Corporate boards are composed of some of the most powerful entities in any given corporation, but even in the present, they still lean disproportionately male. Though strides have been made worldwide to remedy the matter, the fact still stands that having women on corporate boards, especially in equal measure to their male counterparts, is still a rarity. This is what Michelle McGlade discusses with Michele Ashby, one of the most powerful women in business in Colorado. Michele’s journey towards leadership was a rough one, but it’s a story you can learn from. Let Michele’s experience inform your own corporate board journey!
Women On Corporate Boards: Journey To The Boardroom With Michele Ashby
I have the beautiful, Michele Ashby, with me and it is my pleasure to introduce you to her. When I was curating the women for interviews on the show, certainly, it was top of my list to be talking with some of the women you’ve already heard from, CEOs and C-Suite executives in corporations across the US and the world. I also wanted to make sure that I spoke to women who could bring forth to you their knowledge and expertise to help you take your leadership to the next level, to enhance your skillset, to plant seeds for you on different areas you can grow and expand yourself, as well as relevant topics in the area of women and leadership.
Let me tell you a little bit about Michele. She was named one of the Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Business in Colorado for 2019. She is a key player for the Denver Women’s Leadership Initiative. She is the President and Founder of ACE LLC, which is short for Ashby Consulting Enterprises, as well as CDI, Corporate Directors International. She is the Originator of ACE Board Training for Women, a program that is training 1,000 women for corporate boards and Corporate Directors International. She’s the Creator of their International Board Certification Exam. They are certifying candidates for corporate board service. Michele is an engaged independent director with a collective corporate board experience of many years on six different corporate boards. She is a subject matter expert on corporate boards, a keynote speaker and an executive business consultant. She is amazing and we go into a lot of goodness.
You’re going to know about Women on Boards Initiative percentages. She is all in to get to parody 50%. You’re going to know her talk about that. There is so much more in this interview that I don’t want you to miss. She has a very unique background and is uniquely positioned to talk about the male world versus the female world and how we are uniquely different. She talked about how that has shown up for her and her experience in the workplace, growing her career and then ultimately being on corporate boards. I find it fascinating. The way she is able to share and talk around it is very compelling. You’re going to take away some golden nuggets there for yourself. The other thing is she talked about what brought her to success and what is holding women back from getting to where they want, ultimately, in her world being on a corporate board. Look for those key takeaways and those gold nuggets because that can help you to get to the next level of where you want to be, whether you want to be on a corporate board or not.
The best place to start for us is I want to know how you got into this topic of getting women on boards.
I have been on boards myself since 2005. I’ve been on six corporate boards, five of those are public. Because I’ve been in male-dominated industries my entire career, three decades in mining and finance, my male mentors included me. I got invited to my first board and it’s organic how it’s happened for me. I watched my male mentors get on three or four boards throughout their careers and then retire. They play golf, go fishing or skiing. They have a great life. They’re making sometimes $500,000 a year plus stock options, and they’re set. That was my norm. That’s where I was headed. In 2016, I was looking to get on my number three and four boards so I could do that and go skiing.
I would work part-time, get paid from the boards and go skiing. All this noise about there aren’t enough women on board was coming out. I was a little bit baffled. I was like, “It seems like we should be farther along than we are with that.” I decided to talk to women and find out why aren’t they on boards. I live in Denver and my network was frankly pretty weak here because most of my business life, I’ve done business everywhere else. I started asking people, “Who do you know are leaders in the community? Who have been leaders in the past, authors and a number of important women?” I was getting introductions and having coffee, talking to them and asking, “Why aren’t there more women on boards? Why aren’t you on board? Tell me a little bit about your journey so far.”
Through that process, I met about 200 women. I learned a lot about a lot of things with why they weren’t on board. What women didn’t know is that being on board was a thing. They would go like, “I didn’t know what this thing is. I didn’t know you could get paid for that.” There was this educational part and also this part of me that wanted to help other women come along. I started working with a group called the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce. They had a mentor program and I became a mentor. They assigned me a mentee. I worked with her for about a year helping her to get on boards. I could see pretty quickly that this was going to be a slow process. It was way too slow for me. I was like, “How do we get more women ready in a faster way?”
