executives seeking to become board members, and how boards can address gender bias in the workplace and in the boardroom.
Bill Glenn: Lori, in working with Crenshaw clients, what can executives expect in their search for a board role and what kind of commitment would they need to make to optimize the engagement?
Lori Marcus: The first commitment an executive working with us can expect in terms of searching for a board, which is different from what they should expect when they are invited to serve on a board and the commitment associated with that, is our approach is very much like job search. The work that we do with clients in terms of helping them prepare themselves for board service and market themselves for board service, has a sense of intensity to it and a rigor around it. From the assessments that we administer to help people understand themselves, to marketing of themselves as a brand with main messages and vignettes, the process is very similar to what Crenshaw has done for almost 40 years in terms of high-end job search.
The process has support behind it, with professional resume writing, LinkedIn training, and other subject matter experts to help. What cannot be outsourced is the networking. That is the main commitment that an executive has to make. My advice is to approach it as though they were searching for a job. They have to commit a significant amount of hours of work a week to land a board role. That’s the conversation we have before we talk about the commitment involved once they land a board role.
Bill Glenn: How would our program differentiate from some of the programs given by the Ivy League programs?
Lori Marcus: Our program is probably 90 percent about preparing yourself for board search, in terms of understand your messaging, developing collateral materials such as a resume, bio, LinkedIn profile, and so forth. We develop a networking strategy with our clients. It’s much more focused on preparation and marketing themselves, and how to activate their personal and professional networks. About 90 percent of our program consists of getting prepared and marketing themselves for board search. About 10 percent of our program consists of learning about governance. We hold our Governance Academy, as well as a Private Equity Academy, to have learning sessions around these topics in preparation for board service. With regards to the programs you’re referring to, whether given by Northwestern, Wharton or Harvard, I believe are very complimentary to what we provide. Those programs focus predominantly around teaching people about governance, the role of different board committees and some of the ins and outs of serving on a board. The programs may provide a couple of hours around writing a board bio or a board resume. The focus tends to be the inverse of what Crenshaw does, and I think they complement each other nicely.
What I always tell our clients is, I highly recommend them as a compliment to what Crenshaw does with the caveat that knowing about governance doesn’t necessarily get you on a board. It still involves networking and marketing yourself to let your professional network, relevant recruiters, and other people know that you’re interested in board service, and then putting in the work to land a board role.
Bill Glenn: For sitting executives, how should they think about the benefits of board service in terms of their career? And at the same time, how do we talk to organizations about why it’s a worthwhile investment for their executives to serve on boards?
Lori Marcus: I think serving on a board is an unbelievable critical experience for senior executives. Normally, these critical experiences are limited by what you can get within your own company. You may change roles every two to three years, but even may be limiting to your field or function. The unbelievable thing about a board, in addition to meeting other people and developing a personal network, is the experience of working in other industries, or other companies at different stages of growth. For example you may serve on a board of a company raising capital, conducting acquisitions, or divesting different divisions. Regardless of what function you serve in your full-time role, when you’re on a board, you’re responsible for looking across the whole corporation. I’m a marketer by background, but I don’t just opine on the marketing issues on a board. You’re there for the full complement of governance.
In terms of skills, critical experiences, the people you meet, types of industries that you can be associated with, and then different events that occur in companies, such as a CEO succession, dealing with an activist investor, or with a cyber-attack, are all critical experiences you can have while still mastering your day job and developing your career.
Bill Glenn: In speaking about the benefit to corporations, when we were at Pepsi years ago, Roger Enrico, who served as Chairman at the time, came back from a Dayton Hudson board meeting, owner of Target, and implemented Power of One at PepsiCo. The idea came from that meeting as they were talking about merchandising. All of a sudden, he thought about chips and soda on the same display and what kind of returns they could create for the company and the various benefits there. It’s a great example in terms of the thinking that is sparked and learning you can get on a board.
