Women in The Boardroom: Margaret Whelan’s View from the Boardroom
Margaret’s keys to success:
Develop relevant skills and attributes that do more than show you are qualified for a board position, but that really set you apart as an exceptional candidate.
Strong relationships, built on trust, expertise, and shared experience, in your professional career will continue to serve you well in your career as a corporate board director.
Be patient and persistent in your journey to the boardroom, and be prepared to invest the requisite time, energy and budget in marketing yourself for that role.
Margaret, tell us how your journey to the boardroom as a corporate director begin?
I started my career on Wall Street in 1994 and have been in boardrooms ever since. Initially I was a stock analyst but when the wall went up between research and investment banking in 2003 I decided to make the transition to banking. That’s because I preferred the advisory side of the business, opining on optimal capital structure, strategic initiatives and M&A, more than writing about trends and recommending stocks when I was a top ranked analyst and the Global Head of UBS’s housing research team.
There are many very capable investment bankers, but what sets us apart from each other is our ability to relate to our C-suite clients on a personal basis. The trust builds over time, in my case decades, and in working together in good and bad times. As that evolves, it’s common to be offered executive positions and board seats.
I’ve always been fascinated by board service, and through my advisory work I’ve been fortunate to be able to compare and contrast how different boards interact and add value, or not. I joined my first non-profit board in 2007, and in 2015 I was thrilled to join my first corporate board for TopBuild, a company that spun out from Masco, which was one of the first stocks I covered at the beginning of my career. I’ve been on ten boards over the last decade, including advisory, non-profit and corporate roles.
What characteristic or behavior did you exhibit that you believe was a critical factor in your successful candidacy for your first board appointment?
There are a lot more people who want to be on boards than there are board seats, so the most important characteristic is that you have to be capable, and add value that’s broad and deep. I’m a financial expert per the SEC, and I’m also an expert on fund raising and capital structure, and in the residential real estate and construction related industries. I’m female and I’m 44, so I’m diverse by gender and generation relative to most U.S. directors.
But that’s not enough. I’m a very curious person. I’m constantly learning and reading about trends in my areas of expertise, but importantly other trends that are impacting how I, as a director, should be making decisions. From cyber security to executive compensation and accounting changes I like to be informed and up to date. A second characteristic is integrity, there are bright lines around rules and regulations for public companies and I don’t like to get any chalk on my shoes. Finally, chemistry is important in all relationships, being collegial, reliable and able to work on a team, taking the responsibility seriously but not oneself. Overall, people say that I’m very solution-oriented, I listen well and focus on the critical path to success.
Help, hindrance or both – how does board service complement your professional career?
Since 2014 I’ve been running my own advisory business, working as educator, coach, and guide for executives of companies that are getting ready for their first capital raise, either debt or equity. This extends to providing input on board strategy and optimization. My clients are experts in their field, from private equity investors to corporate executives, but they are often less familiar with the capital markets and can find that overwhelming. I enjoy adding value and helping navigate them through the process.
Board service has definitely augmented my career. It has challenged me and has been a rewarding experience, because it has encouraged me to learn, grow and move beyond my core areas of expertise and my comfort zone, professionally – and personally too. I’ve learned to appreciate the perspectives my peers bring to the table, each from different parts of the business world, country and from different generations.
Who is your role model as a board director and why?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with and for so many great directors over the course of my 23 year career, from portfolio managers, activists and private equity investors, to CEOs and board directors globally.
Of this extended group, by far the most impressive is Jamie Dimon. I was running the homebuilding advisory group as a Managing Director at JPMorgan from 2007 – 2013, through the industry’s greatest downturn. Housing was in the eye of the storm and the ramifications for the bank, our industry and our clients were well documented and unprecedented. Jamie is smart, strategic, focused and direct. He’s a critical thinker like no other. Despite the market backdrop, he made a point of being available to get to know my clients, which was unusual for a busy Chairman and CEO. He is generous with his time and perspective, and he has a great sense of humor. Jamie truly valued, encouraged, and enabled women in the work place, but he inspired everyone who worked for him to rise to match his level of integrity. As chairman of the board, he successfully steered JPMorgan through the downtown, and through other challenging situations. It was an honor to work with him.