I did some research to see what’s out there. There wasn’t much, so then the question was if I were to build a program to help other women en masse, what would that look like? That’s how I came up with the ACE Board Training. I decided I’m going to forego getting on board number three and four for a while and go train an army of women so that we have a whole bunch of ladies who are willing to raise their hand like, “I’ll do it.” We know that research shows that men are more likely to raise their hands and say, “Pick me. I’ll do it,” when they only have 60% of what they need. Whereas, women most likely will sit there and go, “I don’t have this so don’t pick me now. Let me go get some more degrees or more training and then you can pick me later.”
I’m laughing because I was thinking, “I like to do that but I probably don’t have this.” That’s exactly what was going on in my mind.
It is common and it’s most likely for women, but men can have it too. I call it the perfectionist gene. If I don’t have 100%, I don’t think I legitimately should put myself forward. There are lots of those things that I identified and I was like, “We can do this.” It’s just a matter of helping women to change their packaging and the way they think about themselves and to tell you, “You are enough. You’ve got what you need.” With some help and some information and a little bit more tweaking on how you market yourself, you probably could get yourself out there and get on a board.
I want to go back because I find this fascinating about you. It’s almost like the universe plucked you and put you into the spot where you grew up for this degree thing. It’s almost uncanny. Talking about male-dominated like finance. I was interviewing another woman who grew up in finance but mining, talk about a legacy business.
They’re antiquated. To be honest with you, through my career, I’ve had amazing friends who have included me. The men in the mining industry, at least in my experience, not only have they mentored me, but they’ve protected me. They are like big brother almost. They’ve been supporters and champions. They finance my stuff and they’ve talked their buddies into giving me life. They paid me a lot of money to do what I did in those industries.
I love that you have that experience.
Keep in mind that I’m not a corporate girl. I’m more of the entrepreneurial side. I think that might have some differences too.
I’m curious about what the first board was that you were on and how you did it? You said you had mentorship, but I want more details. It’ll be fascinating to know that piece of the story.
I was invited to my first board in 2005. I was on the golf course at a golf tournament with a bunch of my mining executives. My phone rang and I answered it and it was Rob McEwen. He said, “Michele, I’ve taken over controlling interest of a small public company. Would you like to be on the board?” I said, “Yes, I would.” He said, “Do you have any ideas for anyone else who might be a good candidate?” I said, “I do. I think Leanne Baker would be good. She’s another colleague of mine who was the gold analyst for Salomon and ran their gold desk on Wall Street. She is a friend of mine.” She’s been on that board with me since 2005. We’re the only two board members who’ve been on the board since 2005. All the other people came on later or the two guys that were on with us have been let go.
Let me tell you how they mentored me. I was a stockbroker. I decided to specialize in mining stocks. As a rookie stockbroker, I was the worst stockbroker ever in the beginning. I got better after a while but it took me a while to get good at it. I specialized in mining. What happened was I got these old accounts as clients that weren’t doing anything and the clients had holdings in penny mining stocks. I’d call them up and go, “How are you doing? I’m Michele. I got your account. What can I do for you?” They’d say, “I don’t know what happened to my investment. Can you tell me what’s going on with XYZ mining?” I’d say, “No, but I’ll call the president and I’ll call you back.”
I’d call the president and go, “What’s going on? Get the report.” I’d call the client back and I was enamored with these investors because gold bugs have a whole philosophy behind why they invest in gold. It has to do with economics, politics and all kinds of stuff. I liked that. That’s why I decided to specialize in that arena. In those conversations with presidents, I met this gentleman named Bill Green. He’s lived in Idaho and he said, “Michele, come to Spokane for the mining conference and I’ll introduce you around.” I went up there and I’m the only woman in the conference out of 600 guys. He was like, “Bring a stack of business cards.” He said, “Give them your card. This is Bill, say hi to Bill, shake his hand, get his card and move on to the next person.” That was to give you that specific of how one person mentored me in the very beginning as a person entering. I had an advantage because I’m a woman.