Lori Marcus: Absolutely. It’s a common thing that happens in a corporation where, even if you have a very big job in a company, the world of people that you interact with week in and week out starts to get small. It’s the same group of customers, group of peers, and group of people that might work on your team. One of the amazing things of serving on a board is if you think about it, you serve with eight or nine other people. Those directors come to board service with a whole career of experiences and different points of view. It radically opens your mind to those perspectives, views, and experiences. It’s a way to supercharge that for an executive. It’s not realistic to receive a new assignment every month. Board service can really expand an executive’s experience, both in terms of the situations and the people that they interact with.
Bill Glenn: Exactly right. Tom Stemberg, who’s a co-founder of Staples, told me when you’re thinking about a board, pick a board and the folks on the board that you can learn from. Building on that, what are some examples of things that you’ve been exposed to or learned while serving on boards.
Lori Marcus: Every time I go to a board meeting, I am so humbled by how much I learned from the other people that I sit on the board with. I sit on the audit committee of Fresh Del Monte Produce, which is a publicly traded company. As a Chief Marketing Officer by background, I don’t have the audit experience that, say, a partner at a big four accounting and consulting firm would have. I constantly watch our audit chair, a talented woman by the name of Marianne Cloyd, to learn how she prepares for the meetings and how she conducts herself in the meetings. In addition, what I also admire is in the weeks after every meeting, we’ll receive emails from her containing reflections and thoughts about what we discussed during our committee meetings. I’ve learned a lot from how she looks at the world through a risk management perspective, which is different from my background as a marketer in the consumer products space. My training was focused on taking certain business analytics and viewing them through an optimistic lens of possible strategies, as opposed to worst-case scenarios and risk.
When you serve on the board, part of the role is overseeing risk management. I feel like serving on the audit committee specifically, in addition to honing your skills in terms of reviewing financial statements, has helped me learn how to think about risk, not just on a short-term basis, but on a long-term basis as well.
Bill Glenn: As executives think about their first board role or their second board role while conducting a search, what experiences do you feel stand out and differentiate them?
Lori Marcus: We always tell our clients to think about the set of experiences that you have as an executive that are really appropriate when you’re looking for a full-time executive role. For example, if I were looking for a CMO role I would talk about new products that I created, or commercial campaigns that I oversaw, generally experiences like that. However, what boards are really looking for when interviewing candidates I would say covers two broad categories.
The first is to be aware about the responsibilities they would have on a board and relate your background to those duties. One example is management succession, specifically CEO succession. Another is overseeing long term strategy and guiding risk management around that path. We encourage people to think about their experiences through that lens.
An example I use pertains a CHRO client of mine. If she were interviewing for another CHRO role, she may talk about how she implemented a new HRIS system that saved the company $2.7 million a year and was very effective. That’s probably not her best vignette for interviewing as a director. For a board role, her experience with CEO succession planning, or in board succession when the company overhauled their entire board, would be much more relevant. Her experience running the H.R. committee meetings with their board each quarter also plays well. An executive should think about their experiences through two lenses. One is- what do boards do and how can an executive position their experiences around those responsibilities?
The second is thinking about their own previous board experience. That could include non-profit boards, or for a senior executive, the role they have with their company’s board. Any experience in presenting to the board, attending meetings, or running certain committee meetings, is all relevant to an executive’s experience. The first thing an executive recruiter running a director search will typically ask is, have you ever met with your board or presented to your board. A board candidate should be proactive with that question and present that information early on in their messaging and materials.
Bill Glenn: It seems like that’s one of the critical transitions an executive needs to understand to serve on a board, which is knowing the difference between being a director and an operating executive.
Lori Marcus: It’s something I always coach clients on, and a common question when interviewing with an executive recruiter, or the head of a nominating and governance committee, which is whether a candidate understands the difference between being a board member and being an operating executive.
Early in my board tenure, I interviewed for board roles and I mishandled that question, which is now obvious to me. As an operating executive, you are responsible for running the company as the CEO, or running a functional area, such as supply chain, marketing, sales, etc. An executive writes the three-year strategy, writes an annual operating plan, and then executes day in and day out against that. It combines long-term strategic planning with day-to-day execution and you own the results.
