Finding courage as the only woman in the room

“To ensure adequate diversity of thought, gender and ethnicity, it’s critical that companies look beyond the traditional experience to recruit board members.”

- Kim Williams

 

To what extent has there been progress around inclusivity, diversity, and gender parity at the leadership level and in the corporate world in general? How do boards and oversight practices need to evolve to further progress and meet the challenges facing global companies today? In this episode of the Principled Podcast, Marsha Ershaghi Hames, Partner at Tapestry Networks, guest hosts a conversation about board diversity and how directors can ensure their companies do business the right way with Kim Williams, board member of Weyerhaeuser, Xcel Energy, MicroVest, and the E.W. Scripps Company. Listen in as Marsha and Kim discuss the critical role of boards in shaping ethical corporate culture, and how Kim’s experience as the only woman in the room shaped her roles as a corporate leader and board director.


What you'll learn on this episode:

[1:45] Kim’s background, education and career.

[4:45] - How being a woman has impacted Kim’s career path.

[8:20] - The responsibility held by corporations in shaping progress and change. 

[12:02] - Instrumental figures and mentors who impacted the trajectory of Kim’s career.

[13:54] - How Kim landed her first board role and how the recruitment landscape has changed.

[17:03]  - Emerging challenges boards of large global companies are facing today.

[20:23] - What role do boards play in influencing the shape of culture?

[25:25] - Cultivating society to support authenticity.

[28:16] - Board oversight of safety culture in cultivation ethical culture.

Intro: Welcome to the principal podcast brought to you by LRN. The Principle Podcast brings together the collective wisdom on ethics, business, and compliance, transformative stories of leadership, and inspiring workplace culture. Listen in to discover valuable strategies from our community of business leaders and workplace change-makers.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: How are boards of directors of major companies coping in 2021 with the increasing expectations from so many stakeholders? How can directors ensure that their companies are doing the right things and doing business in the right way? Hello, and welcome to another episode of LRN's Principle Podcast, where we continue our conversations about the critical role of boards in shaping ethical corporate culture. I'm your guest host Marsha Ershaghi Hames, a partner at Tapestry Networks. And today, I am joined by Kim Williams, an accomplished corporate leader, who currently sits on the boards of Weyerhaeuser, Excel Energy, where she chairs the finance committee, Micro Best, and the EW Scripps Company, where she chairs the board and is also chair of the audit committee. Kim is also involved in nonprofits that focus on women's issues. Kim, thank you for coming on today's Principle Podcast.

Kim Williams: Marsha, thank you for the opportunity to share something of my experience and my thoughts on board service with your audience.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Excellent. So let's jump right into it. I mean, you've had such an accomplished career in investment management. You retired as senior vice president, partner, and associate director of global industry research at Wellington Management Company, and then turned to a distinguished career of service on both corporate and nonprofit boards. Can you tell us a little bit more about your story, your background, and career?

Kim Williams: Thank you, Marsha. I grew up and was educated in the UK, where I graduated with a master's degree in economics. I had fully expected to find a position as an economist, as I assume that that's what my master's degree had prepared me for. But serendipity introduced me to the investment management business, a relatively underdeveloped industry at that time in the UK. I still can't remember how I discovered the opportunity. I only know it wasn't through the internet, as I grew up at a time before the internet, but the attractions of the industry was that they provided me with the opportunity to employ my analytical skills, work independently, and be judged on my own performance. I worked, initially, as an analyst for a pension fund, which at the time, was one of the largest internally-managed funds in the UK. And then when my husband and I moved to the US, I continued my career as an analyst, first for Luma Sales, and then for Wellington Management, where I completed a successful 20-year career, initially as an analyst, and subsequently, assuming a broader management role in the firm.