You stood out. Do you know what this reminds me of? This is very grassroots. It’s not some grandiose mentoring. It’s like, “Come along. It was up to you to say yes. Bring your cards.” It was up to you to present yourself and get the connection, but he opened the door for you.
He taught me how to do it. That’s the other key is he said, “Hand them your card. Tell them your name. Shake their hands. Get their card.” He’s saying this to me while he’s standing right there as I’m doing it. It wasn’t about telling me in secret, “This is how you do it.” He put me out there and said, “Shake their hand. This is so and so, this is what they do. Tell them about yourself.” He taught me and that’s what men get from men. What’s unique for me is that I was included. He brought me along and was agnostic to the gender part and the rest started to happen. I met one person after another person and established relationships, alliances, friends and investors. I had men that didn’t like me, who didn’t want me around. Trust me, that happened too.
That can happen. That’s not a gender thing. You can have women who don’t like women.
It was a gender thing. I could tell. It’s like, “Get her out of here.”
That would be what most people would expect the normal reaction to have been. Even though it’s not right, but it was that way. You’re not part of the club.
That part I was ready for. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and we were trained. I felt like I came out of that experience into the world to compete. The basis of my competition would be on my intellect and my experience. It wasn’t gender. They prepared us like, “The woman thing’s going to happen and you need to get past that because if you’re smart enough and you work hard enough, you’re going to get where you want to go.” I believed it. I went out there like, “You can be all that to me, but that’s not going to stop me from outsmarting you and not working you to get what I want.”
You seize the opportunities. I want to call that out because you said yes, despite not knowing or being afraid. I’m not trying to put feelings in your mouth, but all the things that come up when you’re new, green and you don’t know what you’re doing.
I have a courageous, adventurous or a curiosity gene that overrides my fear gene. I still have the fear but I am interested in what’s new and what’s out there that I bulldoze past the fear and then I get into it. That’s when I felt the fear. I already got into the seat on the roller coaster and it’s taking off and I am like, “What do I do?”
I would say it’s a curiosity gene or whatever you want to call it because it played out again when you got curious about why women weren’t on board and you went on the journey to interview 200. This is a personality trait that is a strength.
It helps me all the time in my life to ask questions. I’m very curious about how things work. Why does this work and that doesn’t? Why are people talking about it? It could be the most obscure stuff. My favorite thing to read is the New York Times and that’s always diverse in its discussion about all kinds of things. They had a whole piece on fertility and the history of fertility for women and birth control. Because of the work I’m doing with women, I am curious about things like that that come across my desk. How does all that fit into what’s happening? I was surprised to learn that a lot of women younger than I am, will choose to take a birth control pill that prevents them from having a period for six months at a time. It was something shocking to me.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. When I’ve been to a doctor, I’m like, “That does not sound natural. No way I would entertain that idea.”
Where my brain goes is I see where women are trying to be competitive and they don’t want a period to get in their way. They’ll block it. Imagine if we’re an astronaut. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. As a woman, if I were still menstruating and I could do that, I would probably block my period because I’d want to go to outer space. I wouldn’t want that to be a part of what it was if it was an option for me.
For me, I was like, “I don’t need that.” What you’re saying is, “If it’s going to impede me from the next level I want, then that’s something I’m willing to do.”
With the long-term potential outcomes where you may not be able to have any children, all of those things would have to come into consideration in order to make those decisions for the individual. I can see where it would end up being a choice that women would make in regards to balancing career versus having a family.
I didn’t want to forget to ask you about the interviews that you did, the 200 women you found. One of the things that is fascinating is they didn’t even know you could get paid to be on a board. What other tidbits did you find that was eye-opening in your research?