When you think about a board member, their priority is governance. They are responsible for management succession. They guide long-term strategy and they’re responsible for overseeing risk management. Nowhere in those responsibilities involve day in and day out executing. There are no 6 a.m. sales meeting with the driver salesmen on a Tuesday morning. You’re not making decisions about which manager is promoted or which director is going to move to assignments. You’re not running the company day to day. It’s really governance and oversight. For some executives, that is such a welcome change, whether they’re a sitting executive or a former sitting executive. For others, it’s a more difficult mindset change. They want to run the company, they want to be involved, and they want to execute. I have to remind people in my coaching that the way to influence these outcomes is by placing the right CEO, making sure the right senior team is in place around the CEO, and determining the right compensation to bring in and retain that CEO and the senior leadership team. An executive can ask a lot of questions, but they need to understand that they don’t run the company day in and day out, which can be different for most people who have spent 20 plus years as operating executives.
Bill Glenn: Given the number of disruptions, compliance issues, changes in business models, probably at a speed greater than any time previously, how should the executives think about the time commitment that they need to make to serve on a board?
Lori Marcus: The time commitment is real. A common misconception is that a board role is limited to around four meetings a year, two days each meeting. So approximately eight days a year. That is so far from reality.
In reality, you attend physical board meetings about four to six times a year, typically spanning two plus days plus travel time, at a minimum. However, there are other events or disruptions that may occur. For example, a CEO announcing he or she is going to retire, cyber-attacks, issues in the media, a potential sale of a private company. These types of disruptions and events happen month in and month out, which result in special committees. Some estimates state that a director should assume that they’re going to spend 200 to 300 hours a year on board service. When you add up all the committee meetings, board meetings, and disruptive events that that occur, it becomes a large commitment, and something that people have to seriously consider, particularly for sitting executives.
Bill Glenn: Lor, you’ve now co-authored a book, You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace, with some terrific women that we knew and worked with at Pepsi. How did it come about?
Lori Marcus: Initially we did not set out to write a book. It wasn’t in my plans of what I was going to do in this portfolio career, which involved board service and executive coaching. It came about in a beautiful, organic way. We were at a dinner about four years ago with Indra Nooyi, who had just stepped down as the CEO and Chair of the Board at PepsiCo. During this small group dinner, we began discussing how almost 30 years prior, I was one of the original founders of the first ever Women’s Resource Network at Pepsi. That conversation brought up a wider discussion about the little things that used to happen at work, throughout our careers, that made us feel like we couldn’t bring our full selves to work. These experiences tended to be smaller things that nobody ever talked to such as being asked to take the notes in meetings or being called a girl versus a woman at work or being asked to plan the parties. Or people not putting you up for promotion because they assumed that because you had small children, you wouldn’t be able to do the travel.
These were conversations that we had never had about before, and following that dinner, we talked about them in meetings afterwards. What we realized was that complaining about these things, and knowing that they were still happening, doesn’t have an effect. We had this realization that we all had a voice, we had power, and we were in positions where we could use our voices to amplify this message rather than having internal conversations about gender bias in the workplace. It was about using our power, our voices, our platforms to actively try to dismantle gender bias in the workplace.
That was the origin of the idea, at which point we went out and started doing some speaking around the topic which really resonated. Around late 2019 into early 2020, we planned to do some speaking engagements and to collect stories, to potentially to write a book down the road. When COVID happened, all our speaking engagements got canceled. So, we decided to flip the script. Instead of going out and speaking for two years and collecting stories to perhaps write a book, we spent our time while in quarantine over the course of two years writing. We conducted primary interviews with hundreds of women, ages approximately 25 to 45, and wrote the book. Once published, we planned to share our stories and open the conversation to major corporations all over the country.
Bill Glenn: One example that I can recall is when Brenda Barnes became CEO of Pepsi North America, she said there was going to be no more golf outings at Pepsi meetings. So she was definitely an early genesis of this movement.
Lori Marcus: I’m always telling Brenda Barnes stories. I think she was ahead of her time in several ways, including working in the route-based Pepsi business where the driver salesmen sold cases of soda up and down the street in convenience stores and little independent businesses. It’s a very male dominated business. It’s a very physical business. Because of that perception, we had very few women in sales overall. Brenda is a great example of someone who could identify those as artificial barriers. Just because women aren’t driving the trucks and “slinging cases”, as we used to say, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have women as sales and territory managers. At the time she was either the sitting COO or President, and she set out a goal that within a year to 18 months, the company was going to have two women in every territory in a sales management role across the country.
