The below is an excerpt from Dear Chairwoman: Letters from Today’s Trailblazing Women Board Leaders to the Fearless Directors of Tomorrow, a new collection of letters from over 40 women board leaders, written to equip and inspire the next generation of women directors to both pursue board governance early, and to claim the ‘Chairwoman’ title in taking the senior-most seat in the Board Room.
This letter is written by Kathy Waller, who holds Board of Director seats at Delta Airlines, Beyond Meat, CGI Inc., Cadence Bank.
“Honestly, I don’t understand why companies are challenged in identifying women for boards. I meet talented women all the time…Adding racial diversity initiatives in addition to gender diversity makes it even more difficult for them.
Companies are going to have to address racial and gender diversity in their boardroom s and in their management ranks.”
Dear Chairwomen of Tomorrow:
I am now retired, but in a former life, I was the Chief Financial Officer of the Coca-Cola Company. My life has been a series of directional changes that led to a great career and more.
As an Atlanta native, I attended all-black schools until I went to college in NY State at the University of Rochester. The school was a total culture shock for me, both in terms of its black population (which was approximately 5 percent) and its ice-cold, no-sunshine winters.
The weather, cultural and other challenges I encountered helped me learn to navigate various environments and prepared me to work in corporate America.
I had planned to become a lawyer from the time I was six years old having been inspired by Perry Mason, a role model I had seen on TV. When I was young, there were no black role models in business on television. Because I grew up in a relatively protected environment, I did not focus on race in my younger years. As a black person, I knew to be careful, but my exposure to other races was limited. I think people really learn about racial differences when they start interacting with other races. They learn because of the way they are treated and made to feel different. That treatment starts to work its harmful magic, which compounds year to year, experience to experience.
In college, I majored in history with the plan of going to law school. I took a year off after graduation to study for the LSAT and took a job at the City of Rochester in the Budget Bureau. I loved the work and changed direction, deciding to pursue an MBA instead of a law degree.
In graduate school, I enjoyed the accounting courses and decided to follow the public accounting route and get my CPA license. After obtaining my MBA, I joined Deloitte, Haskins, and Sells (now Deloitte) in Rochester, NY, where I then earned my CPA.
I worked for Deloitte in Rochester for three and half years before transferring to Deloitte in Atlanta. Within six months of my move home to Atlanta, a recruiter introduced me to Coca-Cola. At that time, I was enjoying public accounting and wasn’t ready for a change in direction, but I interviewed for the job at Coca-Cola because I knew I would eventually leave public accounting. During the interview, I realized the job was not going to be as fulfilling as my job in public accounting, and I turned the job offer down. A week later, I received a call from a different manager at Coca-Cola. That manager offered me what I considered to be the perfect job for me. It wasin the accounting research department of the Controller’s Group, and it waslike public accounting but working on internal SEC filings, acquisitions, and divestitures.
In October 1987, I happily started my job at Coca-Cola in the accounting research group, tasked with SEC filings and other financial matters. Shortly after I joined the company a new CFO started. He worked hard to be incredibly good at his job, especially in his quarterly presentations to the board of directors. He would rehearse his presentations in front of various audiences, often including associates from the Controller’s Group.
One afternoon I was invited to a rehearsal. I have always believed that if someone is trying to improve themselves, you should help them. During this rehearsal, the CFO was asking for feedback, so I shared my careful but constructive observations with him, which he seemed to appreciate and took into consideration as he went through his presentation again. For the next three years, I worked with the CFO preparing his board presentations and helping him rehearse. The job gave me a lot of exposure to other senior leaders in the company and started the journey for me to come full circle and eventually become the CFO of The Coca-Cola Company.
So now, after thirty-two years at The Coca-Cola Company, I am retired. I get enthusiastic reactions from those who ask me how I am spending my retirement and hear that I serve on public and not-for-profit boards. I learned about public board service through my various roles at Coca-Cola that allowed me to interact with and work for the company’s Board of Directors. Had I not had this exposure, I would likely have had no idea what it means to serve on a public board.
Over the years, I have encountered many people who potentially have an interest in board service. Those individuals who have had limited or no exposure to public boards don’t fully understand the level of caution companies exercise when deciding to bring on new board members. Board members are engaged in the inner decisions of a company during good times and challenging times. However, that isn’t the only reason for caution. Bringing in the wrong board member can be highly disruptive and can cause the board to focus on issues that have little to do with governing the company for which they serve. Boards do want candidates who will think differently and bring different perspectives, but they also want people who can bring those perspectives in a non-disruptive manner. Although I fully understand why boards are so cautious about how they choose board members, I do not accept the lack of diversity.
I currently serve on four public boards. All of them have some level of diversity and are actively seeking more diverse board members. Research shows diversity matters and the number of diverse board members matters. The research also shows that when there is more than one woman in the boardroom, the dynamics in the room change as the two women support each other. However, the magic number to experience the full advantages of having a diverse boardroom appears to be at least three. When there are three diverse board members, there is a greater level of overall acceptance and support. Although each board is different, being the only woman in a boardroom or on a management team is often challenging. If the only diverse person in the room has a dissenting opinion from the majority, that person must work hard not just to be heard but to be understood.
