Charlotte Sibley, '70
Charlotte Sibley, ’70, is accomplished, well-recognized, savvy, and witty. She has forged an impressive career in the healthcare industry, pioneered functions within companies, and continues to ingest innovation through her work on for profit and nonprofit boards!
Chicago Booth Women’s Network: Tell us a little bit about your career path—where did you start, why did you go to Booth, what did you do after, and how did that lead you to where you are today?
Charlotte Sibley: I went to Middlebury College to major in French and German Literature and intended to go to Yale University afterwards for my doctorate, to be a professor of French Literature in college. After my junior year, I did a summer internship at US Trust in New York City, as they were looking for someone in their international division. I was the first summer female intern at US TRUST. At that point, I hardly knew the difference between stocks and bonds; apparently, it didn’t matter—I knew various languages. After one summer on Wall Street, I was far more interested in business, so the next natural step was to go to business school. Chicago Booth was looking for women, especially women who were Liberal Arts majors, and they gave me a full ride scholarship my first year. There were only 10 or 11 women out of 310 men in my class.
CBWN: Wow! This all seems pretty determined and courageous. In the late 60s or now, you are a pioneer!
CS: I didn’t even think about it that way back then, but now I sometimes reflect on it: "What was I thinking?" It made sense back then: there were no teaching positions open when I would have received my PhD, due to the Vietnam War education deferment. I like to think that we make the best decisions with the information we have at the time, and it turned out to be a good decision for me! At Booth, we didn’t think of ourselves as pioneers; we were there to study and to learn. I made lifelong friends, and explored the cultural benefits of Chicago. My only issue: accounting was a challenge, so I had some soul searching to do after my first year while I did another summer internship back at US TRUST.
CBWN: You must have realized the value of an MBA—you went back!
CS: I finished my MBA and what became clear was that consumer products were not as exciting to me—I loved drugs and money as markets. So, I’ve spent most of my career in life sciences /pharmaceuticals. I was the first MBA on the Pfizer market research team. I loved research and analytics and life sciences from the start.
CBWN: You have gone through a few company changes in your career—that hasn’t been popular until recently. What caused you to do that?
CS: It has been very circumstance-driven—I started at Pfizer and was promoted a couple of times, and my responsibilities got narrower and deeper. I joined a variety of firms and companies only to realize I enjoyed consumer products and market research within pharma. At Pharmacia, I had the job of my life building and leading market research, strategic forecasting, decision science, and new products/acquisitions assessment—for the US and globally. Pharmacia was acquired by Pfizer in 2003, so I joined Millennium in Cambridge and then moved to Shire in 2005, where I ended up leading Talent Management and Leadership Development—a true calling for me!
CBWN: What a rich career! How did you realize you wanted to be on a board?
CS: I have been on corporate boards now for seven years and it’s been rewarding and hard work. Having mentors on how to approach board membership is crucial. I have been on public and private boards as well as nonprofit boards. I was asked to be on them not because I have been part of the C-Suite, but because of my industry knowledge, leadership, and experience. The myth is that you must have been in the C-Suite; that’s not the case anymore—subject matter expertise is really crucial.
CBWN: What are the differences between for profit and nonprofit boards?
CS: The experience gained on nonprofit boards is valuable because the board dynamics are similar. You can see how good governance works—or doesn’t. And if you are in a leadership role (president or treasurer), you understand the money flow. Just be passionate about the service or mission. Finally, the networking and contacts from not-for-profit boards can be very valuable. Good board dynamics don’t change and are foundational to good board performance: financial controls, important products or mission, good governance, good collaboration, and communication transcend the type of organization. Good relationships and being collegial, respectful, transparent, and thinking strategically are skills critical to all board positions.
CBWN: Give us an insight into the ‘a day in the shoes of’?
CS: According to National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), board members spend 250 hours/year dedicated to a board—that includes board meeting preparation and meeting time itself, the travel, dinners, and the committee work. The committee work can be the biggest part of the job. When there is an issue, or a potential transaction, you have to be all in, and available 24/7.
CBWN: Tell us how to prepare to be a great Board Member?
CS: Here are my top best practices:
1. Don’t be sloppy, says NACD: come prepared, do your homework. Read the materials carefully before the meetings. Review minutes and action items from the last meeting. Be prepared to discuss an action or issue that arose in committee meetings.
2. Review the financials and ensure you understand them—you have fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. If anything is confusing—make time with the CFO or other financial expert.
3. Be cooperative and collaborative, not combative; have thoughtful and collegial discussions.
4. Ensure good governance (“don’t be sleazy,” says NACD). Be mindful of the “Tone at the Top” and the Culture.
5. Don’t just listen—even at your first meeting. Speak up, ask questions. Don’t just speak for the sake of speaking. Find your voice, ask intelligent questions. (Women tend to ask more questions than men.)
6. Remember NIFO: Nose In, Fingers Out! The Board is there for oversight, strategy, governance, enterprise risk assessment—not to run the business. That is the job of management.
7. And for me, mentoring high potentials gives me a good sense of the “Mood in the Middle”, as well as a way of keeping up with what is happening in the business.
8. Learn and understand the industry, the market, and the landscape.
CBWN: Tell us more about Women on Boards.
CS: The data is clear: the more diversity on boards and in the C-Suite, the better the business results. Most boards would benefit from more women and a better balance. One of my private boards has two women of a team of six.
CBWN: How do you get on a board?
CS: You usually get recruited to be on a board, so it’s all about networking. About a third of the board seats are filled via recruiters. Spencer Stuart, who participated in the Chicago Booth Women’s event in NYC, has executive- and board-specific recruiters. Most board recommendations come from current board members. White men tend to know and recommend other white men; hence, the preponderance of white men on Boards.
CBWN: How did your Chicago Booth education help?
CS: The analytical approach to decision making and thinking has really helped me understand a company: What are the drivers for success? What are the assumptions in the forecasts? Where are the gaps/weak spots? A decision-based approach and discipline have been crucial for my assessment for a company or business. And let’s not forget—these credentials are invaluable.
CBWN: Any parting words of wisdom?
CS: Get involved in a board—it’s an opportunity to make a different kind of a difference. We need more women on boards, and you don’t need C-Suite experience. Boards are looking for and need diversity of demographics, but also diversity of experience and expertise. Boards are often lacking in the areas of social media, digital, cybersecurity, understanding millennials. We need to stop focusing just on shareholders; we need to be thinking about all the stakeholders. Again, the data shows clearly that diverse boards lead to better business results.