Mary Winston is in a position to be heard. As one of the corporate world’s few Black female directors, her voice matters.

A director on the boards of retailer Bed Bath & Beyond—where she previously served as interim CEO—fast casual restaurant chain Chipotle, and industrial manufacturing companies Domtar Corp., Dover Corp., and Acuity Brands, lately Winston has been talking a lot. Whether its helping draw up ways to improve diversity in the talent pipeline, create safe working conditions for essential employees, develop plans to ensure financial stability, or navigate supply chain breakdowns, Winston’s been on the frontlines for her boards on issues related to the protests around racial injustice and the disruption caused by COVID-19.

In an edited interview with Korn Ferry, Winston told us about what life as a director has been like over these last few hectic months.

What has the conversation around diversity on the boards you sit on been like over the last few months?

I haven’t had a lot of meetings with the entire boards yet, but I’ve had a lot of individual conversations. Fellow directors have been reaching out to talk through ways to approach the issue, which is nice to see. The discussions are different for each company, of course. I can say that all five companies already had a strategy around diversity with proactive management and the CEOs have been raising the topic with the board, so we haven’t had to push the dialogue from the boardroom That said, it’s clear that the approaches need to be refreshed, metrics clarified or added, and progress monitored.

As a black female director, do you feel it is your responsibility to personally be the one to speak up for the black community and hold management accountable?

I’ve always felt a responsibility to be a supportive voice for the black community, but I have mixed feelings about how effective that is when you’re the only black person in the boardroom. Anytime you’re the “only” one, it takes courage to raise issues and it also heightens the likelihood that you won’t be successful because you are the one expected to raise that particular issue so it carries less weight. Still, I know I have to raise the issues and ask the tough questions or the topic may not be addressed. 

Not to take anything away from your talent and experience, but what does the fact that you sit on five boards say about diversity at the board level?

I don’t believe I serve on any of my boards because of my race or gender. I think experience is the most critical factor and CEO and/or CFO experience is the most sought after skillset when board positions become available. It’s also important to have a strong professional network and to be known within your area of expertise.

Beyond the functional expertise, when a board is looking to add a diverse director I often get a call. But there are a lot of talented black people who don’t get calls. That, to me, suggests that improving diversity on boards requires a focus on improving diverse representation in the corporate C-suite where the operational and financial experience to be effective in the boardroom is gained. It’s also important to raise the visibility of those executives so people know they’re there and qualified. Boards and search firms aren’t doing deep enough diligence to identify black talent ready to be on corporate boards. The small pool of experienced black directors get lots of calls or the board is told there are no qualified candidates out there. Unfortunately boards often accept that answer and move ahead with picking another white man to fill their board seat. 

How did you first become a director?

I was a sitting CFO at Scholastic when I joined my first board in 2005. At the time, Sarbanes-Oxley had come into effect (the regulation protecting investors from fraudulent financial reporting by corporations) and public companies were looking for financial experts for the board’s audit committees so my phone started ringing off the hook. Once you join that first board then you are on peoples’ minds for other directorships. I worked in full-time CFO roles at the same time as being a board director for about a decade. 

You are on the boards of a retailer, a restaurant chain, a paper and pulp company, an industrial manufacturer, and a lighting and energy management technology company. I imagine the impact and response among each of them has been very different.

Yes, the COVID pandemic is impacting different businesses in very different ways so the areas of focus and the solutions are different as well. In retail, many stores are temporarily closed, revenue is lower and sales are happening online, so the attention there is on business stability, retaining customers and safety as stores reopen. On the manufacturing side, sales weren’t as impacted for my companies but there are supply chain and plant safety issues to work through. Some of my boards are global companies so that adds to the complexity of the situation and the solutions. What’s common across all businesses is that the virus has been very disruptive but fortunately the management teams have been responsive, agile and very thoughtful about issues from health and safety to liquidity and compensation to emergency succession planning. 

 

Sign Up for our 'This Week in Leadership' email