As chair of the board of Navient, Linda Mills is one of a few women who head the board of a Fortune 500 company. With six of 10 board members who are women, Navient is also one of the only public companies to have achieved gender parity in the boardroom. Here, Linda reflects on the keys to leadership.
- You had a long, successful career at Northrop Grumman, in an industry and profession where women are not as well represented. What are some of keys to career success?
I always liked math and science. Aerospace appealed to me because of its scale, complexity and the difference it could make to others.
To be successful, you must perform as performance always speaks for itself and be willing to take risks to stretch yourself. I was very fortunate to have great sponsors who recommended me for certain roles. Stated simply, my advice would be to build your network, particularly at senior levels, enjoy what you do and don’t be afraid to take risks. Diversity of roles hones your judgement, collaboration and influencing skills.
- What traits make a leader effective?
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, different countries, ethnicities, male or female, introvert or extrovert. Great leaders have some common traits. They think strategically and tactically, when required, as both are required to be successful. They communicate well, taking complex ideas and making them simple, while often painting pictures with words. They listen and collaborate to tease out the best way forward to address very hard problems.
- In June, you became chair of Navient’s board. What was the transition like from being a board member to serving as chair?
The role of the board is to help the company succeed while meeting interests of its shareholders and other constituencies.
The board chair focuses the board agenda that properly represents shareholders and stakeholders’ interests, positions the company strategically and manages risks. This requires a great deal of communication back and forth with the committee chairs, the CEO, other board members, and at times, key stakeholders and shareholders. It’s a healthy dialogue with lots of give and take.
Boards advise management, so listening and collaborating to get to the right outcomes are important.
- Navient’s business involves student loans and we’re in an environment in which the cost of college and related debt is a hot topic. What makes you proud of the way Navient helps student loan borrowers succeed?
Statistics say that students who graduate earn more over their career and are more likely to pay back the loan. Graduating from a course of study is a critical step, as data tells us that those struggling most with student loans are students who attended but did not complete their college degree programs.
The ins and outs of the federal student loan program are extremely complex. Navient uses data insights to work with each student to help them pay back their loan and is one of the nation’s leaders in enrolling borrowers in payment programs such as income-based repayment. Borrowers serviced by Navient are 37 percent less likely to default. We recognize that every situation is slightly different so there is no one magic solution, and we regularly make recommendations to policymakers to consider for improving the federal loan program.
- Navient is regularly recognized for its board diversity. How can companies continue to make progress on diversity?
Diversity starts at the top—with the board. My experience is that when the leader of an organization is diverse, the organization itself tends to be more diverse. Having discussions at the board and within the organization on where the company or the board stands against outside measures is important.
There is a benefit. There have been several studies that indicate more diverse organizations perform better and often take less risk.
- Looking back, what made a difference in helping you grow in your career?
There were two things—one was the willingness to take on hard jobs, where you were not sure you would succeed. You learn the most then. And the second was being clear on your objective—for me this was running a large, complex organization. I saw that as my way of making a difference.