My Board Journey: DEBORA PLUNKETT, Director, Nationwide, J.C. Penney, CACI International, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems.
By Eve Tahmincioglu

What was the process that led you to Nationwide’s boardroom?

I was contacted by a senior leader at the company, who asked if I would be interested in interviewing for an anticipated opening. This has been a common path for me — someone refers me or calls because they are familiar with my work in government.

Were there certain aspects of your expertise that attracted Nationwide’s leadership to you?

I think that’s really a question for Nationwide’s leadership! From my perspective, I believe they were interested in not only my cybersecurity background but also my leadership experiences.

What attracted you to the position?

I knew that I had capacity for more board service but wanted to make sure that my next commitment was very different from my other commitments. I did not have any work in financial/insurance industries, so this opportunity provided both diversity of experiences and the opportunity to be a part of a great company.

How did you come to join J.C. Penney’s board?

I was referred to the J.C. Penney CEO by a former supervisor.

When you were appointed to the Penney’s board, the CEO at the time praised your “background in information management and technology.” As a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and having led the NSA’s cyber defense and information systems security mission, do you find you’re getting an increasing number of offers to join boards?

I have noticed an uptick in the number of interest contacts for board openings, with a particular focus on candidates with cybersecurity/technology backgrounds. I expect the demand for tech savvy board members will only continue to increase in the years to come.

Is cybersecurity typically the most important issue in the boardroom these days?

Cybersecurity is not always the most important issue, but certainly one that is a more frequent topic of discussion. It really depends on the mission of the organization and the environment in which the organization is operating.

Are environmental, social and governance issues top of mind?

Absolutely, these are among the key topics for boards.

What’s the most pressing issue for you in the boardroom?

While it would be easy for me to say that cybersecurity is the most pressing issue for me, that isn’t the case. I believe the more pressing area of focus for boards is ensuring that the board is fulfilling its fiduciary responsibilities by holding the organization’s leadership accountable for delivering on the mission. So governance is a key topic, as is accountability.

What was your first board appointment? How were you able to land your first board seat?

My first corporate board was J.C. Penney, and I landed this board seat through a referral by one of my former supervisors to the CEO of J.C. Penney. That opened the door for a discussion, and ultimately the opportunity for me to interview with other board members.

The boards you sit on are quite diverse, is that a key criterion that you’re looking for in boards? Do you think boardroom diversity helps the governance process?

I consciously sought diversity in my board opportunities because it allows me to learn and contribute in unique ways. I’m a strong proponent of diversity as I believe it does result in better outcomes in the boardroom.

Different experiences yield different perspectives, and the richness that comes from these differences can position an organization for the best possible outcomes.

What advice would you give someone looking to join a corporate board?

You should make your interests known to those who are in the position to be a champion for you. This includes leveraging your network to get the word out that you are interested in board service. Connecting with a search firm that has a board practice is also a great way to get exposure, experience and mentoring through what can be a complicated and prolonged process. Keeping a professional social media profile up to date, and networking at industry events is also key to communicating your interest in board service.

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