But then following 25 years of commitment to the investment management business, I chose to retire at what could be described as the pinnacle of my professional career. I was a partner of one of the largest investment management firms in the world. I'd been featured in Barons, and I had been repeatedly recognized as one of the best in my field. It was therefore with some trepidation that I embarked on a new adventure and left the comfort of my established career to apply my professional expertise in a different way and that, as a corporate board member. And as you mentioned, today, I currently sit on the board of three public companies.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Kim, what an illustrious story. And I'm so moved because one of the things that really has captured me is that when you began your career, pre-internet and all of that, in investment management, you were one of the relatively few women in that industry. I've read an article, as we were preparing for our conversation, profiling some of your intense dedication and commitment to women's issues, where you described your career start as one steeped in tradition but entrenched in misogyny. Can you share more with our listeners about how the sexism you faced, and even the experience of being and walking and taking your steps as the only woman in a room, shaped the early steps in your career?

Kim Williams: Yes, Marsha. I suppose I've never thought of myself as a trailblazer or as a role model during my career. But, as you mentioned, it was not uncommon for me to walk into a meeting 200 people and then to realize that I was the only woman in the room. And yes, this did bring some uncomfortable moments. I had portfolio managers tell me that women had no business in the investment management industry, that, as a woman, I was not equipped to follow engineering companies as an analyst, that my talents were better served focusing on consumer companies on two occasions, I discovered, after the fact, that had I not worked out, they would never have hired another woman.

And two particularly uncomfortable moments come to mind when I was still working in London and early in my career. A doorman directed me to the kitchen when I asked for the luncheon that I was due to attend. And if that wasn't bad enough, he was very unapologetic when I returned and informed him that I was actually a guest and not the help. In fact, he placed the blame squarely on me. I was a woman, so how was he expected to know that I was other than the help? And, on another occasion, a senior partner at an investment bank asked me if I had come to serve the drinks. These incidents were early in my career, but I think allowed me to develop an inner strength and fortitude and forced me to be more assertive and courageous than my personality might suggest. Further, it really made me more determined to demonstrate that I should be judged by my performance. But that said, I would also acknowledge that there is an advantage to being the only woman in the room. Management seldom forgot me, for better or worse. And, in spite of the challenges, I thrived in the environment. I love the daily stimulation, the constantly changing schedule, the need to respond to the immediate nature of events, and I grew to relish the challenge.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Kim, just the stories you're sharing, give me goosebumps. And what pains me is you were experiencing this as a pioneer at a time where you simply didn't even have the open forums to share your experience more publicly or more privately, as we do today. And I think as a mother of a daughter who's also in college right now pursuing her next chapter in life, our young women cannot be what they do not see. So if that doorman simply couldn't process or relate to how you had such a position of impact and influence in leadership, it's not just our daughters. It's our sons and it's our communities that just really need more role models like you. So if I take a step back and really reflect on the courage of this experience, when you look at progress today around inclusivity, around diversity, gender parity, if anything, in not only your industry and journey but, generally, in the corporate world, has there been progress? I mean, what is the responsibility of the corporation to be more, shall I say, intentional about supporting and shaping change and progress?

Kim Williams: On balance, I'd have to acknowledge Marsha that there has been progress, but still, I think we would all accept, remains a work in progress. Investors, interestingly, are demanding increasing diversity on corporate boards and in the C-suite, which may accelerate this process, because it's been clearly demonstrated that increased diversity contributes to enhanced financial performance. And I think this further reinforces the imperative of enhanced diversity, as we're not taking full advantage of valuable assets, but increased participation has been achieved by women in corporate board rooms. At the end of the first quarter of 2021, 24% of all board seats, in the Russell 3000, were occupied by women. And this is versus 15% in 2016. So some progress you can see, but I was somewhat shocked to see that there are still 5% of the Russell 3000 that have all-male boards and no female representation, and only 4% of S&P 500 companies have a female chair. And, in fact, an interesting fact, there are more male chairs called John in the S&P 500 than there are female chairs.