It was a great example of someone who had the leadership role, had the power, and used their voice to overcome the excuses of why something doesn’t happen. She set a goal to make a change, and once the metrics were in place, every territory met the requirement to have two women in management by the end of the period. It’s one of the many ways she was far ahead of her time, and of course, she did everything with such grace, class, style and warmth.
Bill Glenn: How do you think about the topics of the book as it pertains to being a sitting director?
Lori Marcus: Generally, the book is about how to dismantle gender bias in the workplace. It’s a very practical guide for women who experience some of these micro-moments or micro-aggressions, and what can you say or do in the moment, after the meeting, or before the next meeting. It also serves well as a guide for allies of any gender who are bystanders and how to go from being a bystander to an ally of any gender. For managers or leaders of any gender, it can also serve as a guide of what to say or do in those situations. The book is meant to be extremely practical. While we cite a lot of academic research, as operators, we found it helpful to provide practical approaches for working environments.
From a board perspective, it really resonates for me in several ways. The first is that when you’re on a board, it’s an ecosystem in and of itself, where you can experience gender bias as well. In the book there’s a section about lazy language, in terms of things people say that are just lazy. During an executive evaluation, someone may say “he’s a great guy.” That doesn’t offer much meaning. That type of description doesn’t fall anywhere on a sales competency model or a finance competency model. In contrast, for women the evaluation tends to be more directly focused to her achievements, and to whether she met her objectives or sales goals. As a result, that type of non-specific language is not only not very helpful but tends to be aggrandizing for men, tends hold women back a little bit by comparison.
I was on a board that was conducting a CEO succession. As we’re about to do a search for a new director, two things happened. One is, during the first meeting where we were discussing candidates, one of the directors just says, “I got a guy.” It was a very casual way to approach it, in a way that doesn’t offer much background on the candidate. They didn’t qualify why this person was a talented executive who would serve well on our board, or who had a unique experience in an in-demand area like cybersecurity or has extensive public company board experience. It was simply “I got a guy.” It was an indicator of the type of environment where people only want to surround themselves with people that they know are like them.
I’m reminded by another example of a different board where we were interviewing to add a new member. We retained a very reputable search firm who identified six candidates. Three happened to be men and three were women. Without realizing it, one of our directors would ask the recruiter, for each woman candidate, why they left a role, inquiring as to whether she was fired or left on her own. That director didn’t ask the same question for any of the men.
I was relatively new on that board. I didn’t have a lot of psychological safety in the environment, and I didn’t have a lot of tenure on the board. But I just thought when you’re in the room, you have to use your power and you have to use your voice. I knew the line of questioning wasn’t done on purpose, and that the director wasn’t even conscious of it. So, I said to my fellow member in the nicest possible way, that while I was sure he didn’t realize it, for all the women candidates, he was asking the recruiter to explain their transition, but not for any of the male candidates. I suggested that we make a pact with those in the room, that we would either ask it for all the candidates or none of the candidates. While I was hesitant to mention it, because I didn’t have the tenure or psychological safety, one of the other directors on the call texted me afterwards and said that it may have been the most helpful thing anyone on our board has ever said.
Those are two examples where I was a board member and was experiencing unconscious gender bias. The things that were said weren’t said on purpose, or intentional to hold women back. But it is a common way that gender bias is experienced, even in the ecosystem that is the boardroom.
The other way directors may confront gender bias is as you’re doing oversight of the company. You watch things that happen in the company that are examples of gender bias, which requires you to play a different role, which is to ask questions and use your voice to make sure that it is not perpetuated.
Bill Glenn: In terms of using your power and your voice, how do you see the change taking place?
Lori Marcus: I’m an optimist by nature, so I like to point to the positives. What I would say is, over the past 30 years, these experiences have gone from forms of very blatant gender bias to more nuanced gender bias. There isn’t overt language being used to demean others. It’s very nuanced in what we see now. In some ways it’s a little bit harder because you have to see it and you have to have the productive language to be able to call it out in a way that invites people into the conversation, and not in a way that makes them feel defensive.