There are a number of gaps. That’s why I built the curriculum so that I could hit on all those gaps and they’re going to vary from woman to woman. The generic answer to that would be the executive vernacular. The world according to Michele Ashby, because I’m an analyst by nature. I did a lot of reading of the history of women equality in the United States, in particular, from the 1960s. When I looked back on the patriarchal model and even further, what I identified was we have this pyramid. At the bottom, most of the time, you have equality or more women than men. As we go up the pyramid, there’s potentially 50% of women, but there’s a certain point where there’s no breakthrough.
Why did I end up here in the board of directors when other women who I perceive as more qualified, educated and experienced in managing $1 billion P&L or whatever? They’re not in those seats. Why not? I don’t get it. This is the gap between that upper management and then how to get into the executive suite and the boardroom. That’s where I attribute a lot of my mentor, people that I call my champions, and friends of mine. That’s the way to leapfrog up into the top. Helping these women to understand those gaps, how to do their own leapfrog in their networking, identifying their own champions, and asking for what they want. Letting them know, “I want to be on board and I deserve to be on board. Can you help me get on board?”
What you found is maybe they didn’t identify it even as something they wanted to do or knew they could make a living in longer-term. If they did, they thought that’s not available to them or they didn’t have any champions or mentors. If the first two weren’t the case, they certainly weren’t asking. They weren’t going around telling people that that’s what they wanted and they were looking for a champion.
The way to find out about that for myself was I had to look at my own experience because the only thing I can share with you is what I have and what I’ve known. I can tell you stories about other women for sure, but the best thing I can do is look at my own experience. That’s where I realized, “Why was I invited? What did they see in me that they identified that person stands out?” When I was at that conference, I stood out. How did that continue to happen to the extent that someone that I had no idea they were even considering me picks up the phone and says, “I’d like for you to be on my board.” It happened over and over again. I thought it was normal for me. That’s what I thought happened. I was shocked that other women were not being invited. I was like, “Why not? I don’t get this. You’re a superstar. You should be on the board.”
What did you discover about yourself? What was the secret sauce for you? What was your superpower?
There’s a number of things, but number one is trust. The people that I worked with, I built relationships with them. Building a relationship means helping other people maybe in ways that they don’t even see. I ran a trade association for the mining industry for many years. I built relationships with the CEOs of all those companies as well as their largest institutional investors. If I saw an opportunity that I felt would help the mining sector as an industry, even one company, one CEO, or one major investor, I was always making introductions. That’s who I am. I think the biggest key was that recognition. My network was made up of key people that others wanted to know and have access to. They trusted me. They knew that I wasn’t going to share. If I did something for someone, I didn’t run around and say, “I’m the one who connected John Smith with this guy and got him $100 million in funding.” I didn’t say that.
It wasn’t self-serving. It was genuine connections. I also want to know, did you strategically or naturally develop the relationships at that level? Because it’s at a certain level. Somebody can be a massive relationship builder, be extremely trustworthy, but their level of connection is not correct.
I had a relationship with the banquet people. I always to do these conferences around the world and the person who’s setting up the banquet is as important to me, in some cases, as the CEO of a corporation. I think it’s who I am.
You did it naturally. You weren’t thinking about it. This is just who you are.
It happens naturally. I can be in line at the airport and bump into somebody that I know and we started talking, then I’m like, “You should meet this person,” and I’m introducing them right away.
I second it. In chatting with you, you’re somebody people want to know. I can feel that about you.
It’s not like you were on a mission to get women on boards for your entire career. Why did this spark an interest in you enough to pull you away from your original plan and engage in this endeavor?
I am a part of a peer advisory group. For any of your readers and maybe yourself, this is great advice. If you don’t have one already, get one. I’m fortunate enough to live in a place where there are these organized peer advisory groups. I was at our monthly meeting. What we do is we go around the table and talk about our issues for the month and usually, we get one or two. When it’s my turn, what I had on my list was my financial consulting business, which is something that I do and what I called the woman thing. One of my peers is male and said, “What’s the woman thing?” I started talking about these interviews and how I was gushing about these amazing women I was meeting.