And I think looking to the C-suite, there, less than 10% of the S&P 500 have a female CEO. I'm actually proud to share and report that Jean Hynes assumed the position of CEO of Wellington management earlier this year, the first woman in that role. And Jean Hynes was previously the only second female managing partner. So some progress in the investment management industry, too. I do believe, to your point, Marsha, it's the responsibility of boards and management to be more intentional in ensuring increased diversity. I acknowledge that this requires boldness to accomplish diversity goals, and you have to overcome potential resistance or reluctance based on that unfounded belief that pursuing diversity goals requires a lowering of standards.

Increasingly, the next generation of talent is demanding a diverse workplace. And if you don't embrace diversity, you will not be seen as the employer of choice. I'm just speaking to my board experience. I'm proud to know that the boards on which I serve have broad diversity, thought, gender, and ethnic diversity, and each company has an emphasis and a commitment to achieving further diversity at all levels of the workforce. I would note, as you did earlier, that I chair the Scrips board, as well as its audit committee, and I chair the finance committee at Excel. And at Weyerhaeuser, two of the three committees are chaired by women.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So while there is some progress, there's always a particular mentor or instrumental figure in all of our lives that either allows us to find the courage or see the examples of the how, the pathway forward. Were there any significant mentors or sponsors, in your journey, that really had an impact on the trajectory of your career path?

Kim Williams: Yes, indeed. And I'm grateful to those individuals who served as important mentors to me during my career and provided me with guidance and encouragement at critical points in my career. And this is not just in the investment management business, but also through my corporate board experience but not surprisingly, given the nature of and the challenges of both the industry and more moving into the corporate board world, they were all men, but they allowed me to seize the opportunities afforded me and capitalize on my abilities and develop new skills. They also provided me with important opportunities, but this has really encouraged me to seek out opportunities to support other women to realize their full potential. And I work actively, wherever possible, to advance and promote women.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Well, and building on that, when we talk about the board's own diversity, reflecting on its own culture and diversity, there's been a lot of conversation around the need to bring in other types of experiences and perspectives, more cognitive diversity into the boardroom. And a career like yours, in investment management, was not a typical background for a director when you joined your first board. Could you tell our listeners a little bit around the journey, too? How did you land that first board role? How have things maybe changed with CEOs and boards becoming a little more open to considering different skills and backgrounds for board seats?

Kim Williams: Yes, Marsha, indeed, you are correct. I had a very unconventional background for seeking a corporate board position. And when I embarked on my search, which was now some time ago, the majority of board members were either sitting CEOs or retired CEOs or other C-suite executives. But I was fortunate to encounter companies with a willingness to consider more diverse experience as they look to recruit board members. This was bolstered by the reputation that I enjoyed and the relationships and credentials that I had established during my career. When I was an analyst, I had covered both Weyerhaeuser and EW Scrips. And the company had a first-hand glimpse into the type of experience that I could contribute to the boardroom. Unless, anybody think that these CEOs were expecting a pass if I went into the boardroom, I enjoyed a particular reputation as a tough questioner. And there was actually a cell site analyst who wrote a report about my election to the Weyerhaeuser board, saying how courageous the company was in inviting me into the boardroom.

But I think it's increasingly clear that to ensure adequate diversity of thought, gender, and ethnicity, it's critical that companies look beyond the traditional experience to recruit board members. I would highlight potential areas of recruitment, such as executives with HR experience, given the heightened focus and scrutiny on talent management and human capital management. I'd also look to the role of the chief information officer to strengthen the oversight of cybersecurity risk. And then a word about financial analysts, who bring both analytical skills but also investor perspectives, which I think are increasingly important, into the boardroom. And I'm seeing that happen. And many of my former investment colleagues and partners, both male and female, currently sit on corporate boards.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Well, I like that you've really also highlighted that there is, at times... And I think the pandemic revealed this quite a bit. There is an importance to break the groupthink, to have the courage to ask, or to be a little more investigative around some of the uncomfortable issues, because we saw, with risk, talent, all of these matters unfolding over the last 18 months, it takes those skills and experiences to be able to step in and courageously ask what may be an unpopular question to move the organization forward. So turning to some of your current board service, what are some of the more challenging or emerging challenges that boards of large global companies are starting to face today as we sort of... I don't even know if we could say we're coming out of the pandemic, but we learned a lot. And how do boards and oversight practices need to really start to evolve to meet these challenges?