That sort of change comes slowly. A big focus of the book and the work that we do with companies focuses on inviting men into the conversation. When we first started writing the book, the title You Should Smile More was meant to be cheeky. Women get the meaning, and most have the same reaction, because it’s a sentiment many have experienced. With men, the reaction isn’t as universal. Some will say that people should smile more, to which I say that’s true, but not the point.
The book was written with women in mind, but once we started presenting, it quickly became clear to us that nothing changes if only women are in this. Men have to be called into the conversation, as well as people of every gender, whether they’re allies or bosses. All have to be part of the conversation to actually help to dismantle gender bias.
Statistically, most board seats, most senior executive roles, and most CEO roles are filled by men. In today’s world, the vast majority are men. So, men have to be part of the conversation and committed to understanding the right things to do and say within every interaction, to start to reduce the instances where microaggressions happen.
One of the most important things that we tell people is every company has gender bias. If you breathe, you have unconscious bias. It’s not a bad thing, everybody has unconscious bias. The point is to make yourself aware of it and think about what you can say or do, because these micro moments happen all the time and they add up. The way that you dismantle bias is not in some big sweeping gesture. It’s one action, one word, in every single meeting or every single interaction that you’re in.
Bill Glenn: It seems the goal is for this awareness to become cultural rather than an initiative, which makes it sustainable once you have it.
Lori Marcus: Absolutely. A big piece of that, around changing a culture which is a big piece of this, is senior male leaders often as what they can do. One of the most important things that they can do as leaders is create an environment where people can speak truth to power. That’s a cultural shift, to be able to feel comfortable enough to call to attention someone’s unconscious bias, to where now the person receiving that suggestion can become more aware and to improve upon those interactions. Rather than building a culture of defensiveness, where someone is shut down, and they’re no longer going to feel like they can speak truth to power.
I think the biggest factor of a culture is whether a company has a culture of learning, not just learning about the business, but learning about the company’s culture and the wherewithal to becoming a better and more productive culture. That’s why dismantling gender bias is so intertwined with culture. It’s not an initiative.
Bill Glenn: One of the lessons I had to learn came from a colleague I worked with at Pepsi who pointed out that I shouldn’t leave these voicemails on weekends. I’m not going to mention her name… but what you taught me was when I leave voicemails on weekends, people think that I was expecting to get a response right away. So, I learned lessons as well.
Lori Marcus: Sounds like a very wise woman.
Bill Glenn: Very wise. But relating to my last question, which I know other ex-Pepsi male leaders have asked, is where am I in the book? And maybe I’ve learned that I actually don’t want to be in this book.
Lori Marcus: I’ll tell a story that I tell all the time when we give talks at different speaking engagements with major corporations. There’s a chapter in the book that’s called “Not Just Mentors.” This refers to the importance of getting sponsors, which is something I use in my coaching all the time, and not specific to just women. It’s about the importance of having sponsors. Women tend to be over mentored and under sponsored. It’s a distinction we often make, which is the difference between a mentor, a coach, and a sponsor.
The biggest thing and perhaps easiest thing to remember is a sponsor is someone who has power and uses their power when you’re not in the room to advocate for you and they use their power and their voice to help advance you through the organization. Everybody at every level, of every gender needs sponsorship. Sponsors don’t always look like what you think they’re going to look like, and they aren’t always the people who are most vocal or complimentary of your work.
Sponsors are often the leaders that push you really hard because they see potential in you even before you see it in yourself. Early on in my career, when we worked together at Pepsi, you pushed me really hard. You weren’t always the nicest or warmest leader. But you were responsible for using your power at an important part in my career to help me get to an executive level. I realized after the fact that you pushed me so hard because you saw potential in me that I didn’t even see in myself. So that is the mystery explained of where Bill Glenn is in the book. Sponsors are really important to everyone, but don’t mistake somebody being kind and nice to you as being a sponsor. There are many people who have been nice to me in my career that have never used their voice to help me get to where I really needed to go.