I love getting post board meeting emails that are retrospectives from execs in the meeting. This one came a week ago from Jeff Malek, the CTO and co-founder of BigDoor. They’ve been on a tear lately and are in the process of a massive set of Q1 launches for new customers.
We had a solid board meeting, but I suggested they were being too casual about a couple of things, including communication about what was going on. This is NOT a casual group and I knew using the word casual would press a few buttons. And they did – the right ones. Jeff’s retrospective is awesome and he was game to have me share it with you to get a sense of what’s inside a CTO’s head during and after a board meeting.
I have a retrospective addiction. But as a result of looking back at our meeting today Brad, words like ‘casual’ still ringing in my ears, I recognized I’d let some of my own assumptions drive away potential opportunities, maybe even creating some problems along the way. I’ve always run under the assumptions that :
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that I took your feedback and concluded that I needed to give you more BigDoor insight, or that you needed more info in general to get a better picture – that’s what the numbers are for.
So while all of the above assumptions are probably true to some degree, here’s the new protocol I’m going to start optimistically running under:
Those are my new assumptions. I felt like giving this topic some time and thought, glad I did, will keep it (mostly) short going forward but hopefully you know a bit more about where I’m coming from, out of this.
Thanks again for the time today, I thought it was an awesome f-ing meeting. I always leave them on fire.
Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.
My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.
I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path. And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation. All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts: Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.
But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members. I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others. Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.
Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:
My interview/vetting process for Board members:
I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member. Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:
Disclaimer – I run a private company. While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary. And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture. That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!
I’ve had a string of great board meetings lately. They all had several similar attributes.
There were no powerpoint slides: While each company has a substantive monthly reporting package, this was decoupled from the board meeting. I got my taste of financials, metrics, qualitative stuff, and whatever else the CEO wanted me to see on a monthly basis. But I read this independent of the board meeting (which wasn’t on a monthly cadence) and asked questions in reaction to getting the monthly reporting package rather than taking up air time in a board meeting.
The agenda was a simple set of bullet points: In several of these meetings it was written on the whiteboard at the beginning of the meeting. The topics covered were substantive but focused and were “in the moment” of importance, rather than some regurgitated monthly agenda that someone mindlessly edited from the previous meeting and then printed out.
Everyone involved was fully engaged: In several cases there were people on the phone or on videoconference, but they paid attention. And when they didn’t, we didn’t pay any attention to them.
Each topic was a discussion: There was no “reporting out”. The issue was framed by whomever started the discussion and then we went after it. There was no time limit. When people drifted off course (including me), someone (not always the same person) interrupted and pulled us back on course. We drove to answers, and – when we didn’t have consensus, ended up with a range out answers for the CEO to choose from (where we’d support whatever he chose.)
We got closure on each topic: There was no ambiguity. Even when we didn’t end up at a single answer, it was clear who (usually the CEO) owned the decision with an expectation that he would make it.
There was no bullshit: I don’t recall much “noise” – the “signal” in all of these meetings was very high.
The meetings didn’t expand to fill available time: The length ranged from 30 minutes to about four hours. But when we were done, we were done.
Everyone had a positive / constructive attitude, even when dealing with difficult issues: These were not happy, fluffy, mellow, no-conflict meetings. There was plenty of disagreement. There were arguments. But everyone approached them from perspective of solving a problem and getting to an answer.
We had a fun dinner either the night before the meeting or the evening after the meeting: Bottom line – we like hanging out with each other.
I’ve got another board dinner / meeting combo with a CEO who runs great board meetings (and – not surprisingly – a great business). While I’m sure I’ll figure out how to subject myself to more mind-numbing meetings that I don’t want to participate in, I feel like I’m turning a corner and have some impact on changing the board meetings I’m involved in for the better.
I’ve been on a number of board calls this month while I’ve been in Paris. About half of them have been via Skype; the other half have been standard audio conferencing. I’ve also had a bunch of other meetings, discussions, and pitches via Skype.
The quality of the meeting and interaction – when all attendees are in person or via videoconference (in my case Skype on my laptop) – was 10x better than the ones via audio conference only.
I’ve been vacillating between a “physical attendance at all board meetings” approach or “video conference at all board meetings approach” to life. It’s impossible for me to physically attend all board meetings, but there’s no reason why I can’t attend by video conference. I’m now encouraging everyone I work with – as well as everyone that has a board meeting – to have a physical + video conference approach. It is so much better than having people on audio conference.
