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Moving Companies Forward: How Michelle Wilson Applies Her Expertise in Growth Companies to Her Role on the Board

7/27/2016 Articles

Published in the ACC Docket by Carly O'Halloran Alameda and Olga Mack.

Michelle Wilson knows growth. As senior vice president and general counsel for Amazon from 1999-2012, she helped guide the company through 13 years of growth. She currently serves on the boards of directors for Zendesk, Okta, and most recently, Pinterest. In her spare time, she works with start-ups as part of her personal passion for emerging companies. She took the time to share how her varied types of work overlap in their rhythms and required skills, and why growth companies are great training grounds for prospective board members.

Navigating the “messy to buttoned up” cycle of a company

There is a recurring pattern in a company’s growth, whether the company is growing with new products, customers, and geographies, or in other ways. As a company tries new things or races to keep up with growth, it’s OK to get a little messy. Over time, management and the board can work to button up the details and make ongoing work more routine, so that they can focus on new strategic projects, which can be messy for a while.
During her time at Amazon, Wilson (featured right) lived this cycle many times. She navigates the process as a pro and brings her experience to her board positions. “All companies go through this cycle of getting messy, and then buttoning up the details, and then getting messy again,” Wilson explains. “One key is using good judgment about what needs to be fixed now and what can wait. There are also milestones when things really need to get buttoned up, like an IPO. But it’s not bad to be messy. If things are too clean, it likely means the company is not pushing or growing fast enough.”

Developing a strong sense of audience

Growth companies study their customers and cater to their needs, even those that the customer cannot yet articulate. Similarly, a board member should develop a strong sense of audience. “I always try to understand my audience,” Wilson says. “You need to meet each person where she’s at, taking into account her role and expertise. If you imagine yourself in the shoes of the other person, you can start thinking about what answers she is looking for, what information she needs, and how you can speak her language. At Amazon, my approach on the same topic would be different if I were meeting with the board versus with a new product manager.”

As a business-minded GC, Wilson also explains she was most effective when she led by influence, and not simply by exercising her power. “I find it more effective to bring my audience along. I don’t want an outcome to be set because I’m more senior or I have certain authority; instead, I try to convince others of a particular path with good reasons and with explanations they will relate to.”

Wilson also uses what she refers to as a classic marriage counseling technique to more effectively communicate with her audience. “It’s important that people feel heard during a discussion. When talking to a client, for example, I always try to rephrase the client’s words in my own words as the conversation progresses. This helps me make sure they know they are being heard and also helps ensure we are communicating accurately with each other. This same approach helps with my fellow directors, since effective communication is, of course, key for boards as well.”

The interaction between the board and management is another example. Both groups are trying to make the right decisions for the company’s future, and trying to solve problems, but they approach the issues with different perspectives. “Management is working hard every day in the trenches; they are living and breathing the company’s issues. The directors, on the other hand, have only periodic touch points and are not on the ground. It’s helpful for both groups to keep these different perspectives in mind.”

Maintaining relationships with the investment community, recruiters, and law and accounting firms

All growth companies know the importance of maintaining key relationships. To get the necessary funding, talent, and services, growth companies must spend time cultivating relationships with stakeholders and resource providers, including with investors, recruiters, and law and accounting firms. The same is true for those interested in joining a board of directors. “To find the right board opportunities," Wilson explains, "it helps to get to know people in the investment community, who may have influence over board positions; recruiters, who often know when board positions open up; and lawyers and accountants, who know and work with many interesting companies.”

Calculated risks are rewarded and bad judgment will take its toll

Growth companies understand that you have to take risks to reap rewards. There are choices to be made about how to invest a company’s resources, and calculated risks and good judgment can pay off big. On the other hand, poor judgment and taking the wrong risks can mean the end of the company.

Joining a board of directors involves similar risks, rewards, and judgments. But you are taking a chance with a resource scarcer than money: your time. “You need to do your research and think carefully before accepting a position on a board of directors, especially since it’s a long-term commitment,” Wilson says.

The keys to success are a great product and a great team

So what types of factors should someone look for when deciding whether to join a board? Not surprisingly, Wilson points to the same characteristics that she thinks makes for the best growth companies: a great product and a great team. “When joining a board, I want to believe in the product and be excited about it. I want to spend extra time helping the company and keeping up-to-speed on industry developments. If it’s a consumer company, I should want to use the product every day. I also need to believe in and trust the management team. I look for leaders who are transparent and strong fiduciaries, but also relentless, passionate, and able to evolve as the market and company demand it. It’s also important to look forward to spending time with the management team and the other directors.”

Whether in her prior role as the general counsel of Amazon or as a board member, Wilson brings her experience, judgment, and passion to all of her endeavors. As Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and author of The Startup of You, says, “You need to think and act like you’re running a startup: your career.” Wilson is a great example of a professional who has managed her career with an entrepreneurial spirit and a focus on growth. Her strategies for growth companies and board service have resulted in tremendous success, and she hopes her insights can inspire others.

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