5 Questions with… Lucien Alziari, Clarks Board Director

Directors can get slammed with a lot of work. And then there’s the case of Lucien Alziari and his first year as a board director.

Alziari, whose day job is chief human resources officer at Prudential, joined the board of Clarks, the UK shoemaker, in January 2016. Over the next year, he needed to help with a CEO transition, debate how the firm would navigate selling products both in stores and online, and advised the company on how to navigate the ever-changing Brexit drama. “Apart from that the play was fine, Mrs. Lincoln,” jokes Alziari.

Alziari, 59, sits on the board’s compensation and nominating committees and is the company’s lead independent director. Most recently, you could find him in Street, a small English town where Clarks has been based since 1825, and where Alziari was prepping for his fourth annual shareholder meeting. In an edited interview with Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry, he told us about the differences between board gigs and management, the uncertainty of Brexit, and the ideal amount of time to talk at meetings.

Everyone wants a director spot. How’d you get on the board?

Clarks started a search looking for someone with HR experience, which was unusual. When I interviewed, however, the board members didn’t drill me on my HR experience. They were more interested in understanding what I would be like as a colleague and where I could add value. They took my functional expertise for granted.

As a C-suite executive, you are in contact with board directors …

Yes, for many years, but now I have more understanding and certainly more empathy for them!

Now that you’re a director yourself, what do you feel is your primary role?

One thing we aren’t is management in disguise. We don’t know what’s happening at a detailed level. Our role is to determine whether we are getting all the cards from management and whether they are competent and confident. On the full board, I’ve been quite probing on accountability and have an expectation of a high level of professionalism. Also, I’m not too understanding of excuses.

We are there to protect the interest of the shareholder. A big “A-ha!” moment was realizing that, while the stock price is still important to our shareholders, the bi-annual dividend decision is of particular importance. I grew up in companies where the interest was in stock price appreciation.

How do you advise your UK-based company on Brexit, a virtually unheard-of situation?

It’s a situation where having lots of detailed plans doesn’t help, because no one knows how it will play out, even the prime minister. As a board member, all you can do is ask good questions and help management figure it out. You want to protect the optionality of the business and make sure the business can adapt to the circumstances, whatever they end up being.

You were just re-elected to your second term. What would you do over from your first term?

I know I made all the rookie mistakes. I would go in thinking I’d say two or three things and then, at the end of meetings, ask myself why did I talk so much? I hope I’ve got better with time.

Another realization has been that the board isn’t together often enough to become a real team. I went in expecting to be part of a team, but it’s a different construct. Relationships and collegiality do build over time, but the most important thing is for the board to have the right governance and decision-making mechanisms in place, whether they are structural or social.