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Michelle Kumbier, SVP & COO, Harley-Davidson & Abbott Labs board member

“Anything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear. BUT you have to want it.”
                                                                  – Michelle Kumbier

Michelle Kumbier, SVP & COO, Harley-Davidson and Abbott Labs board member was MWi’s guest speaker at our January meeting. In a casual, fireside chat format, Michelle shared her personal corporate boardroom journey and decision to work with a reverse executive and director search firm for board placement.

Michelle shared her personal journey:
Michelle grew up in a blue-collar community, graduated from high school, and started an hourly job at Kohler. She realized she could not pay her bills without an education and began a 15-year journey of schooling to attain her undergraduate degree and MBA. In 1997, she joined Harley-Davidson in an entry level position in purchasing and steadily moved up the ladder. Michelle has worked in a male dominated environment her entire career and was the first woman to hold her last five leadership positions.

 How did you seek out mentors throughout your career?
Michelle chose mentors one or two levels above her. She believes that if you choose a mentor too many levels above you, they can’t be as helpful as a mentor closer to you in your current role.

 How did you determine seeking a board position was right for you?
Michelle accessed her strengths and opportunities and took an inventory of her board value. You are never going to have all the boxes checked. After this internal assessment, she believed she was ready to be on a corporate board.

 Why was it important for you to be on a board now?
Michelle pursued a corporate board position for her personal development, to learn how other companies run their businesses and develop strategies and then bring her learnings back to Harley-Davidson. It was important to see a board from a different angle.

 Was your desire to be on a board encouraged or supported by your company?
Michelle was persistent and confident she was ready to serve on a board. She expressed her desire to serve on a board to her CEO on two occasions; both times being told she was not ready. Michelle was confident she would add value to a board and met with her CEO for the third time. Persistence!

Mr. Levatich agreed to fund the cost for Michelle to work with JamesDrury, a reverse search firm specializing in accessing board readiness. The fees are high, making it a significant investment for the company.

What is a reverse search firm?
While many search firms look for candidates to place on a board of a specific company, a reverse search firm helps candidates through an assessment process and then looks for boards where they can place their candidates.

How did the JamesDrury board readiness assessment process work?
The process takes about a year. Assessment starts with a four-day strategy retreat with their management team and completing the Hogan assessment. Next steps included securing seven personal referrals, determining industry and geographical preferences, and prioritizing the top 30 companies to be approached. JamesDrury presented Michelle’s CV/profile for consideration to interested boards. Michelle shared rejection is a part of the process. Be prepared.

Working with JamesDrury put Michelle in control of selecting board opportunities, versus waiting for recruiters to find and contact her.  The firm has a 90% track record in placing clients on boards.

What did you look for in taking a board opportunity? Did you consider a company’s commitment to diversity on the board?
Michelle considered the culture and the caliber of board members to determine if the opportunity was a fit. She did not consider diversity as she believed she would be part of it and could improve it if needed.

What board opportunities were presented?
Michelle was presented with two opportunities. She chose Abbott Labs as it was a challenge; she wasn’t originally thinking of health care but looked to learn a new industry and expand her professional growth.

What advice would you give women interested in serving on a board or looking for their first board opportunity?
Be visible. Assess your board readiness, what are your strengths, inventory your value, do not concentrate on your gaps. Determine why you want to be on a board and what kind of board member you want to be, an expert in a specific function such as finance, or a broader skill set. Be sure you can sell yourself to show you are board ready. Pursue opportunities with companies that are one-half the size of your current employer. Persistence. Do not give up.

Boards are looking for great women, you do not need to be a CEO. Balance confidence with humility.

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