How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Best advice from a star board member

November 6, 2013: 10:50 AM ET
Katzenberg and Hobson Photo by Robyn Twomey

Katzenberg and Hobson  Photo by Robyn Twomey

Mellody Hobson has a slate of corporate board seats that many a star executive would envy: She is a director at Starbucks (SBUX), Estee Lauder (EL), Groupon (GRPN) and DreamWorks Animation (DWA). And while her day job is serving as president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, Hobson is also non-executive chairman of DreamWorks—as well as one of CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg's most trusted advisors.

How did Hobson get such plum corporate gigs? For one thing, the 44-year-old executive knows what she's good at—and not. "We say at Ariel, 'What is your towering strength?" Hobson said in an interview with Katzenberg for Fortune's "Best Advice I Ever Got" package. She and DreamWorks' chief agree that her towering strength is simplifying complicated information and explaining it well.

Genius, said Einstein, is taking the complex and making it simple. Hobson is no genius--just a smart executive who focuses well to guide bigwigs. "Don't major in the minor," she says. Katzenberg says this is his favorite advice from her. Hobson also subscribes to the investment philosophy of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger (also featured in the "Best Advice" package) who hunt for haystacks—clear, explicable, durable winners like Coca-Cola (KO)—rather than obscure needle-like plays.

Vetting investment opportunities for the companies whose boards she sits on, Hobson keeps in mind: "If it grows like a week, it is a weed." The challenge for any company, she explains, is: "How do you get in the oak business?"

Long-term thinking has paid off for Hobson, career-wise. "When I walked in the door at Ariel at 22," says the '91 Princeton grad, "I thought, 'I'm going to walk through this door thousands of times.' I've worked at one place for 22 years. I'm the only person from my graduating class at Princeton who still has the same work number."

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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