Dambisa Moyo On How To Join A Board And Make An Impact
August 11, 2021
Dambisa Moyo is a Zambian-born global economist and best-selling author, known for her analysis of macroeconomics and global affairs. A preeminent thinker respected for her unique perspectives, she has served on several boards including currently, Chevron Corporation, Condé Nast and the 3M Company.

In her latest book “How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better in a Chaotic World” , she provides thoughtful analysis and detailed insight on board structures, making it a must-have for anyone looking to join a board or who is already on one and wanting to make a greater impact. In this interview, she shares why diversity in the boardroom is important and how feedback can propel your career forward.

You had a very successful career at Goldman Sachs, have written several best-selling books and serve on multiple boards. What is the mindset or approach to your work that you'd say has contributed most to your career progression?

I think it's really important to be in an environment where people feel like they can give you critical feedback. But then, you have to excel, you have to be the best at whatever you choose to be. And you have to know that hard work is just inescapable.

We are in an era where people feel reluctant to give feedback. It is quite dangerous in that they worry women are going to cry, or you know, a black person's going to sue. So they don't give critical feedback. Because of that, the only way to know you're not succeeding is by not getting promoted, or not getting an increase in compensation.

We're not owed feedback, so we have to make other people feel comfortable enough to give us their honest assessments. I think it's important to really ask people for feedback and to be willing to take it. Even if it is very, very hard to swallow.

You got your first board position, very young, at the age of 39. Most board directors are around 65. How did you get your start?

I have a new book out all about corporate boards, and talk specifically, not only about how I ended up on boards, but what exactly the job of the board is. What is the mandate of the board? I spent a good three to four years trying to get on boards before I landed my first one. Something I find frustrating is that there's a sense out there that because one is a black woman we will automatically get on a board. No, it is not automatic. It wasn't then, and it isn’t now.

I wasn’t very fortunate in many respects because initially, nobody was telling me why they didn't want me on the board. I wasn't even getting interviewed until slowly, people started to give me feedback. They said things like, "Hey, listen. Your problem is you have a great resume, but you don't have operational experience, you haven't run a group of 10,000 people or you don't have real P&L experience.”

We talk often about the value and importance of having diverse boards. As someone now on the inside of those structures, can you explain why it's so critical that we have boards that are representative of the population?

I mean, for me, it's a no-brainer. Because, you know, as a black person, I'm part of a community. So I understand the Zeitgeist and the issues that perhaps a group of 12 white men who all have the same backgrounds and similar information will probably not see nor understand. I recently joined the board of Conde Nast and they have a portfolio of magazines around the world - it's very disaggregated. At some level, being able to talk in the boardroom about what's going on in popular culture with Jay Z and Beyonce or what being called a Karen means is important to how we think about our media footprint. If I wasn't there, it's quite likely that many of my board colleagues wouldn't be familiar with or aware of that.

The majority of companies still have very little diversity on their boards, or in the upper levels of their organizations, so some countries and states have had to take more drastic measures in the form of quotas. What is your feeling about quotas as a way to drive that diversity?

I absolutely hate the fact that we even have to have a world where there's a discussion around quotas. That being said, they're kind of a necessary evil. I mean, we've had multiple decades of little progress. I think that the focus on diversity, both in terms of gender and race has definitely propelled more women into the boardroom. There's more work that needs to be done but I also think it's certainly happening.

What advice would you give to women aspiring to join boards? You talked about, for example, having to gain more operational experience, what are some other pieces of advice you would give?

One of the best questions I've ever heard was from a fellow board member who said: "if you want to join a board, you should ask yourself, 'who is going to call me from the management team?'" So you've got the CEO, the CFO, and the head of HR, but who is going to call you to ask for your help? If they're not calling you for your help and advice, it is basically a sign that you're not really valued for your talent. And maybe that's a bit aggressive. But that is to me, a very powerful statement. Because nobody wants to be in a room and feel like wallpaper.

Another thing I would say is that you need to be easily able to understand what the board does. I can't tell you how many times I've met phenomenal women, with resumes completely on point, but who haven't bothered to read the annual report. They claim they want to be on the board of a particular company but if I ask them what they think about an issue in country x, their eyes glaze over. Then I’m like, 'well why are you here?' Don't just tell me you want to be on a board, it's not sufficient. I don't know what people think goes on in boardrooms, they may think we're drinking great champagne and having parties, but I can assure you there's real work happening.

I remember Mellody Hobson sharing in an interview that she's always the most prepared person in the room. She takes that incredibly seriously. What's your take on that?

Even if your answer is not correct to the nth degree, show that you have a framework for thinking about something. Show how you would tackle the problem. Bring up the key issues. Name some of the risks and opportunities. It shows that you bothered and people love that.

Let's talk about networking and leveraging relationships. If you could go back and do it all again, what would you change?

I've been at this game for 51 years. First of all, nobody is sending you an engraved invitation. And by the way, everything I'm telling you, I learned the hard way. For many years after I got my Ph.D. at Oxford, I really believed that it was enough for me to be invited to parties to speak, to write a book, to join a board. Until somebody had to tell me, very firmly, that I was completely crazy! Nobody is sending you an engraved invitation. If you want something you have to package yourself, you have to work hard, and you have to make sure you're ticking the boxes for what those roles require.

Finally, you've spent a lot of time trying to change the narrative around Africa and of course, there's your advocacy for women. For any underrepresented group, achieving any modicum of success comes with pressure and a great responsibility to represent your community. Do you ever feel like you can't put a foot wrong?

I think it's really important for people to understand that those insecurities don't suddenly end. I remain insecure, I turned 51 last year, and you’d think there would come a point where you actually don't care. But no, as long as you commit yourself to a process of continuous learning, you will always be, dumb at something, so to speak. And so yes, I feel a great responsibility. Success has lots of parents, but failure is an orphan.

Nobody is sending you an engraved invitation. If you want something you have to package yourself, you have to work hard, and you have to make sure you're ticking the boxes for what those roles require.



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