By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL
In December 2016, BioBreak and Militia Hill Ventures brought together about 100 biopharmaceutical industry executives in Philadelphia to discuss a rather important topic — corporate board service. You may recall my touching on this topic in the “Editor’s Note” in the January 2017 issue of Life Science Leader, which caught the attention of a number of readers. One person (a recently retired manufacturing executive with over 30 years of industry experience) wrote, “For the last eight years I have held seats on non-profit boards, and I am now very interested in obtaining an advisory role/board seat.” He went on to ask my advice on how to go about pursuing corporate board opportunities, and so we scheduled a phone call. During our conversation I found myself referencing the recommendations of those executives who had served on panels during the BioBreak event. As the wisdom seemed to resonate with this reader, Life Science Leader decided to put together a “Journey To The Boardroom” series of articles. In this first installment we explore how to go about finding corporate board opportunities. We conducted a Q&A with the following five executives: Madeline Bell, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Comcast board member; Nance Dicciani, Ph.D., former president and CEO of Honeywell Specialty Materials and former member of the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (currently on the boards of Halliburton, LyondellBasell, Praxair, and AgroFresh); Don Hayden, company board chairman (e.g., Gloucester Pharmaceuticals, Insmed, RegenX), and company board member (e.g., Amicus Therapeutics, WindMIL Therapeutics, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals); Kirk Gorman, former CFO and EVP Jefferson Health Systems and board member of several companies (e.g., BioTelemetry); and Barbara Yanni, former head of licensing at Merck and board member of Trevena, Symic Biomedical, and Vaccinex.
LIFE SCIENCE LEADER (LSL): Explain your approach for determining on which boards to serve and why?
DON HAYDEN: In this industry, everyone knows that more things fail than succeed, so it’s very important to interrogate the science, as it is the essence of what a company is built upon. The second thing I look at is the people (i.e., the management team, and if an existing board, who and what constitutes the board). In my experience, and in situations where I have had the opportunity to help construct a board, the best boards operate as communities or teams, not families. What you want is board members with competencies and experiences to enable the success of the company’s management team. You want board members who can work closely together, because often they will be doing that at long and odd hours of the night, at times that aren’t necessarily convenient and involving difficult circumstances. You might join a board believing there is an opportunity to build a company, but the real test of a board typically comes in those difficult moments when a program has failed, or the money’s not there, or you have to raise money in a market where there is little or no support. When those difficult moments arise, you want to be on a board with a group of people that you not only feel comfortable with but also believe in. The third thing I look for when assessing a board opportunity is the challenge. A question I pose to myself is, “Will serving on this board challenge me, and can I add value to the work, the science, or the people who are already there?”
LSL: Some people might think serving on a nonprofit board could be good experience for serving on a corporate board. What are some of the differences between the two, and what advice do you have regarding serving on either?
MADELINE BELL: It’s a very different experience serving on each of these kinds of boards. On a nonprofit board, you first need a passion for the mission, and you should be aware that you are going to be expected to give time and money. Oftentimes nonprofits don’t have the ability to hire a deep management team, so you might find yourself “leaning in” to help in certain areas (e.g., audit committee, governance committee). And while certain components of nonprofit board experience can be helpful in understanding what governance is, it is very different from a corporate board where you typically have a strong management team, and you are there primarily to represent the shareholders. In a corporate board setting you are not “leaning in” at the same level to help management, and you are certainly not giving money. People shouldn’t start working on a nonprofit board with the expectation it will lead to corporate board positions.
DON HAYDEN: Though nonprofits can be a great point of entry for gaining board context and experience, corporate boards evaluating such experience might give someone only partial credit when being considered for a corporate board. And, that credit is usually dependent on what you did for the nonprofit, as well as the nature of the organization. Experience at premier nonprofits is going to be viewed in a different light from experience at a local or regional organization. Another thing to think about when evaluating a nonprofit board is who else is serving on that board, as these people can be extraordinarily valuable from a networking perspective. When considering nonprofit board opportunities, you should have passion for what the organization does, perhaps gain some board experience, and benefit from networking with other board members.
LSL: What do you think boards were looking for when you began seeking/considering corporate board opportunities?
BARBARA YANNI: As my background is in business development (BD), I think the board saw that as being helpful. If you have a very small startup company, it may not have people with expertise in business development, licensing terms, or what to expect when trying to license its technology, which is often what a small company is interested in doing. Along with my BD background, boards were probably attracted to my finance and tax law experience. This combination meant I could be someone who could help with licensing from a big picture approach but do so with a small venture capital burn rate.
LSL: How did you come about your first corporate board opportunity?