Kim Williams: Well, before I answer that question, Marsha, I'd like to just reflect on that previous comment that you made. When I think about diversity, I think about it in its many facets. And indeed, when I think about recruiting and look to who we should bring onto the corporate boards I currently sit, I really think about "What do I not know, and what expertise do I need in the boardroom in order to unearth those issues that somebody else has the ability to define?" I think diversity, in thought, is just as important as all the other areas of diversity in order to make sure that we're getting the best questions asked and the best results for a corporation, absolutely.

But thinking about this question that you've posed to me now, I think the simple thing would be, where to begin? The last 18 months have been unprecedented for many people, obviously not just corporate boards. We've been dealing with the challenges of COVID, a virtual work environment. And the companies I'm involved with, employees had to continue to operate, either to deliver TB news or provide wood products or to simply keep the lights on in our service territories. And the challenge to during this period was really keeping those employees safe and adapting to a work environment which was often from home and making sure that the necessary technology was available to employees and that the appropriate control environment was there. And, on a number of boards, we were meeting weekly, of course, remotely, but given the uncertainty of the time and the lack of visibility, this became necessary.

But now, the issues that we face, while, as you mentioned, we continue to deal with COVID, we have the issues of the return to the office and the implication of vaccine mandates and how they affect the companies. We have cybersecurity and increased ransomware threats and attacks. And also, we're dealing with the issue of the Great Resignation. Demographics were really already presenting a challenge with baby boomers retiring at unprecedented levels. We are having additional pressures as employees are reassessing their priorities and leaving the workforce or moving to different opportunities. So this is forcing us to address the future of work and the role of technology and how technology might play a role in providing solutions.

And then, of course, there's the topic of ESG and EDI, talent management, and the reporting requirements around those and which committees should be addressing each of these individual topics. And then, of course, climate change. These are in no particular order and doesn't reflect how I, or any of my board, set priorities. But I would also just reiterate that, coincidentally, we, as a board, are also charged with the regular work of the board, with the oversight of strategic direction, the review of management succession, management talent and performance, capital deployment, and the review of the appropriate capital structures, holding management accountable for delivering financial results, and ensuring the integrity of the financial results. So I'm sure I've left something out, but as you can see, this is a very full plate that we have.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: And with this very full plate, I mean, it's overflowing, from cyber to talent to capital matters. You've been a part of our conversations with the Ethics Culture Compliance Network focused on oversight of culture. How can a board really... I mean, culture itself isn't a standalone topic on an agenda. And as you've mentioned, as we're transforming how we work, how we recruit talent, how we develop the next generation of leaders, in this new digital world, how can boards potentially approach thinking differently around oversight of culture, or what role can the board play, if any, in influencing the shape of culture in this new world?

Kim Williams: Well, I think boards have an important role, Marsha, in ensuring that managements are overseeing culture. And, in fact, boards themselves should be ensuring that the mission, vision, and values of a corporation are really reflected in the culture of the enterprise and then holding managements accountable for this. I think that, to the extent everything begins with tone at the top, but it's then also important for boards to really understand and appreciate if that tone at the top and that mission statement really translates into other levels in the organization. I think that's been one of the things that I have found a challenge in over the last 18 months, with everything being done remotely, because I enjoy spending time in the divisions with employees below the C-suite, where you have the opportunity to really understand and appreciate if what is being articulated by senior management is really being embraced and incorporated into the enterprise writ large.