I would take notes when I’d meet women and I had this folder at home called Super Women because they were blowing me away. I would put that in that file. I look at it and go, “I don’t know what that’s about. It might be a book. I don’t know. These ladies are knocking me out.” My peers in this advisory board said, “When you talk about this, you light up. Why don’t you do something about that?” That started my subconscious going. Probably within a week or two, I woke up in the middle of the night and the question was, “If I were going to do something to make a difference here and help other women get on boards, what would that look like?” I got up because it was futile to try and sleep with a question like that in my brain. I got a legal pad and I started writing it out and it was like, “I would do this curriculum. This is what I would teach. This is how I would structure it. This is my ideal client. These are the women that I think could get on board and what their characteristics are.” I used two legal pads and that’s the foundation. That’s what I did. I put everything on hold, took a month off and launched.
There are many important aspects to that. It’s like, “I don’t know but,” and you keep putting it in a folder. It doesn’t mean you wash it away under the rug. It doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge it. It means, “I’m not sure, but I’m going to keep assembling these pieces of the puzzle.”
I absorb as much as I possibly can. One of the biggest discoveries through this process for me was that I haven’t done business with women very much in the past. I hired women to work for me, but I only had a few women that were my colleagues that I considered trustworthy peers in business. This was a big discovery for me. How do I stand in front of a room and teach women how to get on board if, in my essence, I don’t trust women, if that’s what I’m carrying around? I had to go through my transformation in that process. It started with me. I can only change me. I can’t change other women. That meant that I had to show up authentic, open, honest, and all the things that I’ve been taught not to do. I was taught like, “Don’t let him see you sweat. Don’t cry. You got to be tough and smart,” all this kind of stuff so that veneer was never cracked. My feminine side inside was very weak compared to my male side.
I am thankful you said that. It’s landing quite strongly for quite a few people and what an important part of your journey. The part I mean is sure the masculine and the feminine, but the part I was thinking about that was strong is that you said out loud, “I didn’t trust women.” I think that it is true for a lot of women, but they don’t say it because of the crap that we’re dealt with when we’re young from our bad moms or whatever.
I don’t attribute it to moms. I attribute it to culture because we’re raised differently than men. It’s in the bathroom, their P&L in the same place and we’re all installed. Men are objective, women are relational. It’s like, “I have a relationship with my coffee mug and don’t you dare touch my mug.” Whereas a guy will go, “I don’t know whose mug that is, I am going to pick up any old mug and drink out of it. The point is I need a drink.” That means that we were raised to compete for the man.
Look at the ‘60s. The women are still wearing gloves and hats. They get out of college and they’re expected to marry, not to go into a career. For generations up to that point, most women were raised to be the wife. You could be a nurse. You could be a teacher, a librarian, a secretary. All subordinate and serving roles, but not to be the CEO. It’s only recently in terms of a historical timeline that women have been invited into other roles like stockbrokers as I was. CPAs, lawyers, doctors, these are all relatively new. I feel like our culture is still trying to get balanced with this wave that’s been going on. I understand it from an intellectual standpoint when I look at it in that regard. I think that’s part of the cultural piece that I help women because I was entrenched in the male-dominated vernacular. I see it as a separate language. When I’m working with you on something and you say something about yourself like, “I don’t think I have enough.” I would go to you and I would say, “Michelle, what would a guy think? If you were Michael, how would you be? How would you represent yourself?” If you think about it in terms of what a guy would do, you’re going to respond differently than what you’ve been indoctrinated with your entire life.
Which they’re going to be more like, “I’m more than qualified. I did this.”
