SUE W. COLE, Director, Martin Marietta Materials, Biscuitville, Diversified Trust and the National Association of Corporate Directors. Managing partner and founder of SAGE Leadership & Strategy, LLC, a boutique advisory firm specializing in strategy, leadership development and corporate governance
You’ve sat on a diverse group of boards. What attracts you to the boards you sit on? Is there something specific you look for?
I am fortunate to sit on a variety of boards — publicly owned, employee-owned, family-owned, as well as nonprofit organizations. I’ve always been interested in innovative companies and organizations with strong growth potential, well-thought-out strategies and exceptional leadership. A company’s culture is extremely important to me — how it treats its employees, customers/clients, and other stakeholders; its mission, vision and values; and its reputation. I want to work with companies that are passionate about their employees’ wellbeing and provide an environment for continuous learning. And I look for companies that are leaders in their industry and the communities in which they do business.
You’ve been a senior executive in banks and investment management firms, and clearly you have significant financial experience. Do you think your positions in finance prepared you for board service? Did it help you get a seat in the boardroom?
I think my early career in corporate lending gave me a deep understanding of not only a company’s financials, but also its strategies, competitive positioning, key drivers and risks. Later moving to an executive leadership position with a start-up trust company required a different set of skills — a focus on managing and growing a P&L, building market share and attracting and retaining top-notch talent. So yes, financial and analytical skills were important for that first board seat but equally important were leadership roles in both my company and nonprofit organizations and visibility in my community.
How were you able to secure your first board post?
During my corporate banking days, I served on numerous nonprofit boards and advanced to a leadership role in most of them. My first public company board position was in my early 50s through a client relationship and my second public board position came a couple of years later through a fellow board member of a statewide nonprofit on which we both served in leadership roles. I was not soliciting either board position at the time.
How did you become a sought after director?
The personality of a board member is strategic, collaborative and curious. Board members are prepared. Board members listen and ask questions. Board members care deeply about the success of the companies with which they are involved. I’d like to think I have these characteristics yet I know I’ve been very, very lucky to be involved with each of my companies.
Are you often the only woman in the boardroom? How does that impact what you do, and do you see more gender diversity in governance today?
While I was often the first woman on a corporate board or in a key leadership role on a nonprofit board, I wanted to make sure I was not the last! In addition to trying to do the best job I possibly could for each organization, I also recommended other women in as many situations as I could. Due to business and family demands, I often had to say no to additional opportunities and always tried to recommend another woman who was willing and able to serve. Gender diversity, as well as race and age, is being proactively discussed in all the boardrooms I’m in. It’s viewed as a business imperative to get diversity of thought. I no longer see a gender or racial bias in selecting candidates. However, with that said, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity but it’s improving every year.
What advice would you give people trying to land their first board seat?
I encourage people to first volunteer with nonprofit organizations for which you have a passion and the time to be impactful for the benefit of the organization. Building experience as an excellent board member of a nonprofit can also help round out other skills and enable you to network with other leaders.
You were recently the co-chair of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission that released a report titled “Adaptive Governance: Board Oversight of Disruptive Risks.” How have you been able to ensure that the top managers at the company’s where you are a director are staying on top of such risks?
The first imperative is to be sure the organization’s fundamental enterprise risk management processes are effective but recognize that these processes may not necessarily capture potential disruptive risks. The organizations in which I’m involved have a high degree of openness to share concerns, potential problems, or bad news. We challenge each other’s ideas and embrace intellectual curiosity. We bring in outside technical experts to educate us. And we ask a lot of questions!
With your experience as the former director of United Way of Greater Greensboro and discussions you’ve participated in about economic opportunities, it sounds like you’re passionate about income disparities and how the community can help bolster income disparities. Do you think there’s a role boards should be playing when it comes to economic mobility problems in society?
In today’s world, every successful company practices sustainability, which I believe has three elements — social, economic and environmental. Every company can address sustainability in a variety of ways, such as empowering employees to be engaged in their communities to build houses or reduce hunger or help develop job skills. Companies can target corporate contributions to social needs and of course create and preserve job opportunities. All of this can be helpful in reducing income disparities. I believe boards should expect sustainability to be a core value of the organization, encourage a strong commitment to sustainability and track its progress.