No Finish Line – Lesson 16: Actively Participate In Your Community

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Excerpted from No Finish Line: Lessons on Life and Career by Meyer Feldberg Copyright (c) 2020 Columbia University Press.  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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No Finish Line - Lesson 16: Actively Participate In Your Community

It was a long, very long, tedious day. Barbara is standing behind me on the escalator at Newark Airport. I look down at her and say, “I just can’t do this anymore.” Three days after coming back from Colorado I was scheduled to fly from New York to Johannesburg for a board meeting. I was the deputy chairman of Sappi, one of the two or three largest paper companies in the world. Sappi’s head office was in Johannesburg, and the company had six board meetings a year, three of which were in South Africa. It was my ninth year on the board, and I had simply run out of gas. It was too much long-haul travel. I went to two more board meetings and retired.

Over a period of nearly twenty years, I served on a number of corporate boards, a few cultural boards, and six community and educational boards. My board experience was extremely demanding but exceptionally valuable. I learned a lot serving on Macy’s board for twenty-four years. I served as president of NYC Global Partners, a board established by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and designed to manage New York’s relationships with other global cities. There I learned even more. The greatest asset of being on a board of substance is that you’re able to give and that you’re able to get. I learned a great deal from these boards.

I also believe that I had much to offer the institutions on whose boards I served. All the boards were interesting, and I was often able to transfer my knowledge from one board to another. I also found myself bumping into the same leaders in the community on many of the boards. It is a mistake to think that boards are like clubs. They are not. They are extremely demanding of the time, the knowledge, the information, and the judgment that board members bring to the institution.

As we all know, it doesn’t always work. There are great boards and rotten boards. Boards with integrity and boards with greedy people who use the board for their own advantage. Great boards can become rotten boards. The leadership of the board and the members of the boards must be vigilant at all times. It is not only about finance, marketing, manufacturing, or technology, ballet music or education; it is about the people to whom and for whom you are responsible. The employees, the students, the dancers, the scientists— they all have a right to expect the board to do their duty with integrity. I would like to say that I never served on a board that didn’t sweep things under the rug, but that would not be true. I am pleased to say I opposed hiding what should be visible and never gave a bye to people who should not be part of the enterprise.

Across all organizations and institutions on which I served over the past thirty years, I probably attended close to a thousand board meetings. The arithmetic is simple: 5 meetings a year × 7 boards × 30 years = 1,000 board meetings. I must have been mad. I’m still mad. I have, however, become more sensible. I have dropped boards that have become less meaningful to me or to the city, country, industry, university, business, or community they serve. Many board meetings are all-day or multiday affairs with no break, and participants must always be “on.” They involve breakfast. They involve lunch. They involve receptions. They involve dinners. They involve contributions to events that the institution supports or that members of the board would like other members to support.

Imagine you are on a corporate board. Your meeting begins with breakfast at 8:30 AM. The meeting runs through lunch. There is a reception at the end of the first day to which spouses and employees are invited. The reception ends. The visitors can leave, but the board then has a dinner. The next morning there is another breakfast followed by a board meeting that ends at noon. Lunch is optional. That night you have been invited to attend a gala for a very worthy institution that is supported by either the board or by individuals on the board. You go home. You shower. You put on an evening suit, and you and your spouse go to a 5:30 PM reception at a hotel, a museum, or a university for cocktails, followed by dinner, during which there are three speeches, one thanking the gala committee and the donors, one introducing the honoree, and then the honoree him  or herself. It’s now 10 PM. The evening is over and everyone rushes for the doors. These events are a little like traveling. At some point in time, you say to your spouse or she says to you, “you know what, I’m done.” But with a little time and reflection you’re right back at it again.

NYC Global Partners was one of the most interesting and pleasant boards on which I served. The board was an enhancement of what had previously been the Sister City program. Michael Bloomberg and his colleagues and in particular his sister, Marjorie Tiven, created NYC Global Partners. The organization hosted events in the city and around the world. An enormous amount of attention was given to climate change and school education. The organization arranged visits for mayors from around the world. Nearly one hundred global cities were partners in the organization, and dozens of mayors visited New York for programs sponsored by NYC Global Partners. One of the final events that I attended as president of NYC Global Partners was a reception to honor New York as host city to the diplomatic and consular community and NYC Global Partners for connecting New York to cities around the world. The event took place at the United Nations. Many city agencies attended, and I was honored to follow Michael Bloomberg and Marjorie Tiven in making remarks on all that NYC Global Partners had accomplished. NYC Global Partners made meaningful connections and forged partnerships on a variety of important social issues. It was an ideal mix of entrepreneurial innovation and civic mindedness.

Not all board meetings and board events are so agreeable. It is important, as a board member, always to remember you are there to serve the interests of the organization or institution and its consumers or patrons, not yourself, your fellow board members, or the organizational hierarchy. I have a vivid memory of being threatened at a board meeting by the chairman of the board in front of all the other board members and a number of managers.

The chairman of this board was the controlling shareholder of the company. He proposed to the board that we approve a resolution allowing him to exercise a transaction that the independent directors of the board believed should be reviewed by a special committee of the board who would be charged with hiring a financial institution and a legal firm to advise them on the appropriateness of the proposal. Unfortunately, I was elected chairman of this special committee. After numerous meetings with and studies by the outside lawyers and the financial institution, my colleagues on the committee and I were advised to recommend to the full board that the resolution not be approved. This process took place over a period of several months.

When the work of the special committee was complete, a board meeting was called, and I announced to the full board, including the chairman, that the special committee could not recommend to the board that it approve the proposal. The chairman became enraged. He jumped up from his seat and literally ran around the table screaming at me in particular but at the other members of the board as well. In a fifty-year career I had never heard language like that, and I had never been attacked and abused so violently. The board meeting ended, and we filed out of the room.

