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Paulette Dodson Knows What Makes Boards Effective

Paulette Dodson Knows What Makes Boards Effective

Photo by Danielle Dolan
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Throughout her thirty-year legal career, Paulette Dodson has consistently maintained a commitment to the community, the public interest, and authentic leadership. Beginning in 1992, she spent fourteen years as legal counsel to the Tribune Company, which owned several newspapers and broadcast organizations throughout the United States. 

When she first started volunteering as a young lawyer, she spent time teaching and tutoring with Literacy Volunteers of America. Eventually, her energy and focus brought her to the attention of advocacy organizations throughout Chicago. 

Dodson’s first board role was for the Aids Legal Council of Chicago. It was a tricky time, as the board was beginning the search for a new executive director for the council. Dodson joined the search committee, which she calls perhaps the single most important task for any board member.

Paulette Dodson, Former General Counsel, Alight Inc. Photo by Danielle Dolan

“That was an extraordinary opportunity for a first-time board member,” she recalls. “In choosing a leader, you get really focused on what the mission is, what the strategy is, and who will be able to inspire and retain colleagues to carry out that strategy in the most impactful way.” 

When she first became a mother, Dodson took time away from board service. But now she serves in a number of different roles. Of those multiple commitments, her longest-running tenure is at Mather, a nonprofit that encompasses a private research institute, a foundation, and a company dedicated to providing high-quality senior life plan communities. The life plan communities help fund research on aging; later, those same communities can put the research institute’s findings into action. 

Mather’s blended structure—mission-driven nonprofit activity with for-profit business—provides novel challenges for the board. As chair of the corporate governance committee and a member of the executive committee (which, among other matters, acts as the compensation committee for Mather), Dodson applies learnings from her work as general counsel for companies like Sara Lee, PetSmart, and Alight Inc.

“You focus on the components that drive this business and match those needs with your board members,” Dodson explains. “Chemistry is critical, with the leadership team as well as across the board. Do you want members who are going to act as change agents, or who will help the board see new things? You need a good mix.” 

She also chairs the board at the Better Government Association (BGA), an Illinois watchdog organization investigating government activity and promoting good-government policy and solutions. It is both a journalistic enterprise and an advocacy project, with robust bylaws that maintain each mission’s independence. Informed by her fourteen years with the Tribune Company, Dodson’s role is to build and maintain a board that can make this mission possible.

Dodson’s work is made even more challenging by the fact that these are tense political times, and the fact that Illinois is a famously corrupt state. But it is in such situations, Dodson points out, that robust investigative agents are invaluable. “The BGA is in a very special, nonpartisan position,” she says. “It’s not enough just to point out the issues we’re finding in government executing on its duties. What are the solutions we, the citizenry, should be considering?” 

As the organization matures, Dodson helps keep the board focused, informed, and engaged. Questions of funding and strategy are paramount, especially in the not-for-profit space. “The impact I would like to have is to build a board capable of helping this organization be successful in its mission,” she says, “whether that’s in raising funds or providing capabilities we might not have in terms of carrying out our strategy.” 

Photo by Danielle Dolan

Most recently, Dodson was appointed to the board of the Portillo’s Restaurant Group, a publicly traded (NASDAQ: PTLO) fast casual restaurant chain based in Chicago that’s now advancing local meat gospel across the country. As a Chicagoan, Dodson understands the love that the city has for the brand. 

Still, she is always impressed to see Portillo’s fans’ responses to the restaurants opening in their areas—in Phoenix, some consumers took the day off work to celebrate the opening of the area’s first location. As with any brand, the value of Portillo’s is much more than its product. 

“The mission of Portillo’s is to bring this kind of joy to its customers,” Dodson emphasizes. “That’s what you need from a board member—someone who understands the mission and buys into it.” 

Through her many roles and her decades of board experience, Dodson has developed a thorough understanding of what makes a board effective. A healthy board understands its role; it works through reasonable, manageable agenda items; and it receives and distributes a full, clear picture of the results. When the board is strong and focused, the organization will be resilient in a crisis.

Dodson explains, “Any crisis brings to the fore whether a board or an organization is well run. Can you pivot without taking away from your day-to-day business? Is the board getting the right information in the right sequence, to assist the leadership team? Do you have the right structures in place?”

Dodson has seen her own leadership priorities grow in recent years, following an ongoing cultural evolution in the workplace. As matters of racial justice and health justice become part of everyday conversations, she’s been more willing to share her personal experiences, and she names authenticity and openness as key leadership priorities.

“I’m quite motivated by this work,” she says. “I think humans are incredibly inspirational. When an organization can show that it’s going somewhere, that it’s meeting its goals, that’s inspirational. I use that to fuel my time and commitment.” 

Thoughts from Guest Editor Michelle Collins

Paulette’s exposure to and experience with public company and nonprofit boards gives her unique insight to the tone and makeup of boards and what makes them tick. Chemistry is key—getting the right mix of leaders is critical to a board’s ability to work collaboratively, especially in times of stress and crisis. Trust and effective communication become essential characteristics of effective boards. 

Paulette has vast experience from her role as general counsel at various public companies such as PetSmart and Alight, but because general counsel also serve as trusted advisors, those positions also gave her an extraordinary opportunity to observe and influence a board’s effectiveness.

Paulette has supplemented her professional experience with board roles for both a public company and an important nonprofit, she has distinctive experience in the world of corporate experience. Together, her experiences make her an ideal candidate for board service.

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