KIRK GORMAN: When I worked for Universal Health Services, I was the investor relations finance guy. As such, I would make a dozen or so presentations a year at large investor conferences. Being able to explain the capital markets and M&A activity was highly valuable. But what truly benefitted me wasn’t necessarily just having competencies, but being in a highly visible position where I was able to articulate and demonstrate my capabilities. Finally, and most importantly, don’t underestimate the importance of working for a highly successful company. Personally, I think it’s hard to get on a corporate board if you have a record of working for companies that struggle. For as people look around and think about who they want to staff their boards, they often start with people they see within industry who are doing well. My set of skills (i.e., strategic understanding of the delivery system on the service side of the business, coupled with finance, M&A, and capital markets experience) not only prepared me for board service but also positioned me well for being capable of serving as the audit committee chair (if needed). Though one of my board opportunities came through a recruiter, in all the other cases it was the result of industry contacts. So while I didn’t initially cite networking as a skill boards are looking for, this is a skill you need to possess.
LSL: What were some of the key connections that facilitated your move toward future board service?
NANCE DICCIANI: There are three key connections that helped me with securing board positions. The first board I served on involved being recruited by the same recruiter who helped me get one of my earlier career-changing positions. That recruiter was looking for a board member possessing a combination of business and technology experience. As my background is in chemical engineering and business, it was a natural fit. Whenever a recruiter calls for advice or leads, I take the time to talk to them, and would advise others to do the same. Even if you aren’t interested in a particular opportunity, by taking the time to consider whether you know someone who might be, you build rapport with people possessing marvelous electronic rolodexes, which is a place you want your name to be. For eventually the conversation moves from, “Are you interested in this job or do you know someone?” to your being able to express interest in finding board positions and the type you’d prefer.
The second contact that proved beneficial for me in securing board opportunities is trade groups. It is critical for people who are in decision-making positions about board membership to get to know you. Getting involved in trade groups and taking on leadership positions within them puts you in front of many c-suite people who can recommend you to boards, board members, and management teams.
Lastly, don’t discount the power of personal connections and networking, as these too can lead to uncovering board opportunities.
LSL: What is your opinion on seeking a corporate board opportunity while also working full time?
DON HAYDEN: During my biopharmaceutical industry career, I was approached for a number of corporate board opportunities which I declined. While perhaps there are things I could have done differently, I remain convinced that I did not have the time necessary to serve on a board, do my job, and do both well. Since retiring from full-time employment, I have served on a number of boards at the same time. In my experience, it is a substantial requirement to join a board (more so for public than for private companies), and is a discontinuous experience. Sure, you have a set of planned meetings that you can build a schedule around. But the most important work for a board is often done around a business development opportunity where you need to have 15 board calls in a 10-week period, or when a program crashes and you have to have 10 board meetings in two weeks. It’s important to understand that you need to be available when needed. If you are in a full-time role and you want to join a public or private for-profit board always think about why you are joining, as well. Is it a development opportunity for the role you are currently in, or is it something you desire to do in preparing for something in the future? Either way, you need to make sure you not only have your company’s approval for taking on this board opportunity, but also that you have the full support of senior management. For there will be moments when you will need to ask for grace around some of the things you will be doing. The people I have seen benefit the most from serving on a board while working full-time did so because they had a plan for how board service would benefit them personally and professionally, and they had senior-management support.
LSL: What pre-work should a candidate do when considering if a board is the right fit?
BARBARA YANNI: For me, I’m only interested in biotechnology board positions, because that’s my background. I approach being offered a board position the same way I deliberate over accepting a job, with the most important driver being whether the company has interesting and viable science. Now, I am not a scientist, but I have friends who are. So I consult with them when considering board opportunities. A second driver when weighing board opportunities is how I feel about my interaction with the people. I want to meet the other board members and the management team. While this tends to happen rather automatically as part of the consideration process, the length of time in these interactions can often be very short, so be highly attentive when having the opportunity to engage, and take advantage of additional opportunities, if provided, to engage as much as possible.
LSL: What advice do you have for people interested in serving on a corporate board?
MADELINE BELL: If you want to join a public board, expect long cycle times from the time you first hear about a board opportunity until the time you actually join (e.g., six months to a year). There will be background checks and many interviews for which you should prepare. And although “fit” is important and something you can’t necessarily prepare, you should have an understanding of the company’s values and history and the board members’ backgrounds.
NANCE DICCIANI: Approach joining a board the way you would when seeking a job, because in many ways it is. Make sure your résumé is appropriate and distinctive, and be sure to highlight your key characteristics.
KIRK GORMAN: First and foremost is to be successful in whatever it is you are doing. Second, strive to be visible, especially among bankers and lawyers in your industry so people can find you. I’ve never looked for a board seat, but they have found me. Work for success in your personal life and career and what you’re building.
DON HAYDEN: Develop examples of resiliency, because your ability to be resilient will be necessary on a regular basis when serving on a board. Your ability to work through some really tough times and being able to demonstrate that you enabled your group, department, or company to come out in a better place than where they were will be critical. Lastly, network early, often, and broadly, because you never know where or when the right board opportunity will turn up.
BARBARA YANNI: Serving on boards is all about networking and what it is you bring to the company as a board member. Figure out what you can bring to a board and be able to clearly articulate that when approached for potential board opportunities.