Carl Icahn is another director I admire. As an observer of so many companies, it was often disappointing for me to watch shareholder value being destroyed by disengaged boards that didn’t take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously. Many years ago, Carl and his team had taken an interest in some stocks I covered as an analyst and while I met him when it was early in my career, his reputation was well established. I was nervous going into our first meeting but when he introduced himself as Carl O’Cahn in an Irish accent he made me feel at ease! He had researched my background before our meeting, and he went out of his way to make me feel more comfortable and facilitate our conversation. That’s an important skill for a director.
Boards have the ultimate responsibility to all stakeholders, and while I believe that many activists are too focused on short-term results, overall I admire their tenacity and goals to increase accountability and drive higher returns on capital.
What is the ONE essential piece of advice you’d give to other senior-level women who are on a journey to their first seat at the table?
Be prepared, and be patient. It’s going to take longer and cost more than you expect to secure that first board seat, as well as the second one. Most of us are reinventing ourselves in some regard as we commence a career as professional directors. Invest in a career coach to craft your board bio, it’s different than a traditional resume – Roy Cohen was very helpful to me in this regard. Then start boosting your skills through board education services – Women in the Boardroom webinars are a great resource, they are always relevant and timely and I often watch them when I’m traveling. Keep a board education transcript and attach it to your board bio. Individuals who are curious and eager to learn differentiate themselves to board recruiters. Then network, join local chapters of WIB, WCD, NACD, and groups for leaders in your industry. Any female who’s within sight of a board seat is tenacious and determined, they just have to keep going until they get their first seat. Try harder!
What is your favorite leadership quote that has inspired you on this journey?
‘Whistle while you ride, whistle while you work!’ by Snow White, which I interpret to mean keep your chin up, have a good attitude, and work harder than everyone else. This strategy has served me well.
What is your favorite book on board-related topics?
I read a lot, not just fairy tales to my children, but to challenge myself to stay ahead of what’s trending and what might be around the corner for my business and the stakeholders of the boards I’m fortunate to serve on. I recently read ‘Big Shifts Ahead, Demographic Clarity for Businesses.’ The author John Burns is someone I know well, I’m on the board of advisors of his company, but that’s not why I recommend this book. I believe that demographic shifts among consumers are going to have much more influence on commerce than we are expecting, and that boards that miss this will invest in the wrong growth initiatives and stumble. For example, since the mid 1980s more women have graduated from university than men, and today among 38% of married couples women are the breadwinners. Women have so much influence, yet are so underrepresented on U.S. boards, it is depressing.
You’re a member of Women in the Boardroom. What value has this organization added to your professional life?
I’m grateful to Women in the Boardroom for the opportunity to give this interview, and for all of the great work Sheila and the team have been doing for the last 15 years. I’ve met so many great peers through the WIB network, women I have so much in common with but I’d never have met otherwise. Keep up the good work!
As founder of Whelan Advisory LLC, Margaret provides strategic and financial advice to public and private companies globally, with an emphasis on identifying and achieving the lowest cost of capital available. She offers a unique perspective on the complexities of debt and equity offerings and M&A transactions, and unbiased direction on positioning for strategic opportunities. Her practice also includes guiding clients on board strategy and optimization.
Whelan is a corporate board director for TopBuild (NYSE:BLD), advisory board member of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, trustee and finance committee chair of the Children’s Museum of the East End, and board member and finance committee chair of Amber Waves Farm.
Margaret is regularly featured in the media, you can stay current on her views at https://www.whelanadvisoryllc.com/
Views From The Boardroom is an exclusive series from Women In The Boardroom, where corporate board directors share their experience, insight and wisdom and their view from the boardroom. Corporate board directors interested in participating should email firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions and experiences expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily reflect those of Women in the Boardroom.