Top Value-Creating Directors: Jan Babiak

Jan Babiak Headshot
Photo Courtesy of Jan Babiak
Director, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Bank of Montreal: ‘Be benevolently itrusive.’

Editor’s Note: In a first-of-its-kind exercise, CBM and AlixPartners partnered to identify the Top 20 Value-Creating Directors in America, using an approach that relies on total shareholder return (TSR) relative to peers for the companies these board members help guide. See the Full List >

For Jan Babiak, No. 20 on our list, depth and breadth of experience as a director begat excellence in board service. “If you’re only doing one board or even working for one company, you’re pretty narrow in what you can bring,” she says. “Having a breadth of experience on boards is keeping you live and relevant all the time.”

To ensure maximum effectiveness, Babiak has always carefully curated her board roles. “I want to make sure I’m not under-boarded,” she says. “I wanted to do a portfolio of boards that are complementary, in different sectors and even countries, because I can bring a lot of experience.” 

For instance, Babiak was on the board of a UK-based company that had significant operations in Asia, when Covid arose during late 2019. That helped give U.S.-based companies for which she served as a director a jump on prepping for the virus that swept the globe in 2020.

Babiak’s executive and board roles have given her experience in P&L, cybersecurity and dealing with ESG issues such as climate change. She has also worked internationally as a global managing partner of EY in the United Kingdom, among other leadership positions. And she maintains both her CPA license and a certification in cybersecurity and other aspects of information systems. “That forces discipline,” she says. “It costs me money and time… but it also puts me in a situation where I can understand important provisions for shareholders of things like new SEC standards coming out.”

In general, Babiak tries to “be benevolently intrusive. I don’t want to become management, but I should be asking a lot of questions. And I think if my ‘nose’ is in and it smells something bad, I have to push my nose in further—not hold it and walk away.”

Approaching board membership as its own profession is crucial, Babiak says. “There was a time when, for a lot of directors, it was ‘3G plus one’: golf, gardening and grandparenting, plus one board membership. But for me, this is work. So, if I’m not doing board [meetings], I’m at a board-relevant conference. I go to all of them I can fit in; I speak at some.

Babiak also strives to stay informed between meetings and to experience her companies the way customers do. “I’ve been to more than 400 Walgreens stores and I’m not sure how many competitors’ stores,” she says. “My husband calls it Walgreens tourism. And I read the press feed on Walgreens twice a day. It’s about being engaged without doing management.”

Board makeup is also critical to the effectiveness of individual directors in contributing to collective excellence, adds Babiak, who says boards should steer clear of recruiting “one-trick-pony” directors. “There are some brilliant people on technology or digital marketing, but you can’t have them sit through 90 percent of a board meeting with nothing to say.” Boards must “take each board seat and make sure it’s someone who not only has the pedigree to be in the room as a peer but also brings some depth.”

At the same time, boards must ensure they’ve got the requisite domain expertise for their industry represented in the room. On a bank board, for example, that means a retired or former chief risk officer.” 

Babiak joined one board, with no female members and a 96-year-old director, as part of a composition overhaul. “I met with the CEO and he said, ‘I’ve got to change things around here, and we need people who are dynamic and innovative. I trust you’ll be part of the change, not the status quo,’” she says. “I ended up going on the board, and two years later, the board was 50 percent women.”

Yet, even the board of a company with a strong team and momentum may find itself facing turmoil. “You don’t know what’s coming your way,” Babiak says. “People on airline boards felt one way in 2019 and differently in 2020” in the wake of Covid. “For me, it’s more about the culture of the board and the people I’m going to share it with. I don’t mind driving through hell with people if I know they have my back and we have an ethical center that’s going to do the right thing.”

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