5 Questions with Kohl’s Director Michael Bender

In an interview with Korn Ferry, Bender discusses how boards are thinking about generative AI, succession planning, and why even directors need mentors.

If you want to get a sense of the kind of person Michael Bender is, take a look at his comments on LinkedIn. In post after post, Bender, a former Walmart executive and CEO of optical retailer Eyemart Express, is offering congratulations or words of support to colleagues and associates.

It’s that type of leadership that has made Bender a sought-after board director for the likes of Kohl’s, Acuity Brands, Included Health, and others. As firms seek to remake their boards to meet the evolving business landscape, Bender’s has both the temperment and experience—from retail and real estate to healthcare, digital, and food and beverage—to be a valuable asset to management. To be sure, in addition to his regular board duties, Bender spends a lot of time mentoring other directors and coaching C-suite leaders. Or, as he puts it, “I help prepare them for those unexpected moments that inevitably arise, because I’ve seen the movie before.” 

In an interview with Tierney Remick, Korn Ferry’s vice chairman and co-leaders of the firm’s Global Board and CEO practice, Bender spoke about emerging trends in the boardroom, how boards are thinking about generative AI, the importance of succession planning for directors, and what public and private company boards can learn from each other. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation. 

What are some key trends emerging in the boardroom?

For the last year or so, the boards that I’m on have been focused on navigating through the uncertainty in the economic environment. Simplifying our focus to the core objectives and making sure management and the board are aligned on strategy. ESG is still a big trend, figuring out the benchmarks and metrics from a reporting and transparency standpoint. And, of course, technology, particularly generative AI—how to use it to the advantage of the business, but also assessing the risks from a business standpoint. 

Where is the conversation around generative AI focused at this stage? Have specific strategies emerged for discussion? 

Every company is working hard to figure out their AI strategy. It’s more of a discussion about how fast to adopt AI and to what degree. How can we enhance the business now with an eye toward what else we can do with it in the future. Generative AI has taken off so fast that it has caused a lot of leaders to look outside their own vertical for examples of how other industries or companies are using it that may be applicable to their own. The main focus is around how to use AI creatively to drive customer engagement. 

You sit on both public and private boards. Based on your experience, what do you think public and private boards can learn from each other? How are they similar and different? 

Well, the easiest place to point to is governance. Private company boards can learn a lot from public ones about how to set up committee structures and how to build the organization in terms of sequencing, priority, and pace. On the flip side, public company boards can learn from the long-term vision and steadfast commitment of private companies to bring an idea to life by getting off the hamster wheel of thinking quarter by quarter. 

Another theme that comes through on both kinds of boards is talent and people processes. How do you run lean but have the right people in the right spots? What do you need out of the HR function to recruit and retain the right kinds of people? That’s become a more frequent topic of discussion across boards since the pandemic. 

How has board succession evolved since you first became a director? Specifically, how has the pace of change, combined with the growth of diverse perspectives in the boardroom, impacted the board's view of succession? 

Succession planning now is much more intentional and deliberate than in the past. In many cases, firms are trying to shape the board to align with the strategy of the business, which means taking a hard look at the skills, experience, and traits of directors, and identifying gaps that need to be filled. Being a director isn’t a tenured position, and boards are more willing to utilize terms limits, age limits, and individual assessments to hasten succession and get directors with the skills and experience they need. 

When it comes to diversity, it isn’t just about race or gender. Boards are also looking to have a nice mix of tenured and new directors as well, striving for a few directors that have a history with the firm over a period of time, another group in the middle that is educated on the recent activity of the business and where it needs to go, and a set of directors with fresh eyes to stay current. 

What advice would you give a first-time director?

Don’t just think about what you bring to the table. Also think about what you want to learn, the people and business you want to be around. That helps when choosing which board to join. Every board has its own culture, so make sure you understand the culture of the one you are joining. It’s a completely different setting than management or coming from the C-suite. Try to find a mentor among the directors that can help you understand the vocabulary and tenor of the board, someone who can translate what’s being said, what isn’t, the reasons for each, and why it matters.