theBoardlist CEO Shannon Gordon and Jenna kick off discussing her experiences serving in the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa and the lessons she learned about making time for joy and community, finding our shared humanity, and seeing and accepting people as their whole selves.
We chat about theBoardlist’s efforts elevating diversity at the board level – less than 20% of board seats at Fortune 1,000 companies are held by women and less than 7% are at private companies – and why they believe increasing the statistics is about diversifying networks and increasing visibility.
In reflecting on her journey, Shannon shares three helpful mental tools and frameworks she uses to make decisions, take more risks, navigate learning curves and consistently show up as the best version of herself.
Highlights from the Transcript
- On different perspectives of time: “I am always surprised when I travel and see the joy and hope that exists in places where people don’t have many material posessions. When I was in the Peace Corps, I was living in a poverty stricken town where people were malnutritioned and living very difficult lives. Yet, you would see them in the street or in their homes dancing around a drum or laughing while sharing lunch in a common bowl together. Watching people enjoy life is what made the biggest positive impression on me when I was in Senegal. Then, comparing it to life here, where sometimes it’s hard to break for lunch or make time to see friends after work, I always find it so ironic. Here we have so much, but so little time. There, they have so little but they have time to enjoy things. I have tried to keep that lesson with me as I move through life post-Peace Corps.”
- On finding our shared humanity: “The more conversations you have with people who are coming from different backgrounds or have different points of view, the better able you are to find the common ground or at least acknowledge and appreciate the difference. That’s been really powerful for me. I really enjoy working on diverse teams, with different kinds of people who have unique perspectives. I think it makes us better as a team and also as individuals when we try to bridge those gaps, understand them, and have empathy and a greater perspective of where people are coming from.”
- On seeing each other as our whole selves: “Working in an office is just working in an environment where people are being people. We have this impression that people show up at work as their ‘professional selves.’ No, they come as the whole human, who is living a full life and may have a challenge that you have no idea about that they are bringing to the table. People get frustrated with co-workers and assume there are mysterious motivations. The reality is that we show up with all of our history and experiences and try to do our best every day.”
- On starting at the top at theBoardlist: “Representation and gender diversity at the board level is pretty dire. Less than 20% of board seats at Fortune 1,000 companies are held by women. It’s less than 7% for private companies. Women make up 50% of the work force so those narrow numbers present a lot of space for us to fill. A board’s role is to ensure that a company is maximizing shareholder value by helping it address it’s most strategic issues. I don’t know how a board can do that effectively without reflecting the diversity of the company, both within it’s employee and customer bases.”
- On diverse leadership and growth: “When people see a company doing things differently, from any dimension, they start to see possibility for their own careers and the business as a whole. It leads them to ask: If that can be done differently, what else can be done differently? It creates a new lens and opens up the realm of what is possible.”
- On writing your retirement speech: “When I was trying to decide whether I should leave Walmart, I wrote a retirement speech. I imagined myself at the age of retirement and asked myself: What do I want to be able to say at this dinner, with my family, friends and people I have worked with? What do I want to reflect on, say that I achieved and am proud of? It was such an interesting exercise because I realized that I didn’t want to be able to say ‘I was CEO of this company’ or ‘I achieved this big milestone.’ It was much more about having experiences with wonderful people and building real relationships along the way. The second big piece of it was taking risks. I didn’t want to take a safe path through my whole career. I wanted to take a few leaps of faith. Up to that point, I hadn’t and it really helped me crystallize the decision that it was time to move on from Walmart…I still think about what I wrote, and when I’m going through something challenging or uncomfortable, I remind myself that this is my purpose and that I am intentionally trying to take these risks and have these experiences in my career. It’s been helpful navigating the uncertainty.”
- On creating frameworks to navigate learning curves: “It always feels overwhelming when you are at the bottom of the learning curve or on the precipice of change. I try to write myself frameworks to help. On my best days, what I try to do is say: ‘I’m just going to choose an approach, get out there and ask people for feedback, try putting it into practice, see where it leads me, and adjust from there.’ Before you know it, you end up with a pretty good plan…When you start out with the assumption that you are going to be at best 60% for your first attempt, you have a lot more forgiveness when you discover that you are 40% wrong. Then, you go back and reflect on why things did or didn’t go well. It is so much more powerful when we cultivate an awareness of our thought processes when we’re in new or uncertain situations. Once we identify the tendencies we have to think or behave a particular way in certain situations, we can begin course correcting over time. You can’t learn if you are not aware. I find writing down learnings, creating frameworks for myself, journaling about my experiences and looking for themes throughout helps me learn.”
- On overcoming our fears one at a time: “We have to have compassion for ourselves. I often find that when I am afraid or things didn’t go well, I’m typically afraid to face why. I think we can take things in chunks, be kind and gentle with ourselves, and start by just trying to understand one piece of the situation. We don’t have to take it all on at once, solve every challenge we have or overcome every fear. Just take one piece of it at a time. If you do that over time, it gets a little easier to move through things.”
- On writing our personal ‘Intro letters’: “When I thought about joining theBoardlist as a first-time CEO, I was asking myself: What kind of tone do I want to set? How do I communicate how I am approaching the job? I decided to write an ‘Intro to Shannon’ document. It was just a document for my team, maybe 3 – 5 pages long. It started with who I am as a person, where I come from, and what I do when I’m not working. Then, I wrote about why I took the job, why this work is important to me, what I personally hope to contribute and the kind of impact I want to make. I talked about my leadership style, what my expectations are of myself and the team. Then, really tactical stuff like how I like to work, that I don’t always get through my email inbox, and any of my little quirks as a team member. It was a good exercise on a personal level to synthesize and consolidate all of that. I got pretty good feedback from the team about it too. They’re going to figure all of that stuff out eventually, so I might as well start by telling them what I’m good at it and where I need to learn upfront. It was an important precedent to set about authenticity and to share some vulnerability. It goes a long way creating a team rather than a hierarchy…I thought back to all of the times I had a new boss and tried to figure out what they thought and what their pet peeves were. This was a way to short circuit all of that and I’ll keep tweaking the document moving forward.”