Archana Agrawal, CMO of Airtable, describes the power of having the voice of the customer on a corporate board

In times of great change such as this, versatile leaders with wide-ranging experiences are more valuable than ever. For corporate boards, this means moving away from the template of recruiting directors from the ranks of CEOs, CFOs, and venture or audit partners, which used to account for the full makeup of the boardroom.

“Workforce strategy itself has dramatically changed over the last several months, and that influences every aspect of the employee life cycle and every aspect of the business,” Archana Agrawal, chief marketing officer at Airtable, told Fortune. “What is top of mind for managers, for leaders, or for board members has all really evolved.”

Rising needs around technology, cybersecurity, and workforce strategy are changing the face of boards. Heidrick & Struggles reports a sharp decline in the number of former CEOs and CFOs appointed to board roles in 2020. 

Boards are also adding representation for the voice of the customer, drawing new directors either from practitioners (for example, an HR software company adding a chief human resources officer to its board) or sales and marketing leaders.

Agrawal exemplifies this trend. She has been on the board of MongoDB, a database software company, since 2019. Her experience as VP of analytics at job-search website The Ladders and head of data science and growth marketing at Atlassian made her an ideal candidate to bring that “voice of the customer” perspective to MongoDB.

Archana Agrawal of Airtable
Airtable CMO Archana Agrawal, who also holds board seats at MongoDB and Zendesk.
Courtesy of Airtable

“It felt like not only was I able to fill the role that they wanted in the board, but also as a first-time board member, it gave me the ability to hit the ground running because of my familiarity with go-to-market models and developer orientation,” Agrawal said.

She shared that she was inclined to join the MongoDB board after considering many different board options because she saw that the company valued her perspective.

“The commitment that they have around creating a culture of inclusion by having different backgrounds and perspectives on the board was very important,” Agrawal said. “It felt like fitting a piece of a puzzle rather than having to create space…the ability to contribute was so simple.”

Agrawal joined the board of Zendesk in July 2020 and needed to quickly get involved in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research from PwC has found that board leaders met more often and engaged in more education for themselves this past year.

“Everyone realized that there was so much to learn from both the evolving environment around us, but also [about] how our employees and stakeholders were reacting and customers were reacting and how we had to quickly change,” she said of her first few months.

She said Zendesk’s commitment to her onboarding, even virtually, helped her make an impact.

“Being able to see them lean in with everything, with respect to onboarding and continuing education and getting to understand team dynamics of the company, were also things that I could see that there was a new and renewed focus.”

This time of rapid, significant change is where an executive with a data background can help a board stay agile in ways that a former CEO or CFO may not be able to. As retention, supply chain, workplace safety, and hybrid working challenges emerged over the past two years, leaders needed a faster read on the internal and external environments.

“Not only did I see these topics elevated in importance for myself and my team, but I saw them elevated in every boardroom as well, things that we didn’t have playbooks for,” Agrawal said. “So it became largely discourse, engagement, talking to subject matter experts. Truly you saw a growth mindset.”

Corporate leaders have a responsibility to try to stay better informed during times like these. ZenDesk employs this forward-leaning approach and intentional commitment to a wide range of perspectives in order to spur innovation.

“The ability to see a group of individuals come together and engage so deeply with management, and to be able to do so with such strong frameworks and the impact that that can have, has been a learning experience” and “a wonderful lesson in teamwork.”

“You can easily see [Zendesk as] a place that can become a space for a lot of new ideation,” Agrawal added.

From a talent and team perspective, Agrawal said she feels marketing leaders have an advantage in this new era because it’s a function that naturally is multidisciplinary in its makeup compared to others. She noted that many marketing people have experience in a diverse range of professional realms including creative, data, software, performance marketing, and digital marketing, and across their careers they all get a chance to work together.

“I actually think marketing has an unfair advantage in that regard, given its breadth,” Agrawal explained. “I think that that is just such a tremendous power in someone’s career as well to be able to flex between different functions, and marketing gives you the ability to do that.”

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