NACD - National Association of Corporate Directors
The Director’s Chair

Tools for Being an Effective Director: How I Manage All Aspects of a Full Life

by Anita Sands |

Over the past three years, my life has changed significantly. For starters, I transitioned from an executive operating role at a technology company to serving as a corporate board director at three public technology companies. This move wasn’t about building a second career path; it was a pivot to a portfolio career that provides greater flexibility so I can better serve my “other” roles as a new wife, stepmother, and mom.

What I never imagined was how enriching and rewarding this foray into the board world would be. Like many fellow directors, I love the diversity of the work, the range and variety of issues and opportunities my companies encounter based on age and stage, and the large number of people with whom I now interact.

What accompanied this pivot, however, is a very different personal work environment. Unlike my former life, I find myself without an office, a team, or the supporting infrastructure that is a given for most executives. I confess to finding the change at first a bit jarring and overwhelming. How exactly could I manage and allocate my time to have the greatest impact?

The answer clearly required some proactive effort to re-create that support system in a virtual way. I began my research with the hypothesis that, to perform as the most effective director possible, I needed to focus on two areas: optimizing my personal productivity and devising a method to stay as current and relevant as possible.

Personal Productivity

My philosophy about productivity is rather simple: the one thing we all have in common is 168 hours in the week. Each and every one of those hours is an investable asset with a high opportunity cost. It’s shocking to many newcomers to the “non-operational” world how quickly you can fill all the hours in your day. Somehow you’re just as busy, and you can’t help but wonder how you ever managed to do it all.

In an effort to judiciously allocate my 168 hours, I adopted a strategy of automating and outsourcing as much of my work life as possible, and scoured the web for resources, tools, and apps that could help. If “there’s an app for that,” I wanted to know about it.

With the premise that my phone’s home screen is the most valuable real estate for managing my life, I looked at every productivity solution imaginable, with my analysis focused on office workflow. Having experimented with dozens of services and apps, I discovered Newton for e-mail, which integrates beautifully with Todoist (my favorite list-making app) and Evernote (my outsourced memory and repository for practically everything). I couldn’t get through my day now without Newton. When I’m immersed in “deep work,” I use an app called Focus to block out every distraction for a defined period of time.

The final fundamental pillar of my effective office is my virtual executive assistant. Not only does Debi practically run my household, I consider her to be a major part of my brand and professional image. Lots of services offer administrative assistance, but I use Belay. It did a great job understanding my needs and selecting a virtual assistant for me who knows my industry, uses the same tools, and can handle the chaos that comes with a family of eight.

Staying Current and Relevant

While there’s a lot of discussion about board refreshment, recruitment, and injecting cognitive diversity into businesses, the way in which it’s initiated today is often through age and term limits. In a rapidly changing world, however, relevance limits are an arguably more effective consideration. How does a board ensure that its members’ skill sets and experiences are relevant not only today but also for the future?

In my mind, you simply cannot be relevant unless you’re current. Alvin Toffler once said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” It’s incumbent upon each of us to continue to learn and utilize up-to-date data from multiple sources rather than simply rely on our management team as the primary source.

I put a lot of effort into gathering in-depth information about each of my companies and the industries in which they operate. This research runs the gamut from Google alerts to judiciously selecting subscriptions to industryspecific newsletters. For example, the NACD scores highly as a quality-assured source, and its app is an invaluable tool for staying up to date on breaking boardroom news, corporate governance issues, and committee-specific insights. Since content is easily filtered by topics of interest, I can quickly ascertain big changes that might affect the industry or people I know.

I’ve also committed to continuously educating myself about new trends, particularly in the technology sector. For topics such as blockchain or artificial intelligence (AI), myriad ways exist to access top-quality content, but one of my favorites is to enroll in massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs. Many leading universities—including Harvard, MIT, and Stanford—now offer these online programs to provide a deeper level of understanding, and they keep my mind sharp in the process.

Your Most Strategic Asset

Perhaps the most effective way to remain truly current is through networking, which represents the most valuable and strategic asset in today’s digital age. I work hard to actively maintain and cultivate, contribute to, and leverage my personal network.

The secret weapon to my success is an app called Accompany, to which I’m completely addicted. The founder and CEO, Amy Chang, is herself a director at Cisco Systems and Procter & Gamble, and has become a good friend simply because, after discovering this app, I had to find out who was behind its creation. I’m not alone as a fan: CEOs including Chuck Robbins and John Donahoe are also avid users.

Accompany (which at this writing is to be acquired by Cisco) offers the largest database of decision makers in the world and delivers an AI-driven goldmine of information about people and companies. Through its integration with my calendar, Accompany detects the people I’m meeting with and serves up any current, relevant information about them in a simple format. It’s the single best source of real-time, comprehensive, and personalized news available, delivered right into the palm of my hand.

I’ve also set up watchlists fo every company where I’m a board director, all of their main competitors, my fellow management and board members, and leading thought leaders in each industry. As I’m enjoying my morning coffee, I can read through the latest news articles that reference them and their tweets. With a tap, I can access a deeper profile that shows overlaps within my network, their bios, and our e-mail history.

As a New Year’s resolution, I decided to contact at least one person who shows up in my Accompany feed each morning. I can’t begin to tell you how powerful it has been to congratulate a CEO who raised a new round of funding or a fellow director who joined a new board, not to mention sending a note to one of my CEOs about a headline referencing a competitor. I even engaged in a great exchange with a colleague about activism, having seen his name mentioned in a blog on the topic.

Don’t Escape—Embrace

The tools and techniques I’ve uncovered have become tremendous assets for improving my performance as a director. My e-mail-a-day resolution has been so energizing that it’s now a nonnegotiable habit and, I might add, has a 100 percent response rate.

The truth is, we can’t escape the pace of change or the pervasive role of technology in our lives. We can leverage it, though, to enable and empower us to be better informed, organized, and highly effective. After all, who knows what can grow out of a constant swirl of new thoughts, information, and ideas, or what serendipitous connections might be made.

By embracing the tools that work for each of us, we minimize the chaos and maximize the true purpose of technology: to make us our most productive selves.