Over the years, the governing bodies of public companies have been changing as companies have been broadening their search criteria for board members. In the not-too-distant past, boards were primarily composed of CEOs of other public companies who were primarily white males. Given efforts to diversify boardrooms, boards have broadened their search criteria to include other “categories” such as C-suite executives, consultants, educators, and people from government service. When boards were comprised of CEOs who had boards of their own, there was no perceived need to have programsto train these CEOs how to be effective board members. Now that public companies are broadening their searches, there are many programs to train prospective board members.
As you pursue a role in corporate governance, know not all board training programs are equal. There is nothing wrong with participating in a training program. I have found some of the best programs offer some skills and governance training and also offer exposure to current board members. Most of the courses I have experience with are offered primarily, if not solely, to women, given we are having the most difficulty being recognized as a board candidate. In the current environment where the search criteria have opened to non-CEOs, non-diverse candidates also need training and exposure, although they may not experience the same difficulties obtaining a board role.
Fortunately, gender-diversity initiatives are having a positive impact as it relates to management roles. Honestly, I don’t understand why companies are challenged in identifying women for boards. I meet talented women all the time. I have no idea why companies are finding it so challenging to locate them. Adding racial-diversity initiatives in addition to gender diversity makes it even more difficult for them. Companies are going to have to address racial and gender diversity in their boardrooms and management ranks. They have to do both. As with gender, addressing racial diversity within management will help solve the disparities inherent to the current boardrooms as more senior-level executives would be available for board roles. Until diversity is prevalent in all levels of organizations, the excuse that they can’t find diverse individuals to fill board roles will continue to be used.
Recent legislation requiring companies to add gender-diverse board members is helping accelerate the gender initiative. It is unfortunate that for some it took legislation to enforce the issue. However, research bears out having more diversity is the right thing to do as it helps companies and boards get better answers and results. I can imagine there will be a day when companies with no female board representation will be outliers. At that point, I think those companies will adapt rather than remain outliers.
There are many organizations that support women’s efforts to secure public board positions by helping women learn how to market their experience. Women who haven’t had previous corporate board experience but who have served on not-for-profit boards often have transferrable skills. Knowing how to talk about those transferable skills is key.
I also think current board members would want to engage in an organization like BoardSeatMeet. I see men and women board members who can and want to be part of the solution of diversifying boards.
This is especially true for retired board members like me, where we have more time. A great way to spend some of that time is to support others trying to achieve more during their careers.
One great way to get board experience is to join the board of a young public company or a start-up. The constant across all boards, regardless of size, is good governance. Lots of start-up companies achieve various levels of success. Not all of them fully appreciate the requirements of being a public company, but a public company’sshareholders have given their money and want value back, including governance. Many talented women are available for board service who can and will make sure these companies are doing the right thing.
There seems to be lots of board opportunities. Some opportunities are the result of new public and private companies being formed, and some are the result of companies refreshing their boards as their current board members reach age limits. It seems many companies have age limits. Sometimes it is waived for a short period of time to enable the company to avoid losing needed skills or losing too many knowledgeable board members at one time. Regardless, an age limit does allow the company to refresh the board. Some boards have term limits, which also provide an opportunity for board refreshment. Regardless, there is no shortage of board opportunities available now or coming available soon.
Given the abundance of opportunity, choosing which boards to join isn’t easy. There are many great companies to consider. When you are ready for board leadership, think about the criteria you will use and choose your boards thoughtfully. My current boards are in different industries and all have strong leadership. For me, the company’s culture, people management philosophy, and company governance philosophy are important. You have to decide what your criteria will be.
While things have come a long way since the day I took the role at Coca-Cola that defined where I would be today, we have a lot more work to do on diversity in the boardroom. With support and commitment, companies can successfully address the racial and gender disparities in their boardrooms and in their management ranks fairly quickly, if they are so inclined.
I cannot wait to see how you and future leaders will embrace these challenges and make a better tomorrow for all of us.
Kathy Waller is a Chief Financial Officer and Board Member with over 35 years of broad financial and operational leadership experience within the consumer and retail sectors.
Kathy retired in March 2019 after 32 years with The Coca-Cola Company where she was the Chief Financial Officer and President, Enabling Services. In these roles, she led the company’s global finance, technical and shared services organizations, and represented the company to investors, lenders and rating agencies. Kathy also serves as a Board member for Delta Airlines, CGI Group, Cadence Bancorporation and Beyond Meat.
Kathy joined The Coca-Cola Company in 1987 as a Senior Accountant and assumed roles of increasing responsibility. She was named Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2014 and added the role of President of Enabling Services in 2017. In addition to her c-suite role, Kathy was the founding chair of the Coca-Cola Company’s Women’s Leadership Council.
Kathy is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Spelman College, The University of Rochester, The Woodruff Arts Center, Achieve Atlanta, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and The Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and an MBA from the University of Rochester and is a Certified Public Accountant.