A decade ago, when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz introduced Mellody Hobson to DreamWorks Animation SKG ( chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, it took Katzenberg five seconds to decide that he wanted Hobson on his board of directors. Hobson, the 44-year-old president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, is now DreamWorks' nonexecutive chairman and also on the boards of )Starbucks (Fortune 500), , Estée Lauder (Fortune 500), and , Groupon (. She's a valuable adviser, the 62-year-old Katzenberg explains, because she simplifies complex problems, always thinks long term, and asks questions in an unthreatening way. "If Mellody were a boxer, she would have a knockout punch that would make you feel like you got hit by a feather," the DreamWorks CEO said over breakfast in Los Angeles, as the two recalled one time when he wanted to make a "multibillion-dollar acquisition" and her wise counsel stopped him. --Patricia Sellers )
Katzenberg: My favorite expression of yours is "Don't major in the minor."
Hobson: The biggest mistake I see CEOs make is that they get caught up in the short term. That's majoring in the minor.
Katzenberg: I'm an emotional person. [This acquisition opportunity] needed to be a business decision, not an emotional decision. She helped peel away the things that were not the facts and look at it in a way that I wasn't able to do on my own.
Hobson: It was many, many hours on the phone. Jeffrey really wanted to do it, and he didn't have the support. [I approached the situation by] laying out all the potential outcomes and having a real conversation about: Is this a bet-the-ranch move? Did you think of this, that, and the other? As opposed to telling him what I thought, I tried to get at it with questions.
Katzenberg: Therein lies Mellody's art.
Hobson: I'd say, "Do you believe this number?" He'd say, "I discounted the number by 40%." And I said, "Well, if you're discounting the number, what does this say about your belief in the people?"
Katzenberg: She is the Picasso of questions. She can ask a question like nobody else. You have to find in yourself the answer to it. There's a real art to that.
Hobson: Ultimately everyone did the right thing.
Katzenberg: We didn't do [the deal]. I was okay that we didn't do it. I learned a lot from the process. The board and the company are better for the experience.