Behind Boardroom Doors

A veteran director gives insights on how to succeed

By Kevin Gale

Betsy Atkins is sharing her decades of experience as a corporate director in the third edition of the instructive and engrossing book, Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director.

SFBW readers may be familiar with Atkins from some of her recent guest columns. The Coral Gables resident serves on the boards of Cognizant, HD Supply, SL Green Realty and Schneider Electric. She is also a member on the board of Volvo Cars and the SAP Advisory Board. 

Just as important, though, Atkins brings experience as a three-time CEO, a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Baja Corp., which built three early stage funds and made early investments in Yahoo and eBay.

While the book’s title might indicate it is written for directors, it has a lot of insight on how CEOs and other C-suite executives can best interact with their boards. There’s a lot of discussion about the roles of boards versus executives.

“Board members have oversight responsibility for strategy and may contribute input. The critical delineation is that management owns, operates, and implements strategy,” Atkins writes. Boards represent shareholders in making sure strategies are robust not just for the short term, but the long term, which may be an even more critical responsibility.

The most gripping chapter in the book is “Crisis Management.”

Atkins experienced what she calls every director’s nightmare: Joining the board of a company just before it was hit with massive criminal fraud accusations. The company in question was HealthSouth.

On March 19, 2009, Atkins wrote in her diary that the day started off regularly, but then she got word that the Securities and Exchange Commission had filed civil fraud charges against HealthSouth and Chairman and CEO Richard Scrushy.

With Scrushy’s chairman role compromised, Atkins stepped into the lurch as chairman of the special litigation committee and organized a series of rapid-fire board meetings that day. It culminated in a 7:30 p.m. meeting about whether Scrushy should be removed, who would be chairman and who would become CEO. Readers will find a surprising twist in what prompted Atkins to leave the company after only 16 days amid all the turmoil.

While Atkins also draws from lessons at other companies she served as director, including the tech meltdown that slammed Lucent Technologies, she also looks at how other companies handled problems, such as the publicity from a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight and BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Atkins spends time in the book talking about directors’ role in hiring and firing of CEOs. One key piece of advice: “When you start to think there is something amiss, go and investigate it actively.” Too often, when the board gets a whiff of problems, the rest of the company is fainting from the smell, she writes.

Atkins also has insight into board dynamics, such as handling rogue directors and avoiding coup d’etats led by directors who just want the CEO’s job.

Atkins give logical approaches for board diversity (it’s as much about skills and background as it is about gender and race) and how to keep boards from going stale. There’s a way to be graceful in moving out board members who might have been great in their day but need to be replaced with someone who brings critical skills.

Atkins also gives a lot of attention to critical corporate issues, such as the pace of technological change and cybersecurity.

Atkins book is well timed because news headlines these days offer a steady stream of companies and directors in crisis. The third edition of the book has fresh examples of trends, trouble and how directors can prepare for them. ♦

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Drew Limsky

Drew Limsky



Drew Limsky joined Lifestyle Media Group in August 2020 as Editor-in-Chief of South Florida Business & Wealth. His first issue of SFBW, October 2020, heralded a reimagined structure, with new content categories and a slew of fresh visual themes. “As sort of a cross between Forbes and Robb Report, with a dash of GQ and Vogue,” Limsky says, “SFBW reflects South Florida’s increasingly sophisticated and dynamic business and cultural landscape.”

Limsky, an avid traveler, swimmer and film buff who holds a law degree and Ph.D. from New York University, likes to say, “I’m a doctor, but I can’t operate—except on your brand.” He wrote his dissertation on the nonfiction work of Joan Didion. Prior to that, Limsky received his B.A. in English, summa cum laude, from Emory University and earned his M.A. in literature at American University in connection with a Masters Scholar Award fellowship.

Limsky came to SFBW at the apex of a storied career in journalism and publishing that includes six previous lead editorial roles, including for some of the world’s best-known brands. He served as global editor-in-chief of Lexus magazine, founding editor-in-chief of custom lifestyle magazines for Cadillac and Holland America Line, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Interiors South Florida. He also was the executive editor for B2B magazines for Acura and Honda Financial Services, and he served as travel editor for Conde Nast. Magazines under Limsky’s editorship have garnered more than 75 industry awards.

He has also written for many of the country’s top newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, USA Today, Worth, Robb Report, Afar, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Journal, Ritz-Carlton, Elite Traveler, Florida Design, Metropolis and Architectural Digest Mexico. His other clients have included Four Seasons, Acqualina Resort & Residences, Yahoo!, American Airlines, Wynn, Douglas Elliman and Corcoran. As an adjunct assistant professor, Limsky has taught journalism, film and creative writing at the City University of New York, Pace University, American University and other colleges.