Deborah Elam

Jun 17, 2021

Critical thinking within your team leads to success with Deborah Elam, the President, and CEO of Corporate Playbook and Lucid Board member.


Episode Summary

What is your first thought when someone says they’re a board member? Do you imagine a cold-faced person pulling all the strings at a company? Most people share that same perception, but the best way to understand what it’s like is to hear it first-hand. So on this episode, it’s our pleasure to welcome Deborah Elam, the President, and CEO of Corporate Playbook and Lucid Board member.

Deborah’s career path is quite interesting. She started as an intern at GE and then joined one of their leadership development training programs. She spent the next 30 years at GE and was the first black female corporate officer in GE’s history.

In today’s episode of the Through Your Looking Glass podcast, Deborah and our host, Patrick, discuss the role of board members. As Deborah explains, board members are not executives. Their job is to give advice, present different points of view, and help managers implement the best strategy.

The two dedicate a considerable part of the conversation to diversity and why it’s so important to a company’s success. Having people with different lifestyles, beliefs, personal and professional backgrounds is the key to success no matter what industry you are in. “You don’t want a bunch of ‘Yes’ people on your board,” says Deborah and adds that allowing your team members to express themselves creates a healthy work environment everyone wants to be part of.

As we all know, if you want your business to prosper, you need to set an example because you want to be a company your community has confidence in. You want to attract as many clients or customers as possible, so you have to implement correct values and present them to the public.


Name: Deborah Elam

What she does: Deborah is the President and CEO of Corporate Playbook and Lucid Board member.

Key Quote: ”If you only focus or you only tend to hire people who look a certain way, you’re missing the talent pool. And as a board member, that’s not cool with me because as a board member, I want to ensure that you’re getting the very best talent.”

Where to find Deborah: Corporate PlaybookLinkedIn

Key Insights

  • The board that works best is one where you have Diversity. It is a common belief that board members are managers. According to Deborah, it is a misconception because their job is to offer a fresh perspective and help executives implement the best strategy. You don’t need a lot of ”Yes” people on your board. You need people who are not afraid to disagree. ”Diversity on your board matters. It will give you what I call a “360-degree vision” of what is going on in the marketplace, in the industry, and with talent leadership.”
  • Preparation is the key. ”I always will show up in a very prepared way; that’s who I am,”  says Deborah and explains that no matter how experienced you are, you need to be well-prepared for every meeting. To do so, you need as much information as possible. One of the reasons she enjoys being on the Lucid board is the company’s approach to providing materials on time. ”My preparation is something you like, but you make it easy because materials go out early enough. Your leadership team is available for questions. I can be prepared because your team enables me to be prepared.”
  • True Diversity is the opportunity to talk about things from differing points of view. People need to feel acknowledged within their teams. Those who don’t feel appreciated and heard will never offer fruitful ideas. If you want your company to prosper, you need to allow your employees to express themselves and understand each other. ”What matters is that everyone working feels like they belong like they can contribute and feels like they can be successful. Otherwise, you’re not getting the maximum out of them. You’ve got to have space where people give each other grace where they can talk about all kinds of issues.”

“Leadership is the core of what you’ve got to do to be successful in running a company, both for you and your leadership team.”

Episode Highlights

The Board Is to Give Advice, Perspective, Insight and Not Manage

”A board exists to help the company with a strategy to ensure that the shareholder, shareowner, stakeholder value is there. It helps with advice and counsel to the CEO and, in many cases, to the leadership team. It’s not jumping in and managing because we are not managers. We are oversight if you will. Think of us as people who have had experience in a lot of different venues. In my case, it’s about how I add value to you, Patrick, and others based on my background.”

You Don’t Want a Bunch of ‘Yes’ People on Your Board

”You want people who are willing to have critical thinking, critical thoughts around the topic, whatever the topic is at hand. Everybody on the board should be working for the success of the company. That’s the goal. The goal is always the same. If you think about it in a sports analogy, everybody may have a different playbook. You may say, ‘This is the play that we want to run,’ and then run that play, but run it to execution.”

Cultural Competence Allows for a Company to Have Direct Correlation to Innovation

”Cultural competence is a big deal. And I think people don’t give it enough credence. I want to work with people and have people work on my team or where I’m involved, who understand how to navigate various cultures and understand nuance.

If you’re a US-based student, going to another place matters because it helps you think differently, it opens your eyes; it opens your mindset. For me, all of this is around the framework of how I think about things. If I only think about things myopically,  I’m not going to get innovation. But if I have been trained, if I had been exposed to different stuff, then I’m open to possibilities.”

We Are Where We Are Today. How Do You Move Forward?

”There’s been an evolution. Diversity was very black and white, and I mean that literally racially black and white. It has certainly evolved to include lots of cultures, lots of people from different places, sexual orientation, sexual gender identity. All kinds of things are now in the mix. And so, having people feel like they belong and being included is at a premium right now.

We’ve gone from counting heads, noses, and belly buttons to how we ensure that whenever they come here, they feel like this is a place where they can contribute and be successful. That’s huge.

The other thing I would say that’s different is that people are not afraid to call things out for what they are. In the past, we’ve had a lot of what I’ll call masking words. Diversity in itself is a broad word, and it’s palatable because it can mean a lot of different things.”

Customers Want to Know What Your Stand for

”I’ll go back to ‘Why does the board exist? What does a board do?’ A board helps to protect shareholder value, stakeholder value, advise the CEO and help provide strategic direction. The consumer is so much more plugged in, particularly in the era of social media and media.

The consumer is so much more plugged in on a company or an organization with whom they engage.

At the end of the day, I want to know what you stand for? Who are you before I engage with you, spend my money with you, refer you to others, and connect to you? The value proposition is greater than ever to ensure that you are representing what your customers and others would want you to be.”

Employee Resource Groups Are Valuable

”I’ve seen them help drive revenue, help drive business. It’s a big deal. It helps create a sense of belonging, but it also can help people feel more connected to others. There are groups from a racial standpoint; there can be groups of working parents, young parents; if you’re relocating people to a city and they don’t know the childcare situation or whatever, here’s a group where you can get tips and suggestions. I have found those to be very helpful.”



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