They’ll say, “Pick me. I’ll give it a go.” What women can say is, “Pick me, I’ll give it a go and I’m going to do it better than a guy.” We typically do because we’re more self-conscious and we have to over-perform. We’re still pioneers in this role. We’re not able to sit back and that’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing because I’m like, “We have a bull market. The door is open, but it’s going to close. If we don’t take advantage of the bull market and get in there as quickly as we can, that door can close and we’re set back another twenty years.” I want to see more women on boards. I want to see parity of 50%. I’m not about 20% or 30%. I’m about 50% so that we have this difference. Our world will shift when we have that percentage of representation at the top. I think that’s the biggest innovation that our culture could have.
What makes you say there’s a window and the door could close?
I’m an analyst and I’ve been around stock markets my entire life. I know a lot about bull and bear markets and bull markets don’t last for long. With all the media that’s come out in 2016 and the reason I got catapulted into this direction, it’s already starting to cool off. If people aren’t talking about it, it’s not a thing. We’re going to lose our momentum. We have momentum and we got to keep pushing.
You are uniquely positioned to be doing the work you’re doing, not just from your background, but that has allowed you that vernacular. You can speak both sides and it’s fascinating the way you’re articulating these ideas and thoughts. Thank you from me and whoever’s reading. Where’s the one place you want people to go to find you?
It would be on the ACELLC.consulting website and that’s where we have the tabs for both the in-person training and also the online training. If they want more of me and what I say and how I help women get on boards, they can sign up for that online training. Go ahead and do that. Either way works.
Thank you so much, Michele, for being on.
Thank you. It’s been a great time. I love this subject and I’m happy that you decided to make it a part of what you’re doing. Hopefully, this gets spread all over the place.
Was that completely amazing? I don’t know if it’s just me having been raised in male-dominated industries. I was in finance, building materials, which was basically construction and I could relate. I loved having this conversation with Michele. I already want to have her back. I go back to these interviews several times. I do the interview but there’s so much goodness for me to soak in. I go back and it helps me to position for you and tease out those gold nuggets. There’s something I didn’t mention that for me was one of the most powerful components. Michele was talking about asking for what you want. We’ve heard that before from Jenna in one of the previous episodes. The other key piece that Michele layered onto this was identifying your champions.
Where I was differentiating this and it was an a-ha moment for me is when I was thinking, “I have champions.” What I took away from the conversation with Michele Ashby is not just any champions, but executive-level champions. People who are higher up than you, who are your supporter. That is the experience that she had. That is the little tiny click that changed everything for me. Sometimes we get all of this information. There’s a lot of juicy goodness in here, but pay attention because it’s in the finer click that can make all the difference in how you show up in the next hour, next day, next weeks, next month and where you spend your time and focus. For me, I’m going to be thinking a lot about identifying champions and where I have them and where I don’t. I would love to hear from you what resonated? What stood out? Do you have experience in male-dominated industries? Did some of Michele’s conversation resonate with you? Are you excited about her initiative about getting 1,000 women on boards? Are you a woman living in Denver looking to connect with more women leaders in Denver? Reach out and let me know. I always love to hear from you and to continue the conversation. This is meant to spark a conversation and a discussion, so hearing back is everything to me. We’ll talk to you soon.
About Michele Ashby
Named one of the Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Business in Colorado for 2019 – PRESIDENT & FOUNDER — ACE LLC (Ashby Consulting Enterprises) & CDI LLC (Corporate Directors Int’l) ORIGINATOR OF Ace Board Training For Women – TRAINING 1,000 WOMEN FOR CORPORATE BOARDS and Corporate Directors International LLC (CDI), creator of Corporate Directors Int’l Board Certification Exam – Certifying candidates for Corporate Board service.
Michele Ashby is an engaged Independent Director with a collective corporate board experience of 18 years on six corporate boards. She is currently an Independent Director for McEwen Mining Inc., MUX: NYSE, and MENE Inc., MENE: TSXV, as well as a subject matter expert on corporate boards, a keynote speaker and an executive business consultant.