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She’s a director at Chevron and 3M. Here’s her advice for young leaders looking to join a corporate board

June 24, 2021, 5:27 PM UTC

Being a board member is not an easy job—but getting on a board in the first place can be even more challenging.

Dambisa Moyo, global economist, author, coprincipal at Versaca Investments, and board member at companies including Chevron and 3M, talked about her corporate board journey at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit on Wednesday. 

“I joined my first board, SABMiller, at 39 and was therefore quite young in terms of when people join boards,” Moyo said. “I also didn’t come from the C-suite, which is traditionally the pipeline for board members.” Being a Black woman, originally born and raised in Zambia, “meant that I was also additionally very much unconventional,” she said.

For about seven years, she tried to get on a corporate board, Moyo said. “It was incredibly difficult because I did fall outside the traditional hunt or pool for candidates,” she said.

“Very fortuitously, I happened to write a book, which really focused on the emerging markets, specifically about the inefficacy of aid,” Moyo said. And the book caught the attention of the SABMiller board.

Most of the boards Moyo joined had emerging-market interests, which aligned with her own interests, she said. She offered the following career advice for young leaders with corporate board aspirations:

  • Have in-depth expertise in a specific area combined with broad knowledge of how the company works and the business landscape.
  • Ground your views in data not in emotions or suppositions.
  • Your managers will be interested in your career as much as you help them to build theirs.
  • Your attitude, dress code, and communication skills signal whether you’ll be a leader or a follower.
  • Take rejection as a cue to transform yourself into a candidate they just can’t ignore.

Now, as a more than 10-year corporate board veteran, Moyo went on to explain that boards are custodians of an organization but also bear obligations to society at large. Operations, the safety and engagement of employees, and financials are top of mind as well, Moyo noted.

“That array of issues has continued to expand from climate issues to pay equity, racial and gender parity, issues around obesity, voter rights, et cetera,” she said. “So it is an ever-evolving challenge. I would argue, actually, that boards don’t have a sort of template that works for all of these issues.” But boards are working on being more transparent and flexible as these problems are not easily solved with an “attractive slogan” or a short-term answer, Moyo said. 

Corporate boards are currently being held accountable by society and stakeholders concerning ESG (environmental, social, and governance) criteria and diversity. The model for governance has moved away from solely a business focus to an understanding of a broader stakeholder agenda, Moyo said. But government needs to partner with corporate boards in order to make changes, she added. 

“It’s in some instances quite disappointing that we, as board members of corporations, are expected to lead on public policy issues like education, health care, or even climate change,” Moyo said. “We do rely very heavily on government helping us to think through how to measure and think about risk mitigation. But also, government has a broader mandate to think about issues such as tradeoffs.” 

Moyo gave the example of climate change. “There’s no doubt about it,” she said. “There’s an urgent and important issue to address here. But we’re not going to get it right until we understand that there are 1.5 billion people in the world who have got no access to energy [that can be used in a] clean, cost-effective way…One company can’t solve that by itself. It needs government involvement.”

A good example of government partnering with businesses is the creation of COVID-19 vaccines and their rollout, she noted. “There’s no way those companies could have done that without really good engagement with government, and that’s critically important,” Moyo said. 

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