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Lessons from the boardroom: Karen Peacock on leadership

When we think of corporate leadership, we instantly picture CEOs and executive teams, but the role played by boards is often glossed over and underappreciated.

Last week, our CEO Karen Peacock joined a panel at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Virtual conference to discuss how boards are responding to the current moment, from the perspective not just of managing Intercom, but also from insights gleaned as a member of the board of Dropbox.

What are the unique challenges faced by boards during this extraordinary time? What does the future of work look like in a post-pandemic world? How are boards responding to the groundswell of demands around racial justice?

Karen discussed these topics and more in an engaging conversation with Christa Quarles (CEO of Corel and on the boards of Affirm and Kimberly-Clark), Merline Saintil (a board member of GitLab, Lightspeed, and Alkami Technology, among others), and David Lawee (founder and general partner of CapitalG and on the boards of Lyft, Convoy, and Credit Karma), chaired by Fortune writer Danielle Abril.

Watch the video above, or read on to discover Karen’s insights from the discussion, lightly edited for clarity.

Leadership during the COVID crisis

We all started in the spring and summer doing a lot of scenario planning. I think scenario planning was always in all of our playbooks, but I have never used it as heavily as I did in March, April, or May.

One observation I have is that during this time (apart from some specific spaces), I think the best companies have actually gotten stronger. Whereas companies that were already a little bit on the weaker side, those folks are at risk of falling down.

“Don’t just be in lockdown mode. This is your chance to really grow, really drive some of the big transformational change”

And one thing I think it’s important for both board members and company executives to think about is this is not a time to just brace yourself and hope to survive. This is the time to make progress, and really be at your very best, and actually rise up.

Use this time to figure out how you can best live out your mission, your vision. It’s a classic case of “Never waste a good crisis.” Don’t just be in lockdown mode. This is your chance to really grow, really drive some of the big transformational change that you’ve been wanting to drive or have needed to drive.

Balancing executive management and boardroom leadership

I’ve always felt that being on boards helps me be a better CEO, and being a CEO helps me be a better board member. It’s just great perspective when you’re looking at somebody else’s business with an inside view, and you have the ability to say, “I know exactly what’s wrong or what we should be doing differently.” And then, I always have that realization of, “Actually there’s some elements of that, that are true for my own business as well.” There’s definitely a sense of holding up a mirror that you can have there.

I do think that the role of the board and my board meetings as a CEO were particularly valuable over the spring because all of us were experiencing something new for the first time. And having board members who are seeing this play out at other companies just expanded the data points and information that I was getting, so it was super useful.

How has company communication changed in a remote-first environment?

Communication is important in this time – I probably tripled the amount of communication or more that I had with the board, and similarly was increasing communication across the company.

“In a way that I had never expected, and very counter-intuitively, some of our full company meetings have actually turned out to be more engaging with everybody remote”

We do an All-Hands every two weeks at Intercom, and we’re 100% religious on that. Also, every single week we do what we call a Show and Tell. And those have become central to how the company comes together – people really look forward to them in a way that I can’t imagine people were looking forward to All-Hands before.

In really thinking about how can you take your communication to the next level in this time, we’ve started using Slack a lot more during our All-Hands or Show and Tell presentations, and it’s a much richer way of interacting than just applause. People are jumping in with questions. We’re answering live questions by Q&A. You’re upvoting it by emojis. People are cheering each other on. In a way that I had never expected, and very counter-intuitively, some of our full company meetings have actually turned out to be more engaging with everybody remote.

What does the future of work look like in a post-pandemic world?

Across both Intercom and Dropbox, we’re getting a number of questions about what are we going to do after the pandemic, in terms of how we work.

And my first thought was, “Why do we need to figure this out now? There’s so much time between now and then.”

But as I explored more around it, it was clear people were asking very reasonable questions: Can I move my family? What is my life going to be like? Is this a company that I can be at for the long term?

Those are questions that are actually very important to answer. At Dropbox in particular, we made a very bold move to what we’re calling “Virtual First” as our way of working.

“I would say it’s worth thinking about how can you use this time and this change to better live your mission, to attract diverse talent, and to drive really strong financial outcomes”

It’s about really using this time to reinvent how we work to combine the best of both remote and in-person work, where we have the majority of solo individual work happening at home. And knowing that in-person collaboration is important, we are converting our offices into what we call Dropbox Studios where collaboration can happen. We’re just being super intentional about why we get together, and when we get together, and having solo work happen at home.

First of all, Dropbox as a product and as a company is all about enabling the distributed world. By making this shift, this lets us live our mission every day. The classic “Eat your own dog food,” living that distributed world every day. For example, when we first moved to 100% virtual during the pandemic, all of us started realizing there are so many opportunities with our products. All these ways that, for example, Dropbox and meeting capabilities could be much better. And now, for example, we’re building our deep integrations with Zoom and others.

