Pamela Thomas-Graham, chief executive officer of Dandelion Chandelier LLC, a private digital media enterprise reporting on luxury goods and services, is a director at Peloton, The Clorox Company, and N.T. Butterfield & Sons Bank.
What attracted you to Peloton and how did you end up on the board?
I’m a fitness enthusiast, and I also love to know what’s new in the world of tech. So I was well aware of Peloton before being approached by a search executive for consideration as a board candidate. I love spin classes, but had only taken them at studios in New York. There’s a Peloton retail store in the mall where I regularly shop in the suburbs, so I’d been in a couple of times to ask questions. I have a lot of friends who’ve had a Peloton bike for years. But I never had one until I joined the board! Now I’m totally addicted. Having said that, at the end of day we join a board because we admire and like the people we’ll be working with. I have a great deal of respect for John Foley, the Founder and CEO of Peloton and for William Lynch, the company’s President. They have built a truly impressive team. And my fellow board members are incredibly talented. I have learned a lot from Peloton management and from my board colleagues even in the short time that I’ve been on this board.
How do you think your background contributed to you being selected onto the Peloton board?
My career has been spent helping to develop effective strategies and marketing approaches for businesses — first as a McKinsey consultant and partner, then as CEO of CNBC Television, Group President at Liz Claiborne and member of the Executive Board leading human resources, marketing, and New Markets at Credit Suisse. I’m passionate about consumer businesses, and intrigued about why consumers make the decisions they do, and how technology has affected that. I am also an experienced public company board member — I joined the board of Clorox in 2005, and I now serve as the Lead Independent Director for the board. I’m also a member of the board for Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Bermuda-based NT Butterfield Bank.
You referred to yourself as a fitness enthusiast; do you think it’s important for directors to have an interest in the products or services sold by companies where they serve on boards?
Absolutely. I don’t think that board members need to be heavy users of the company’s products — if it’s a consumer company — but I do think that great board members are intrigued and enthusiastic about the line of business in which the company operates. Ideally, they either have deep professional experience in the industry itself, or they have highly relevant experience in other industries, functions or leadership roles that are vital to the company’s future success.
You were the first female member of Credit Suisse’s Executive Board and the first African-American female partner at McKinsey & Company. How were you able to be such a trailblazer in two traditionally white and male industries?
I was blessed to have a mother who always worked, and a father who expected exactly the same thing from me that he did from my older brother. So I was lucky to have been raised to be confident, and to look for challenges. My husband has always stood by me, and my kids have been terrific in understanding that my work is important to me (but not more important than they are). I’ve had great bosses, mentors, teams and friends to help me navigate choppy waters. No mountain gets climbed alone — I’ve been really fortunate to have had some expert advice and encouragement all along the way. It hasn’t always been easy, or fun. But it’s been totally worthwhile.
Do you think business leadership is finally getting more diverse, or do we still have a long way to go?
I’ve made the choice to only associate with companies where the board and the management teams are genuinely committed to diversity and inclusion. My former boss at Credit Suisse was personally committed to it, and every board upon which I serve has an equally deep commitment to ensuring that the workplace at all levels — including the C-Suite and the boardroom — reflect diversity of thought, background, and experience. I believe that’s how great companies succeed — a research study done by the Credit Suisse Global Institute when I was there proved that shareholders benefit greatly when boards are more diverse.
With such a diverse business background, including everything from fashion to media, do you think that bolsters your ability to help organizations through today’s non-stop digital disruption?
I’m used to rapid change, and over time I’ve developed some muscle memory about disruption and how nimble management teams need to be. Now more than ever, board members need to be curious, and ask great questions. There’s no way that they’ll have all the answers as individuals, but collectively, if the conversation is about probing, testing, and looking for creative solutions, then management will have the partnership it deserves in rapidly-changing environments.
Was board service something on your radar screen throughout your career or is it something you’ve come to consider recently?
Since my time at McKinsey, I had always hoped to serve on a corporate board. I have served on a number of not-for-profit boards in Manhattan, and those have been great learning experiences, in addition to being a really nice way to share some business experiences with cultural and civic organizations.
Have you turned down offers to serve on boards? If so, why? Is there something specific you’re looking for?
My plate is full right now! I am a budding entrepreneur, having founded a digital media company called Dandelion Chandelier. We cover all elements of modern luxury, and it’s been great fun building my own company for the first time. With that, plus four corporate boards, my schedule is totally filled.
What advice would you give individuals looking to land their first board role?
Demonstrate your ability to add value as a corporate board member by serving as a board member in an organization that you care about: a cultural, civic, educational or humanitarian group where you can use your professional expertise to be of real value. Show that you can advise and contribute without having final decision-making authority — for the most part, that’s what board members have to do — you’re not management, and it’s a different skill set. Get to know the search executives who do board work — these days, most boards use an outside firm to fill any open seats. Network with friends and colleagues who are already on a corporate board — that can lead to introductions that ultimately yield a board seat. Most of all, though — be really good at what you do, and be able to explain what you’re really good at in a couple of pithy sentences. Remember: the company wants to know in a succinct manner: what will you bring to the boardroom?