ANTHONY EARLEY, Director, Ford Motor Company, Southern Company and CLEAResult.
I understand your first board stint was with Long Island lighting Company. How did you end up on that board?
My first board experience was somewhat atypical but did give me insights into what skills are needed for successful board members. In the mid-1980s, I was hired as general counsel of Long island Lighting Co. in New York. The company was building a very unpopular and hugely expensive nuclear plant. That meant I spent extensive time with our board dealing with complex and potentially existential issues. I was able to observe how a group of individuals with diverse experiences could provide valuable insights to a management team besieged by day-to-day pressures.
When I was promoted to president and COO of the company and was offered a board seat, it was a natural transition to join a group I had observed for nearly four years.
What did you learn from that first appointment?
The takeaway from that first board position for anyone seeking a board seat is to find every possible opportunity to observe a real board in action. Try to understand what works and doesn't work. If you are an up-and-coming executive, volunteer to make presentations to your board. The more challenging the issue, the better the learning experience. Observe the difference between the role of management and the role of the board. Good boards understand their role is to provide advice and counsel but ultimately, management must make the decisions. This can be a hard lesson for "Type A's" that populate many boards. They are on the board because they have been wildly successful in their chosen fields. As board members, they are expected to bring that expertise to the table. But at the crucial moment of decision, those "Type A's" must back off and participate in a collaborative way with management.
Having been on seven Fortune 500 Boards, is there one thing that stands out as the key factor that makes for a great board and a great company?
Great companies have a mission that inspires their employees, their customers, their myriad constituencies and their investors. The inspiration is more than just being financially successful. It must motivate people to give their best efforts every day. Similarly, great boards are populated by individuals who buy into the company's vision. It can't be the prestige of being on a brand name board. It can't be the great contacts you'll make or they fees you'll...