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Building a career all the way to the Boardroom

In this article we join Coralie Danks in a conversation about her career and how she came to serve as an advisor to the Alltech executive team. As you will read, Coralie brings to the role a wealth of experience from a career that has taken her around the world.

In addition to learning about pivotal aspects of her career, we also delved deeper into the issue of diversity at Board level. Despite many studies indicating that a broad range of backgrounds improves the performance of a business, there is still an imbalance at an executive level in many organizations throughout the food and agriculture industry.

[WFA] Can you start by talking us through your career history and how you rose through the ranks?

[Coralie Danks] I think the best way to describe my career path is ‘non-linear’ but always progressive. After graduating from university in Australia with a Bachelor of Economics, I headed to China to study Chinese and ended up starting my career at Pricewaterhouse in the Beijing office. In the mid-1990s, Pricewaterhouse had been engaged by the Chinese Central Bank to help build out the Bank’s oversight function of the financial sector. I spent my first two years with them working on projects supporting this, focused on creating financial sector charts of accounts and reporting systems, as well as gathering data from China’s largest financial institutions. This might be considered relatively boring work but given the time and place I found it fascinating and I feel fortunate to have been able to learn about and experience China’s development.

Following this I transferred to the Pricewaterhouse New York office and spent the next part of my career working on a range of projects, mostly at financial service companies. I consider this period my ‘apprenticeship’.  I learned a ton – everything from organization design, to large enterprise software rollouts to building digital retail banks from the ground up, so to speak. The latter especially, was a full on ‘baptism of fire’ in the hotbed of what was to become one of the most influential aspects of modern business. I also spent six years at Goldman Sachs as a Vice President in the Compliance Department. This was another great learning experience as my tenure spanned the global financial crisis and gave me lessons in risk management, company culture and, most importantly, communication.

Although I did not know it at the time, my work in New York was great training and it gave me an incredibly useful toolkit when, in 2011, I decided to head back to China. I had accepted the COO position at a growing food and beverage company. I was also a co-owner of the business and after a couple of years took over running the company. It more than tripled in size and became a national brand within China. All my prior experience and learned expertise was brought to bear in that venture. I also learned on the job how to develop and scale a business that was outside my prior career trajectory.

[WFA] How did you get to the position you are in now, serving on the Alltech board as an advisor to the Alltech executive team, including President and CEO Dr. Mark Lyons?

[Coralie Danks] Mark and I got to know one another while both of us were living and working in Beijing. We connected through a shared set of values and interests, as well as the experiences of being executive ex-pats. When he returned to Alltech’s corporate headquarters in Kentucky, we continued to stay in conversation and exchange ideas. It was an honor – and yet also somewhat of a natural evolution of our relationship – to be asked by Mark to serve on the company’s advisory board in 2020. This role has opened the opportunity for broader engagement with the Alltech team globally.

[WFA] What do you feel has been instrumental to your success?

[Coralie Danks] I think a significant element of my personal career journey has been a willingness to take risks, although I was not always aware that was what I was doing at the time. I was saying ‘yes’ to opportunities that came my way or, through a combination of curiosity and wanting to keep learning, I sought out new roles. I think the latter, curiosity and continuous learning, also helped me overcome a pitfall many of us experience and not let “what ifs” or limiting beliefs cloud my judgement on what was possible.

Later in my career, a great piece of advice that helped me grow my own company was to “work on your business, not in your business” which is from the book The E Myth. It may sound a little obvious, but I think it is easy to fall into the trap of doing what we know and are used to doing, rather than focusing on the broader business and its growth. I think this applies to anyone in a management role not just in the C-suite.

[WFA] Why do you think diversity is so important at the board level?

[Coralie Danks] One of the primary roles of an advisory board is to help the leadership team achieve profitable growth, and diverse organizations have been shown to outperform less diverse competitors on profitability and other metrics. With the pace of change today and the complexity of the global business environment, there is too much for any one person or any group of like-minded individuals to personally tackle. Multiple perspectives and a diversity of experiences, backgrounds and skillsets help the leadership team to avoid groupthink and get beyond unconscious biases.

Working and living within different cultures for most of my career has made me more aware of the different lenses through which we view things and how this can lead to very different assumptions and conclusions. On this point, I recently read an excellent book as part of the Alltech book club called Factfulness by Hans Rosling.  The book challenges personal biases and is especially good for this moment in time with its hopeful yet fact-based message. Finally, I’d highlight the importance of ‘setting the tone from the top’ – inclusion in the boardroom sends a signal to the rest of the organization that diverse people and backgrounds are valued throughout that business.  

[WFA] What do you think is the biggest barrier to gender diversity at this level? What can be done to address these issues?

[Coralie Danks] In addition to tackling bias, as I mentioned before, we need a progressive approach to search and hiring. A traditional board configuration is often made up of CEOs, CFOs etc. Given that women are already underrepresented in the C-suite, they are therefore also underrepresented on corporate boards. Consequently, companies seeking to improve their diversity at the board level need to cast a wider net.  We should consider female candidates with relevant and modern skillsets rather than limit the pool to female former CEOs. I am not suggesting that experience at the CEO or CFO level is not important, but there are other skill sets and experiences that are also crucial for boards today. In my case, I am grateful that Mark Lyons looked outside the norm and appreciated and valued the experience I had of scaling a company and building a brand in China.

[WFA] Have you seen any effective approaches to try to improve diversity in the boardroom? 

[Coralie Danks] In addition to better recruitment strategies and looking at experience and skill sets more broadly, I also think women benefit from diversity in their networks. In my experience, invitations to interview for a board position, and/or being asked to serve on a board, often come from within one’s network so I think it is important to build your business network and ensure it includes both women and men. Ultimately, to speed up the pace of change we need the support of men as well as women. I would encourage each of us within this network to engage the men in our organizations and encourage them to get involved with campaigns like WFA.

[WFA] Finally, can you say a few words about why you think the WFA campaign is so important?

[Coralie Danks] Given the role that agri-food has to play in solving the challenges we face, from hunger to affordable nutrition in all our communities to sustainability, we need both men and women at the table. WFA provides a platform to share our ideas and to promulgate this shared vision.

Having recently participated in the 2020 summit, I enjoyed being part of the community and having the opportunity to hear and learn from other members. I especially appreciated the breakout sessions and ability to connect with a diverse group of great women from across the globe. It’s an opportunity to be reminded that we are not in this alone and our experiences and aspirations are shared.

Published in association with Alltech

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