Behind the Boardroom Doors: A Q&A with HPE Board Chairman Patricia Russo

MARCH 4, 2020 • BLOG POST • ANTONIO NERI, PRESIDENT & CEO

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IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Based on research from Deloitte, women held only 16.9% of board seats globally in 2018
  • At last fall’s Breakfast of Corporate Champions, HPE was honored by The Women’s Forum of New York for having 40% female representation on our Board of Directors
  • Chairman Patricia Russo has helmed HPE’s Board of Directors since 2015

CEO Antonio Neri interviews chairman Patricia Russo on the importance of diversity in the boardroom

According to research released by Deloitte, women held 16.9% of board seats globally in 2018, a number that has only increased by 1.9% since 2016—and at that rate, it will take 30 years for boards of directors to achieve equal gender representation. So what can companies do to accelerate this trajectory?

Last fall, HPE was recognized at the Breakfast of Corporate Champions, an event hosted by The Women’s Forum of New York with the goal of spotlighting gender diversity in the boardroom and accelerating progress to reach gender parity by 2025. The event honored Fortune 1000 companies with 30% or greater female representation on their boards.  I’m proud to say that HPE was honored for female representation on our Board of Directors.

This is a particularly a hot topic here in California, where state legislation now mandates public companies to have at least one woman on their boards – or risk paying $100K in fines. This requirement is set to increase; by the end of 2021, companies with six or more directors will need to have at least three women on their boards.

I am proud to say that our Board already boasts five formidable women who are esteemed leaders in their industries. More than that, our chair is Patricia (“Pat”) Russo, who has led our board since the establishment of HPE in 2015 (and prior to that, sat on the Hewlett-Packard board).  Pat has had an impressive career including serving as CEO of Lucent where she steered the company back to steady growth and profitability, and brokered a merger with Alcatel to form Alcatel-Lucent. She currently holds three other board seats on General Motors, Merck, and KKR Management – and is a dear friend and mentor to me. In honor of International Women’s Day this week, I sat down with Pat to chat about our world-class board and diversity in the boardroom.

Antonio: We were recently honored for having 40% female representation on our board, a result of having specifically rebuilt our board for greater diversity following the separation. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and decision, and the rationale behind it?

Pat: Even before the separation, one could see that the Hewlett-Packard board valued diversity. During the separation into HP Inc. and HPE, we saw this as a unique opportunity to enhance the diversity for both boards as we rebuilt the leadership from the top for both of these newly minted companies.  Our attitude was that it was a high priority to have diverse perspectives with the right and relevant experiences sitting around the table.  We know that the more diverse the perspectives are that are weighing in on strategic discussions, operational reviews and the like, the better the dialogue and debate, and the better the decision process.

Antonio: That’s great, and as part of the board, I’ve seen how valuable having this diverse array of backgrounds – whether professional or personal – has been in pushing us to be better. But it still doesn’t seem to be a universal belief. In fact, a recent survey from PwC of board directors found that while 62% of corporate directors agree diversity brings unique perspectives to the boardroom, 72% of male directors say too much attention is paid to gender diversity—and only 25% of female directors agree.

Why are women so underrepresented on boards? What hurdles do women face in securing board representation?

Pat: I think one of the major reasons women are underrepresented on corporate boards is that we do not yet have parity in the C-suite which is where many boards look for candidates. And so unless you make it a priority, and are willing to expand your consideration for candidates beyond the C-suite, then we will continue to see underrepresentation. While this will hopefully narrow with time, it’s important now not to accept excuses for why diverse candidates can't be found, and to be very intentional about broadening the avenues you’re looking at, and the types of candidates you’re favoring. Unless you do so, progress will be slow.

That’s why I’m proud that HPE is taking steps to help build the future pipeline of board-ready female talent. Just a few months ago, our wonderful board directors Maggie Wilderotter and Ann Livermore helped launch an 18-month board readiness acceleration program called Ready Now! for some of HPE’s top women talent.  From simulating interviews for board positions to facilitating networking, the program is aimed at equipping our female leaders with the skillsets and knowledge to pursue and procure external seats on boards. As imbalanced as it can seem, there’s a lot we can do to help level the playing field faster.

Antonio: At HPE, we’re focused on creating an open and accessible culture for our team members. In fact, just last week HPE was named one of the 2020 NAFE Top Companies for Executive Women by the National Association for Female Executives. Can you shed some light on what goes on behind boardroom doors, and the role the board plays in that effort?

Pat: A board of directors is an elected body that helps guide and steer the activities of a company, representing the interests of shareholders. In essence, we help govern the company from a big-picture perspective, ensuring the prosperity and success of the company, and that it’s accountable to all its stakeholders.

At HPE, we meet six times per year to hear from senior management about plans and activities, from strategic business decisions to other issues such as culture and talent, or cybersecurity and sustainability. Within our board we also have different subsets of committees which focus on specific issues across finance and investment, technology, audit, governance and social responsibility, HR and compensation, and nominating (which involves managing and recruiting board members and nominations).

Our most important responsibilities include:

  • selection of the CEO (one of the most important jobs a board has)
  • engaging with management to understand, and support the strategy for the company as it evolves, and the associated plans
  • critically important fiduciary oversight
  • other governance oversight responsibilities, including assuring  internal controls and compliance programs are in place and effective. Today, cybersecurity and ESG (environmental, social and governance) are increasingly becoming part of how boards evaluate compliance and risk, especially as these areas rise in importance for investors.
  • assuring there are effective talent and succession plans and programs in place so that the company is future-proofed and equipped to thrive as it and our leaders evolve and progress to new opportunities
  • Our board is an extremely engaged board with dedicated and talented directors who understand our industry, our business and who take their roles very seriously.


Antonio:
For our promising leaders looking to gain board experience now or in the future, what are the top skills that companies look for in members of their boards? And what’s your advice for women who want to be on boards?


Pat:
Companies always look for strong general management and financial expertise for their boards.  Those skills and experiences are always necessary and helpful.  You can add to that experiences like global operating experience, strategic thinking, M&A experience, technology experience, or capital markets perspective.  These are some of the important skills and experiences that are often found on corporate boards, especially large global corporations.


The new skills companies look for can also change as they focus on new areas as part of their strategy. For example, we recently had the pleasure of adding CrowdStrike CEO and founder George Kurtz to our board, who brings incredible technical acumen and credibility in cloud, AI and cybersecurity—all areas that are increasingly important to HPE in the evolving technology landscape.

My advice for women who want to be on boards is the same as that for men: build your resume with experiences that would be relevant for corporate board deliberations. There is a great deal of interest for boards today around technology, digital transformation, cyber, sustainability, strategic marketing, among others.  It’s also important to be proactive and let your network of supporters know of your interest, in addition to sharing your resume to multiple search firms.  For women, there are search firms that focus on women in senior positions and as candidates for boards.

Antonio: What’s your favorite part of being on HPE’s Board?

Pat: I enjoy working with great people around the board table and with a terrific management team as we seek to pivot the business and capitalize on new opportunities. It’s an exciting time to have a front row seat to HPE’s evolution, growth and strategy.

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