I, particularly, also really rely on internal audit to be an auditor of corporate culture. And again, they have been challenged with being able to go out into the operations and into the day to day of the employees. So I think that's something that, really, I look forward to getting back on the road and traveling to see people. But I think that there just are many opportunities that boards have in order to really encourage management to act boldly, to be held accountable, and to make sure that the appropriate KPIs are included in compensation metrics to understand how managements are approaching talent management, particularly differently, if they have not achieve the desired diversity objectives. And I think it's, it's also important to focus on strategies to foster inclusion within an organization be because it's not just sufficient to attract a diverse workforce, you then have to retain them.

And so we also own need to recognize that this perhaps comes back to know some of the challenges around this. I think we need to recognize that there will be those in an organization who do not embrace the fact that we need a more diverse, inclusive workforce and may even feel threatened and believe will be at risk as the company pursues additional diversity. So I think it's the challenge of management and the board to really reinforce this as a priority, why it's a priority and that it will contribute to a better performing organization as a whole, not just will better some members of the community at the expense of others. And then just, finally, boards really do have an important oversight role. And I, particularly, have been involved with interactions with identified high performers in organizations to demonstrate the type of opportunities that are available, particularly to young women, and to provide guidance in how they might view their upcoming challenge and overcoming those challenges. But I do think, finally, it's that importance of reinforcing this as a priority of the board.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: So you really are touching on a number of points. And one thing that pops in my mind as you describe this opportunity of intentionality and the potential of some individuals feeling threatened or fearing some of the diversity, as I think of authentic leadership and how can we cultivate societies and communities and corporate work horses and cultures that really support that sense of authenticity, I know that, in a lot of the research we're seeing around the new generation that's in the workforce, they desire to work and be aligned. And you mentioned this, values-oriented organizations and authentic and committed and intentional organizations. So it's not just recruiting diversity, but it's identifying ways to retain and support those voices, so...

Kim Williams: I think, Marsha, that you raise a very good point there. I am fortunate, in my board service, to be involved with three companies who have very well-articulated mission, vision, and values, which frankly, we are finding as a competitive advantage as recruit people. And I think it's important... Again to highlight something that you said, it's important to think about all of the stakeholders that are involved with that, because it not just about one particular group, but you have to include whether it's viewers of the television stations that watch our programming, whether it's the communities that are taking electrical service in our service territories, or whether it's what we're doing in terms of environmental stewardship at Weyerhaeuser. These things are all very important in really speaking to being able to attract and retain talent, to make sure that people actually feel proud when they work for you.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: It's so true. It's so true how much we are connecting purpose and commitment with organizations to impact. And we're seeing more and more that, with gen Z especially, they want to work for organizations that not only fulfill what they're passionate about but are contributing to the communities that they serve and that they work in. But we're reaching in near the end of our time together, Kim, and I want to touch on one point, which I think is really crucial for us to discuss and that is safety. You serve on the boards of companies, where safety is critical, and it serves actually as a key performance indicator. It's really a part of the value and mission and purpose of the organization. What lessons can you share with listeners around board oversight of safety culture, and how can this help apply to our listeners thinking about cultivating ethical cultures across an organization?

Kim Williams: So when we were initially having those conversations about ethics and the ethical value of companies and how you monitor that, it really made me think about what we're doing both at Excel and at Weyerhaeuser on safety and creating a safety culture. And those two organizations have very dangerous occupations, and it's of utmost importance that we ensure that our workforce returns to their families safe every night. And, in order to do that at, and to foster a culture of safety, it has to... Again, tone at the top, making sure that this is something that is embraced by everyone, not just the senior leadership but the board and all members of the community and employees. And I think where the board has a role to play is that conveying to the employees that it is a priority for us.

