Angela Archon is a highly accomplished board director and executive, spending 33 years at IBM Corporation, formerly as Chief Operating Officer of their Watson Health division. In 2018, Angela retired from IBM and currently serves on the Board of Directors of H&R Block, where she is a member of their Audit and Nominating & Governance committees. Read on to learn how Angela’s transition from the executive ranks to the boardroom helped her find balance in other areas of her life, and discover tips for new directors who are looking to make an impact in the boardroom.
Tell us about your executive journey and how your career prepared you to be a powerful voice in the boardroom.
I majored in chemical engineering in college and started working at IBM Corporation upon graduation, where I had the option of two career paths: technical or management. I chose the management track and within four years of joining the company, I was appointed as a development manager. Twelve years into my career, I decided to embark upon another direction, moving away from being a technical engineering manager and going into Supply Chain. I accepted a new management position in Procurement, which required me to move from Austin, TX to New York, and I was wildly successful there. It changed the trajectory of my career.
While in this Procurement assignment, I heard about an opening in the CEO’s office for a customer advocate. So, I interviewed at IBM Headquarters and was selected to be the Chairman and CEO’s Customer Advocate. This position was one of the highlights of my career, and where I learned the value of networking. In my quest to build general management skills, I worked in development, new products introduction, quality assurance, manufacturing engineering, supply chain, operations, business development, intellectual property licensing, client care, strategy, and artificial intelligence. I did this all by design, so I could really understand how our business was run. My career culminated as head of operations for our new division, Watson Health, before my retirement after 33 years at IBM. I had joined the board of H&R Block two years prior, in 2016, and it was my intent to focus more on board service.
What skills did you rely on during critical turning points in your career? Are those the same skills you needed to excel in the boardroom?
Many skills are common. Whether you’re in the corporate environment as an executive or a board director, you must be able to demonstrate your leadership capabilities. Being able to listen, to truly discern what is being communicated; being able to succinctly and effectively get your point across; being able to lead and get others to follow, through influence; and being able to act decisively, are very important attributes in your career.
However, one of the key differences moving from the C-suite to the boardroom is the level you’re focusing on. As an executive, you’re focused on leading the troops, executing on the mission, and delivering results… but when you get to the boardroom, your responsibilities include company oversight (operating plans, strategy, financials), corporate governance, and a fiduciary duty to the shareholders.
How has board service balanced other areas of your life?
When I first retired last year, I was just trying to catch up on rest. (Prior to retirement, I was averaging less than four hours of sleep a night!) I decided to move back to Austin, where my only child lives with her family. But I was still entertaining calls from headhunters—not just for board positions, but even to go back into the C-suite (that still got my adrenaline going!) I interviewed and was short-listed for several CEO opportunities, but as I progressed further in the process, I would start to rethink why I was doing this. Finally, I said “Angela, stop it. You are drawn to these executive opportunities because of what you used to do. Now, it’s time for you to let that go and focus on pursuing what you desire to do moving forward.”
That was a big transition for me, but I’m at the point now where I am truly concentrating on my board service and limited consulting engagements. I still have long days, but I am getting better at balancing work fulfillment and my personal goals—making time for the things I can develop from emotionally, spiritually, and holistically. In other words, I am taking the time to invest in me!
While preparing for my board meetings and consulting engagements bring a sense of urgency, I have the balance now to prioritize time with my family, and to make time for rediscovery of my own person. I enjoy reading books, traveling the world, art and cultural activities, and music.
How does board service fit into that? What impact are you looking to leave through your board service?
For me, board service is the final step in my corporate career. It’s an opportunity to fulfill and extend my corporate passion because I’m still engaged in the company’s mission and purpose, its future direction, and its success. I get to contribute at the highest level on behalf of the shareholders/stakeholders, ensuring proper corporate governance while overseeing the company’s plans and performance. Board service comes with great fiduciary responsibilities, which I am honored to fulfill.
What best practices do directors need to know to be successful in the boardroom?
First and foremost, if you are a new director, you need to make sure you understand proper corporate governance. I hired a personal board coach, who spent over ten hours teaching me about board etiquette and the fundamentals I needed to know. Alternatively, there are numerous board-related educational classes available
The other critical area is to really understand the financials. I am on the audit committee, and it requires diligence to understand all the line items. Being able to get underneath the numbers helps you dissect how the business is performing and what areas warrant more attention.
What advice do you have for women who are aspiring boardroom directors or rising through the executive ranks?
It took me some time to understand the value of networking. You’re talented, you have great credentials, but so does the next person. What is going to distinguish you from someone else? Oftentimes, it’s who knows you and feels comfortable with you.
When I am at conferences and speaking engagements, I always make a point to get business cards and I follow up with every individual. Last year, I came home from the NACD conference with 25 business cards. I emailed each person and requested a 15-minute meeting, where I presented my CV and board bio and asked them to keep me in mind if they became aware of any board opportunities. It takes time and a concerted effort to network, follow up, establish rapport, and keep in touch.
Keep your professional profile current. I got my first board position via an executive search firm, who sought me out on LinkedIn. It’s critically important that your profile is accurate and reflects your skills and aspirations. Being active on social media, in a professional manner, also gives you visibility in the marketplace.