Early in her career, Marilyn Carlson Nelson was typically the only woman in the boardroom. Being in the minority can be an uncomfortable position. But that hasn’t stopped her from advocating tirelessly for what she believes.
Some years back, Nelson was a director for a company that was acquired. She was asked to stay on the “new” board, and it soon became very clear to her that the new CEO wasn’t right for the job. “He was not at all transparent,” she recalls. “He seemed to be more interested in his own economic success than in the economic success of the company.” She was one of a small handful of directors pushing for his removal. “I never did quite understand why others didn’t stand up a little bit sooner,” she says. In time, the rest of the board came around to her point of view, and he was let go.
Overall, Nelson has found her experiences as a director to be positive and satisfying. The chairman of Minnetonka-based global hospitality firm Carlson and the company’s former CEO, she is now the chair of the Mayo Clinic’s board of trustees and a director on several other for- and nonprofit boards; she also has served on dozens of others throughout her career. Though most of her service has been for Minnesota organizations, Nelson also has been an esteemed and thoughtful board member for many companies based outside the state.
Current Board Service
- Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees
- Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota
- Curtis L. Carlson Family Foundation
- Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy
- Greater MSP
- Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
- National Endowment for Democracy
- United Nations Global Compact
- University of Minnesota Foundation
Case in point: She was on the board of Exxon when it merged with Mobil, a deal finalized in 1999. “The strategic choice of any acquisition or merger becomes an interesting one for boards, because you look at the competitive position in the long term, the sustainability of the company, then finding the right partner; understanding why the merger is being done,” she says.
These days, while women are more common figures on boards, greater director diversity has been one of Nelson’s causes. “I particularly enjoy serving on the nominating and governing committees,” she says. It’s a way to help ascertain that the makeup of the board “reflects that of the customer base.” She is pleased that now there are board members “who recognize that diversity is really the key to competitiveness, and that role models at all levels of a company are important if we’re going to draw from the whole pool.”
Nelson’s advocacy for diversity has included benefits for people in same-sex relationships. This issue has been one that has challenged her to do in-depth research, and look at facts and data about “a very emotional subject.” she says. “My company was very early in providing same-sex benefits. But even there I had to convince my company.”
The focus of Nelson’s current board activity is her leadership role at Mayo Clinic. “I love being on boards where there’s clarity of the mission,” she says, which includes “the social values that you’re bringing to the market.” Mayo has widened its strategy “to move from secondary or tertiary care to expand its footprint into . . . community health.” And, of course, there are Mayo’s plans for a destination medical center in Rochester. All told, she says that it’s an exciting time to be leading its board. “She’s been a terrific chairperson for Mayo,” says Bill George, former Medtronic CEO and now a Harvard Business School professor. He has served with Nelson on several boards, including Exxon and Mayo. “She has great passion for the mission, the purpose of Mayo, its focus on patients, and the healing mission of it. She has a marvelous strategic vision of where Mayo can and should go, particularly in light of the changes taking place in health care.” In addition, he notes, “she is a great communicator with the board members—very open to input, and very thoughtful in thinking through what various board members are saying.”
Nelson knows that there is much to think through. “It used to be that you worried about execution risk and financial risk,” she says. These days, risks include data security, as well as geopolitical and environmental risks. “Being a director today requires a depth of commitment that perhaps wasn’t so true years ago, when businesses tended to be regional or national, less global,” she says. “The world was less connected; news didn’t travel quite so fast, so that even managing corporate communications today is a much bigger challenge than ever.”
Still, Nelson stresses that board work has been one of the most gratifying activities in her extensive career. One of the aspects she treasures is “the opportunity of applying the knowledge and experience that I had in one area in a new area. At the same time, I enjoy learning a new business . . . to understand it well enough that you can provide good advice.” As numerous organizations can attest, she has provided an abundance of such advice.