In several of the meetings, we simply set up Skype on a laptop and put the laptop at the end of the table. It’s a simple, low cost (free) solution, that works awesomely well. In one case, there was more than one person on Skype. Rather than try to do a Skype three-way (which works well also), the company simply set up two laptops with a separate Skype session on each. Skype audio seemed to work just fine in all cases but one, so we did an audio conference for voice and Skype for video.
While there will always be adhoc conference calls on short notice for boards that need to ratify something, for any meeting over an hour, or any scheduled meeting, putting the effort into getting everyone either physically there or on video makes a huge difference.
I know it sounds trite, but it’s remarkable how much better – even in a one on one conversation – the discussion is when it’s video instead of just audio. The calls are higher impact, body language is apparent, and people pay full attention rather than “minimally acceptable attention + email”.
We’ve been waiting for and talking about video conferencing for a long time. I think it’s really ready this time.
I had two similar experiences last week where I heard from employees of two different companies that I’m on the board of. In each case, a senior exec said something like “I heard the board wants us to do blah.”
I was in each board meeting and the board most definitely did not say “we want the company to do blah.” Rather, in each case there was a discussion about the topic in question. In one of the cases consensus was reached quickly; in the other there was a robust discussion since two of the board members disagreed and the CEO wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Ultimately in that case as well there was consensus.
In each case I asked the executive what he’d heard back from the CEO. I got two versions of “the board had a discussion, there was a lot of disagreement, but the board wanted us to do blah.” I then asked, as non-politically as I could, “Do you think CEO wants to do that?” In both cases, the answer was “I’m not sure, but he knows the board wants that.”
I think this is a brutal communication mistake on the part of each of the CEOs. I’ve seen this many times over the past sixteen years since I stopped being a CEO and started being a board member. In each case the CEO is abdicating some responsibility for the decision. In the worst situation, the CEO is blaming the board for a decision and ultimately setting up a very negative context if the decision is an incorrect one – as in “see – I didn’t want to do this but the board did – so it’s not my fault.”
I’ve come to believe that the only real operating decision that a board makes is to fire the CEO. Sure, the board – and individual board members – are often involved in many operational decisions, but the ultimate decision is (and should be) the CEO’s. If the CEO is not in a position to be the ultimate decision maker, he shouldn’t be the CEO. And if board members don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, they should take one of two actions available to them – leave the board or replace the CEO.
In one of the cases, I asked the executive “if I told you the CEO was strongly in favor of the decision, would that impact you.” The response was a simple one: “yes – I’d be much more motivated to make sure we did it right.” I smiled and reinforced that the CEO was in fact supportive, which I think was a relief (and motivator) to this particular executive.
In my leadership experience, people really value when a leader takes responsibility for a decision, even if it turns out to be an incorrect one. CEO’s – don’t be the guy who says “the board made me do it.”
I had a board update call recently that inspired me to write the first of my Reinventing the Board Meeting posts.
The call was for a company that is doing great, is extremely well managed, and extraordinarily transparent. Two days before the call a very detailed update package was sent around to the board. It covered the operating characteristics of the business extensively and in a format that is consistent with all of the other reports. It was clear and unambiguous.
The company does a very nice job with the board update call. They don’t force the board to sit through a page by page discussion of the package. Instead, there’s a short overview for each section followed by any Q&A that board members have. This is a pretty good approach. After about an hour of this we spent another 30 minutes on a handful of governance and board related issues. Overall, the call lasted two hours.
When I reflect on the call, we didn’t cover any strategic issues, nor did we discuss anything that would materially impact the company. In addition, there was nothing discussed that couldn’t be handled in email back and forth or flagged for a deeper discussion at the next board meeting.
This board meeting update call is an artifact and is typical of the many board update calls I’ve been doing since I joined my first board (other than my own company) in 1994. I don’t even want to think of the number of hours of my life (which is probably cumulatively measured in years at this point) hanging on the end of the phone trying to stay intellectually engaged in a board update call.
I’ve come to believe that the board update call is worthless. There tend to be three parts – all which are easily separable:
There were a dozen people on the call I was on including management team members. That’s a full person day of time spent on something that didn’t need to happen. Expensive.
CEO’s – reconsider how you are doing this. And to my fellow board members – challenge the CEOs and the boards you are on to engage in a more effective, continuous way. And to the CEO for every board I’m on – I’m happy to work with you to abolish the board meeting update call if you’d like.
