We’re excited to introduce you to Allison Watson, a founding Athena member who now sits on the board of DoubleDutch, a marketing tech company that specializes in event management software. Allison has more than 30 years of experience in tech, sales, and marketing leadership. Today, Alison is the COO and CMO of Microsoft USA. She also oversees sales for Microsoft’s small, medium, and corporate sales divisions.
In her first decade in the industry, Allison gained extensive sales, services, and marketing experience at Oracle and Microsoft. In 2002, she became Microsoft’s channel chief, and over eight years grew Microsoft’s five hundred thousand strong partner channel into one of the most influential assets in the tech industry.
Allison is a fantastic example of an Athena member who fast-tracked her way to a board seat. Part of her success is due to timing (everyone’s journey is unique), but it was also because she knew she was ready, and she knew what she wanted. Allison Watson was also one of Athena’s earliest supporters. Her involvement helped bring Athena to Seattle, as she spearheaded Microsoft’s involvement as a corporate partner. Coco Brown, Athena’s founder and CEO, was connected to Allison through a mutual friend. This is fitting because, as Allison says, “It’s all about connections—connections at scale.”
Read on to learn what it’s like to work on a startup board and what advice she has for other members considering board service, including time commitment, shifting gears to an advisory role, and more.
What made you say, “Yes!” to Athena?
Statistics say that the presence of women on boards is a good decision—one that the U.S. is very far behind in achieving. What Athena is doing, bringing together a group of capable women and being their advocate, is incredible. The network has the potential to really grow. When I first joined Microsoft’s executive leadership, I was number 13. Now, we have 50 female executives. We are trying to increase female board representation and increase female executive representation – Athena offers a way to do that.
What’s your experience been like so far?
It hasn’t been the most traditional journey. Coco and I connected and then she immediately connected me to board opportunities. I interviewed for three or four startup board positions and found a match quickly. In 2017, I joined DoubleDutch—a startup in marketing tech—where I can leverage my operational experience. I’m the only operational board member on board, and it’s been interesting and fun.
How did you know it was the right board position for you?
It’s important to get the right fit when it comes to the CEO and the rest of the board. I went through full interviews with all board members, as well as connected with the CEO three or four times. You should start with what you’re looking for and what you know. Think about the type of personalities you appreciate getting help from and collaborating with. The CEO of DoubleDutch is very creative and appreciates strong women; he appreciates opinions. He likes to ideate. There was a natural connection there. His vision for the business was very aligned to what I saw was possible.
I think the biggest thing is having a fit with the CEO and the other board members. You need to spend a lot of time with these people to make decisions. Ask yourself, is there a balance between the tension of discussion and the ability to move forward?
What was your experience like as you made the transition to a board role for the first time?
The shift to doling out advice, especially for board positions that are operations focused… it’s a significant move to an advisory role. This is where my Athena Alliance journey work really came into play. It’s designed to prepare and train members for this transition. But it’s quite different for women who are accustomed to driving operations. We have to make this massive adjustment to being an advisor. The most powerful tool for advisory roles is inquiry and curiosity, based on your operational experience. You have to take this approach even if it’s tense; it’s relatively hard to do. As a board member, sometimes you feel like you’re asking the same question over and over again. You have to get used to the pace of an advisory role, it’s just not the same as an operational role. That takes skill. There are different points of inquiry that you can use to bring the same point out in more well-rounded ways.
What do you love most about serving on a board?
It’s a startup board as opposed to a Fortune 500. What I’m loving about the startup board experience is that it’s very real. We are making cash flow decisions. We are making payroll decisions. I’m meeting incredible young people with such talent, and they are really changing the landscape of the future of our business. We’re making very real, strategic decisions that impact every day.
You enter into this knowing that you end up with a fiduciary responsibility to the board you’re joining. It’s a half a day monthly time commitment, plus prep time. For me, it’s been about a full day a month. You have to factor that into your work schedule. We did go through a seven-month period where we were meeting three times a week, for several hours at a time. There will be periods of difficult investment periods and personnel decision-making that only the board can be involved in. It’s almost like crisis management. Sometimes it’s an unscheduled thing, and you have to be there—nights, weekends, and cell phone calls.
What advice do you have to share for aspiring board members?
If you’re preparing for another phase of impact—and business is very exciting to you—then getting started on this journey when you’re in an operational role and learning the skills now is key. Decide if you have time for a board position as the opportunity arises. Do some soul searching on that. Go through the interview loops. If you want to make an impact and business is your thing, there’s no better way to do it than through board service.