Wendeen Eolis: “Bluffing is an over-rated strategy.”

Non-executive directors

5 min read

Wendeen Eolis is Chair at EOLIS International Group, an experienced senior level public official and Commander of Hope’s Champion Task Force (a post 9.11 initiative), She was previously s First Assistant/Senior Advisor to the Governor of New York.

In addition, she has held positions as a special advisor or director with large corporate boards including Caesar’s Entertainment (at the age of 26) and not-for-profit boards including the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (Founder and Chair), and WNYC (BOD) among many others.

In her off-hours she became the first woman to cash in the main event of the World Series of Poker and the first woman to do so, twice—before becoming the first woman to win a European Open championship event. Here, she shows her wisdom about boardrooms with a multi-faceted perspective on “The Room Where It Happens.”

What do you think are the key traits for a modern, effective board?

First and foremost, there is a big push to recruit independent directors, not only because of the current policies of NYSE and NASDAQ which call for a minimum of 50% of the board to consist of independent directors, but also because Boards are increasingly focused on a wide range of competencies. In addition, most Boards now recognize the potential benefits of a more diverse complement of directors.

I also find that independent directors are more likely to engage in richer dialog, debate, and deliberation. This promotes a group dynamic conducive to focusing discussions on problem-solving and aggregating consensus.

Boards are facing increasingly complicated liability concerns and corporate governance issues thus the priming the pump for more diverse brainpower in the consideration of initiatives and strategic plans.

While our clients generally express a desire for candidates with high IQs and cite demonstrated wisdom as a key trait, they are equally emphatic about the need for suitable “chemistry.” For us, this translates into strong demand for candidates that have EQ in abundance as much as smarts.

Traditionally, company boards recognize the importance of protecting and growing shareholder value, but enlightened boards put considerable attention on ESG and DEI initiatives, as well. They also recognize that doing good is part of doing well.

What are your golden rules for the boardroom?

Board members are well advised to heed the brilliance of the centuries old Golden Rule. It is as valuable in business, politics, personal relationships, and the boardroom as it is in a multitude of religions and a world of philosophers. Listening, hearing, and processing others’ views is critical to effective deliberations. It also vastly improves the odds of others’ interest in listening to you!

Are there any boardroom lessons you’ve learned from your poker career?

The most critical lesson I learned at the poker table brought me new insight for my business in the board room. At the poker table you always see the consequences of your actions instantly — at the end of a hand, while decisions in business and the board room may take a whole lot longer before you feel their impact.

“At the poker table you always see the consequences of your actions instantly — at the end of a hand, while decisions in business and the board room may take a whole lot longer before you feel their impact.”

I have always believed that bluffing is an over-rated strategy—everywhere—but it was only at the poker table I came to understand that women can usually win more points by bluffing less than men!

In addition, poker has highlighted for me the double-edged sword of competitiveness. In poker competition, most punters have a simple personal philosophy — I win, you lose, I kill you, and will then move on to deal the next deathblow. Such tactics are pure losers in the boardroom, as they usually put you into exile, if not out the door.

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Have you noticed any changes in US attitudes to the separation of the CEO and chair roles?

We’ve been seeing a growing trend in the US to separate the two roles, especially in larger companies. I think this separation fosters a more objective basis for the assessment of risk and promotes better corporate governance. Board members are less fearful of conflicting views or disagreement on the road to problem-solving.

“I think this separation fosters a more objective basis for the assessment of risk and promotes better corporate governance.”

What are the topics and trends that have been rising up the agenda in recent years?

Finding directors with requisite wisdom is the highest priority for the vast majority of Boards for whom we are working on search assignments. There is a lot of pressure on Boards to make visible strides, continuously, in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Thus, Boards’ abilities to attract women and under-represented minorities for open seats continues to be high on the list of current priorities. At the same time perhaps the most important trend is the insistence by Nom Gov Chairs to move away from “old boy networks” and place wisdom at the top of the totem pole for board candidates.

Industry expertise in cyber security and regulatory issues persist at the top of the list. Corporate governance savvy and risk assessment expertise are in high demand. And, credentials to serve on the Audit Committee are continuously sought.

Why should lawyers be included in the mix of criteria for directors?

Lawyers with boardroom counselling expertise or significant experience in running a big law firm or participating on the Firm’s executive committee are good bets. So are company chief legal officers with responsibilities for large law departments and additional business segments. Attorneys with prior responsibility for sizable budgets, have the edge. The one big caveat for lawyers seeking board seats is the need to show an ability to play well with others in the sandbox as well as gravitas.

Today, any lawyer that wants to sit on a board will likely find a welcome mat if they have a well-informed point of view on corporate governance, risk assessment, and an ability to help aggregate consensus at the end of considered debate and deliberation.

How can organisations use governance and its processes to drive value creation?

A board of directors is only as productive as the person holding the baton– and that person has an obligation to use their position to create a cohesive board that will drive value creation ahead of anyone’s personal agenda.

If the Chair uses their Committee Heads, and their Committee Heads drill down on relevant issues within their committees, both conflict and dissenting views can be addressed productively. The full Board can then deliberate more effectively and settle on worthy initiatives designed to drive shareholder value and meet the wide-ranging needs of all stakeholders.

What does it take to get a board seat?

You usually will need to meet the critical criteria specified by the Board in its formal specifications; basic credentials, expertise, experience, and relationships—to get to first base. But at the end of the day, to score a board seat, you will increase your odds, exponentially, if you recognize and highlight the breadth of your intellectual assets in the interviewing process. And show yourself as a person who is productive and kind –every day.

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