It really enables us to better live out our mission. Moving to this virtual first world and really being able to hire across the world, enables us to bring in a much broader, more diverse employee base that can better reflect our customers.

And we are driving significant financial savings, so we’re reducing the office space we’ll lease, and over the lifetime of our leases we expect to save about $800 million over a course of quite a long time. That’s not at all the primary reason.

I would say it’s worth thinking about how can you use this time and this change to better live your mission, to attract diverse talent, and to drive really strong financial outcomes.

Fostering diversity

It’s definitely a big topic at Dropbox. One of the things that we’ve done is actually include goals around diversity and inclusion in our OKRs [objectives and key results], not just talk about it. And I think many companies have Employee Resource Groups, and one of the things that we’re really working to do is make sure those are really well-funded, and that they can actually drive some action.

Some of the action and impact that those ERGs have been able to drive is influencing vendor selection, influencing the product roadmap to make sure it’s as inclusive as possible, and then of course, thinking about diversity at the board level and at the management level.

Hopefully moving to a more flexible remote structure, and in particular with Dropbox Virtual First, really enables us to recruit in more diverse ways. Any kind of excuse there was around diversity in hiring has got to just go away.

Finding opportunities for connection in a virtual world

I’m always a believer in figuring out what you can do uniquely in this time that you couldn’t do before? For instance, we’re all in each other’s houses in a virtual way. So at Intercom, we do things like take pictures of our refrigerator, and guess whose fridge that is. You’ve got kids, and dogs, and spouses, and parents coming in and doing cameos in all of these gatherings. I think figuring out again what can you do uniquely in this time is important.

“I talk about my own family and things that I need to do outside of work, and I think that helps to normalize it”

It’s also recognizing that different people have different other responsibilities at home, and in particular parents of young children or people taking care of older family members. It’s about making sure to be very accommodating for what it is that folks need to do.

Also, it’s important to be sharing about those other responsibilities, and making it not something to be ashamed of. I talk about my own family and things that I need to do outside of work, and I think that helps to normalize it. Then cheering on people for their successes outside of work is important too.

How involved should board members be right now when company culture is being so tested?

I think the key is when you’re asked for help to be there, be there quickly, be there all in with your whole heart. Try to have the mindset of helping the CEO be their very best in the company versus imposing your own personal beliefs and views.

The role of the board in these types of things is to be there when asked. Also, to ask those provocative questions, to suggest ideas where you see great best practices, or even things to really learn from, and to share cautionary tales proactively. But ultimately, this is the management team’s show, and your goal is to bring out the best in the management team and help the company.

What should leaders prioritize in the time of Covid?

You need to focus on your employees and your customers. We’ve talked a lot about how you focus on your employees in terms of really strong communication, trust, being genuine about what you do know, what you don’t know, and just being a real person because people only trust leaders who are flawed and who are real – don’t try to be the “perfect” version of yourself, as that doesn’t actually exist. Building that trust with employees in a team is incredibly important, and this time you can actually build it even better than in normal times in many ways.

In terms of building relationships with customers, I would say it has never been more important than it is today to build best-in-class customer experiences and strong customer relationships. Intercom is very much focused on doing that with our customers and providing products to help other people do that. To me that’s the key thing. You’ve got to be really focused on providing real value for customers, and providing great experiences for them.

How important are company values in the work of a board?

I’m a believer in starting from principles and figuring out what are the right durable principles that you want to use and keep coming back to. I think during this time in particular, company values are such an important part of both the day-to-day of a company and a lot of times, I think people don’t realize, those actually really matter for the board as well.

One of the things that we’ve done at Dropbox is really think about our values and how they apply to the day-to-day things that we do both for the short-term and the long-term.

“What I’ve found is most helpful, both at the board level and the company level, is coming back to the values, and using those as the way to make decisions and guide us day-to-day”

If you think about this summer and beyond, lots of leaders are wrestling with what they want to take a stand on in terms of social justice, and more, and in what ways they want to do that?

There’s a huge spectrum, everywhere from Coinbase, putting out guardrails around what they will and won’t publicly comment on, to Expensify, which is very vocal about political issues. All of us are re-evaluating, figuring out what expectations you want to have. And what I’ve found is most helpful, both at the board level and the company level, is coming back to the values, and using those as the way to make decisions and guide us day-to-day.

It’s helpful in building relationships with the board as well to keep coming back to values. So equality is one of the larger values embedded [in the culture] at Dropbox. It’s part of the reason why we’ve taken the stands that we have publicly. But I think it’s important to be clear up front on that and have principles that you go back to. I think values are strongly related to that.

What your piece of advice would be heading into the next phase of uncertainty?

I’d say really focus on people. Take whatever communication you were doing before, and double it, and listen. Ask open-ended questions that you truly want to hear the answers to, and share as transparently, authentically as is humanly possible. Really connect with people, and invest in the long-term. So many people right now are just thinking about the short-term, but your opportunity is to invest in the long.

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