That evening I had an overseas flight to attend the meeting of another organization. On my way to the airport, I called the in-house counsel and informed him that I would be resigning from the board in a couple of days, after my return. He pleaded with me not to resign. He agreed that the chairman’s behavior had been inappropriate but that if I resigned it would be an embarrassment to the chairman, the board, and to the company. I told him I was sorry about that, but my mind was made up. He asked if I would be prepared to speak to the chairman before going public. I agreed. He said the chairman would call me.

A couple of minutes later, the chairman called me in the car. He was exceptionally apologetic. He did not know what came over him. He asked me to tell him what he needed to do in order for me not to resign. I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, “I might reconsider if you call every other member of the board individually and apologize for the way you treated me and the rest of the board.” He was quiet for a moment and said he would do so. I said I would wait to see what happened over the course of the few days while I was away. Before hanging up, the chairman said to me, “Meyer, you know I love you.” I am not making this up. “Meyer, you know I love you.” He had an odd way of showing it.

I remained on the board for another five years. I did the job I was there to perform and then I stepped down.

Institutions that are established to work for nonprofit organizations frequently attract the most generous and thoughtful individuals. University boards, community boards, climate boards, cultural boards, and religious boards all have a vision of how they can make our lives better, and in many ways they do. It is not about scale but intensity. Not-for-profit boards generally include members who are committed to the philosophy of the institution and the rightness of the purpose of the institution. Such boards inevitably depend upon the commitment and generosity of board members and donors. Fundraising ends up being a critically important function or activity for the institution and for the board members. It only works if you really believe in the vision and mission of the institution.

I have served on over a dozen not-for-profit boards, including one institution that was established decades ago and became the best of its kind in the world. I refer to the New York City Ballet. What I observed at the NYC Ballet was the institution’s intense commitment to talent. Ballet dancers can be good, they can be very good, and then they can be New York City Ballet good—the best in the world. The two creators of this phenomenal enterprise were George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Their work and their choreography have traveled the world. When Balanchine retired, his protégé Peter Martins became the ballet master–in-chief. Peter was able to maintain the extraordinary reputation of the New York City Ballet for thirty years. On the many occasions that Peter and I spoke, I always reminded him that he had a unique eye for talent. He could look at a seven-year- old and tell whether the child had the capacity to be a dancer. During my years on the board, I rarely saw an error in his judgment. The New York City Ballet has become a well-endowed institution with extremely generous donors who are committed balletomanes. People don’t go to a ballet performance; they go to multiple ballet performances.

My wife and I probably attend the ballet ten to twelve times a year.

A second board I am intensely committed to is the Columbia Business School Board of Overseers. This was a board that I created from scratch in 1989. During the fifteen years that I was dean, I grew the board to forty-five people. Almost all the board members are Columbia graduates, some going back as far as the 1940s. All of them had an intense loyalty to Columbia University and to the Columbia Business School. The board was prepared and anxious to enhance the standing and status of Columbia Business School. They understood that creating a significant endowment, adding new academic centers, providing merit scholarships, and recruiting great faculty—including Nobel Prize winners—was what would make Columbia Business School a great global institution.

I built the board of overseers slowly. I visited with senior alumni in Europe, Asia, and South America. Of forty-five board members, twenty were not from the United States. The first chairman of the board was Ben Rosen, who had recruited me for the deanship of Columbia Business School in the first place. I recruited Jerome “Jerry” Chazen, chairman and one of the four founding partners of Liz Claiborne, to the board. He asked what my most important initial strategy would be for Columbia Business School. I said, “Jerry, I want to internationalize the school. I want to globalize the curriculum, the faculty, the case studies, the materials. I want our students to come from around the world and to be taught by faculty from multiple geographies.” Jerry was enthusiastic. Through his own business he had personally traveled the world looking for designers and manufacturers. He told me that many of his competitors felt ill at ease once they left the Anglo-Saxon world. For him it was an adventure. After we discussed the need for and the strategy for globalization, he asked me what I wanted from him. I said it would be an expensive business and that I was hoping he would commit a couple of million dollars to build the program. He looked at me and said, “That’s no good.” I was disappointed. He said, “You can do nothing with two million dollars; what you need is ten million dollars.” It was the first time I had been driven up by a donor. Ten million dollars! It would be the biggest gift the school had ever received and certainly the largest gift that I had ever attracted. I left his office floating on a cloud.

The next day I called a faculty meeting to announce the creation of the Chazen Institute, with a ten-million-dollar gift from Jerry Chazen. Thirty-three years later, the Chazen Institute remains one of the most important institutes of Columbia Business School. It attracts faculty from around the world. It sends students to different countries on assignment. It provides money for research and academic materials. For me in my first year it was a home run. Fortunately, many subsequent home runs occurred. Board members such as Henry Kravis, Lord Sainsbury, Art Samburg, and Ben Rosen all began to invest heavily in Columbia Business School. Russ Carson was the first board member to push for a new building. We opened the new tiered classroom and E-MBA building across the street. During my fifteen years as dean, the board members became a family through our shared commitment to a common cause.

I have served on numerous corporate boards that were successful and helped me grow my knowledge and skills in business, and I’ve served on many boards that have helped me enhance the intellectual and performing arts of our city. It is particularly gratifying to know that at almost every board meeting I will be meeting people from other boards on which I served. It is one of the great blessings of living in the greatest global city in the world. Lionel Pincus was right when he told me in 1989, as I was being recruited to Columbia, that the Columbia endowment is New York City. It is the Metropolitan Museum. It is the New York City Ballet. It is Columbia University. It is Broadway. The Yankees. The Giants. The Philharmonic. The Empire State Building. The Statue of Liberty.

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