Nasdaq’s Joan Conley: A devotion to governance and integrity

Dec 22, 2020
Joan Conley was the 2020 winner of Corporate Secretary’s lifetime achievement award

Joan Conley is this year’s recipient of the lifetime achievement award in recognition of her career as Nasdaq’s only corporate secretary since its founding, during which time she has developed its corporate governance and maintained a passionate focus on ethics, compliance and integrity.

Conley’s retirement from Nasdaq at the end of 2020 follows almost 40 years with the exchange operator and its predecessor organization. She started with the NASD – now the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority – in 1982 as a management trainee before becoming director of human resources from 1986 to 1994 and then senior vice president and corporate secretary from 1994 to 2001. She became Nasdaq’s corporate secretary when it was founded as a separate company in 2001.

‘Operating with integrity is the foundation upon which Nasdaq’s business model rests. Our employee and leadership culture promotes ethical business practices and doing the right thing – always – because we believe wholeheartedly that it is everyone’s responsibility to demonstrate ethical behavior,’ said John Zecca, executive vice president and global chief legal and regulatory officer, in a statement announcing Conley’s retirement.

‘Joan’s trusted counsel and expertise in this area has been a tremendous asset to Nasdaq throughout her storied tenure. She has the unique and special distinction of serving every Nasdaq CEO since the company’s inception and is responsible for creating many of the cherished parts of Nasdaq that we all know today.’

Among those initiatives, Conley in 2008 created Nasdaq’s corporate governance and global ethics and compliance programs. What began as a focus on policies has developed to include areas such as enterprise risk management, anti-corruption and privacy with an ethics-in-action program and virtual training launched three years ago. She worked to establish the Nasdaq Educational Foundation in 1994, which supports programs designed to promote ties connecting business, capital and innovative ideas that advance global economies. A keen entrepreneur, she partnered with former vice chair Bruce Austin to launch the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in 2015.

Conley has also been keen to make Nasdaq’s proxy statement a successful means of sharing information and narrative with shareholders and other groups. Her hard work is rewarded this year as Nasdaq takes home the best proxy statement (large cap) award.

‘That is more than just a document,’ Conley comments. ‘That is the evolution of our communication with our stockholders, stakeholders, employees and communities. I have been very focused on what the average investor wants to know about the company. Telling the story of the company is very important.’

In addition to her work on the company’s own governance, Conley has also been an active partner to Nasdaq’s governance solutions business, sharing best practices with clients and others, particularly in the area of board portals. As a proponent of board technology, her adaptability and insight were evident this year when she devised creative ways to help Nasdaq directors feel engaged during virtual meetings – even helping them get to know each other better by holding quizzes during break sessions.

Conley is also an advocate for mentorships and one of her mentees, Erika Moore, is her successor. One of Conley’s pieces of advice for Moore is to take risks and not be afraid to fail. ‘One of my mentors talked about failing forward,’ Conley says. ‘You’ve got to be able to do that in this role and I think Erika will do that well.’

Retirement from Nasdaq does not mark the end of Conley’s career, however: she intends to remain a governance professional, advising companies and serving on boards.

You can read more about the Corporate Governance Awards in the Corporate Secretary Yearbook


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