On both those boards, we begin every board meeting with either a safety moment or an update on safety to just reinforce the notion that to create a culture, you really need to continue to do it because culture is something that can be very fragile. If you don't continue to reinforce it, it might not survive. And so, again, I think it just has to be something that's ingrained in the culture and is part of what you do on a day to day. I notice that, in my own actions, when I'm at home, I don't do anything that could be considered unsafe. And I'm always encouraging those around me to make sure that they are operating and working in safe conditions. But again, it's really about tone at the top, board engagement with the broader workforce to convey that safety really is a key principle. And I think you can do that with culture. And the notion that establishing a strong tone with respect to an ethical culture... And while you might have a performance-driven culture, that doesn't preclude you from also having an ethical culture, because it has to be demonstrated that financial results cannot be when you jeopardize ethical standards.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: That is a great way to end. Ethics is non-negotiable, and performance shall be achieved and pursued but not at the expense of how we get there. So, Kim, clearly this is a conversation we could be having all day. I've really enjoyed learning. I've learned so much from you, and I hope that we have the opportunity to continue the dialogue in a future podcast, but we're out of time for now, so thank you for joining me on this podcast.

Kim Williams: Thank you, Marsha. It was a delight, and I really enjoyed it, so thank you for allowing me to share my story.

Marsha Ershaghi Hames: Absolutely. And to all of our listeners, I'm Marsha Ershaghi Hames, with gratitude for tuning in to The Principle Podcast from LRN. And I'm going to sign off. Thank you.

Outro: We hope you enjoyed this episode. The Principle Podcast is brought to you by LRN. At LRN, our mission is to inspire principled performance in global organizations by helping them foster winning ethical cultures, rooted in sustainable values. Please visit us at lrn.com to learn more. And if you enjoyed this episode, subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And don't forget to leave us a review.

Episode Cover - Kim Williams 1

 

Kim Williams

A 26-year career in the Investment Management business allowed Kim Williams to develop important skills which included strong analytical abilities, significant financial and strategic awareness, leadership and communication capabilities, which are always reflected in a professional and proactive attitude. This extensive business and analytical experience has translated into an active participant in the boardroom. As a corporate board member, Kim has been required to address important issues including challenging business conditions, changing business models, corporate restructuring, asset divestitures, management succession, activist shareholders and proxy battles.

Kim is currently a director of Xcel Energy, EW Scripps, and Weyerhaeuser Company. At Xcel, she serves on the Governance, Compensation and Nominating Committee and Chairs the Finance Committee. At E.W.Scripps, she serves as Lead Director, Chair of the Audit Committee and a member of the Governance and Nominating Committee. At Weyerhaeuser, she serves as a member of the Audit Committee and the Governance and Nominating Committee.

Episode Card - Marsha 1

 

Host

Marsha is a partner with Tapestry Networks and a leader of our corporate governance practice. She advises non-executive directors, C-suite executives, and in-house counsel on issues related to governance, culture transformation, board leadership, and stakeholder engagement.

Prior to joining Tapestry, Marsha was a managing director of strategy and development at LRN, Inc. a global governance, risk and compliance firm. She specialized in the alignment of leaders and organizations for effective corporate governance and organizational culture transformation. Her view is that compliance is no longer merely a legal matter but a strategic and reputational priority. 

Marsha has been interviewed and cited by the media including CNBC, CNN, Ethisphere, HR Magazine, Compliance Week, The FCPA Report, Entrepreneur.com, Chief Learning Officer, ATD Talent & Development, Corporate Counsel Magazine, the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics and more. She hosted the “PRINCIPLED” Podcast, profiling the stories of some of the top transformational leaders in business.

Marsha serves as an expert fellow on USC’s Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making and on the advisory boards of LMH Strategies, Inc. an integrative supply chain advisory firm and Compliance.ai, a regulatory change management firm.

Marsha holds an Ed.D. and MA from Pepperdine University. Her research was on the role of ethical leadership as an enabler of organizational culture change. Her BA is from the University of Southern California. She is a certified compliance and ethics professional.

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