I hate board meetings. I probably have 100 per year which means I’ve gone to well over 1,500 of the past 15 years (I’m sure the number is much higher). The vast majority are excruciatingly inefficient – three to four hours that could be handled in 45 minutes. And even then, it’s unclear that the information covered was particularly useful to the entrepreneurs and management, who are the ones the board meetings should be useful for in the first place. And they don’t merely waste three hours – they burn a day in advance “getting ready” and who knows how much time after following up on random things generated by me and my fellow board members. Toss in travel (since we invest all over the country, I lose a lot of time to traveling) and it just sucks.
Recently, Steve Blank, one of the founders of the Lean Startup concept, wrote two provocative posts about board meetings. Both are really good – go read them – I’ll wait:
Now, I’m lucky. I’ve been railing about board meetings for a while and a number of CEOs of the companies that I’m an investor in have dramatically upped their game around board meetings. I have a handful of single slide board meetings inspired by the early board meetings we had at Zynga. Almost all send out their materials in advance and spend no time in the actual meeting going through them and instead focus on the discussion. And others simply focus the meeting on a handful of specific questions.
Regardless, when I reflect on the amount of my time that I spend in board meetings that I think is generally worthless, I’ve decided I’m going to completely change how I approach this. The tempo is all wrong (I don’t need monthly board meetings for anything as I spend much more real time interacting with the entrepreneurs I’ve invested in). The focus is all wrong (I can read the financials in a few minutes – I don’t need to sit through an extended discussion of them). The discussion context is inefficient (I’m as much a problem as a victim here as I’m sure my other board members get tired of listening to me bloviate.)
It’s time to reinvent the private company board meeting. I’m going to give it a shot.
I find three hour “reporting board meetings” where everyone sits around and goes through a 50 page PowerPoint deck to be tedious. When I first started investing in 1994, this was the norm. I put up with it even though it wasn’t my style because (a) I didn’t know better and (b) I didn’t have any better ideas.
27,351 board meetings later, I know there is a better way. I’ve encouraged everyone I work with to try different approaches. I’ve written about some of my favorites in the past, such as doing an entire board meeting off of one slide with a list of “top of mind” items that the CEO has (this assumes that all the board material – appropriate data about the business, financials, and any department updates, have been previously circulated and consumed by all board members.)
Another one of my favorites is to start a board meeting off with a demo. Today, we had the Orbotix board meeting at our office. We spend the first 15 minutes playing with Sphero, the robotic ball that is Orbotix first product (and available for pre-order now.) We then spent the rest of the board meeting talking about the key issues. Paul Berberian, the CEO, had an agenda which we generally covered, but we were able to have real discussions about real things, rather than just a bunch of “arm crossed people starting at a PowerPoint presentation on the wall.”
This stood out in contrast to another board meeting I had later in the day. I attended this one by phone. It was for a company that is doing superbly, but was a very old school style meeting. 54 slides later the meeting ended. There was plenty of information covered and the management team presented everything really well (as usual – it’s a gang that has their act together), but there were only a few parts of the meeting where we had space jams (think of the Grateful Dead on a 25 minute riff that is the best part of the concert.)
Yup – there are plenty of different ways to skin a cat. Or play with a robotic smart ball. If you are a CEO, don’t be afraid to try different things. And, if you want to see who the real fan of a robotic smart ball is, take a look at the video below (and if you like it, vote it up on LOLDogs.)
Over the weekend, Mark Suster wrote a great post titled How To Communicate with your Investors between Board Meetings. Mark continues to just tear it up with great advice for entrepreneurs. However, he left out one thing from the post – which is one of my favorite pieces of advice for entrepreneurs.
Give your venture capitalists (and board members) assignments
Mark alludes to this in many of his suggestions but he never comes out and says it. And, amazingly to me, many entrepreneurs either don’t ever think of this or don’t feel comfortable doing it. They should.
Most VCs will quickly say that they want to help the companies they invest in to success. Some will go further and say things like “I’ll do anything I can to help my companies.” Rarely have I heard a VC say something like “My plan is to just hang around, go to board meetings, ask a few nonsensical, low insight, rhetorical questions, eat the crummy food, and then disappear until the next board meeting.” However, as any entrepreneur who has ever worked with multiple VCs knows, the statements a VC makes (or doesn’t make) doesn’t necessarily correspond to his behavior.
I think you can break this cycle early in the life of your relationship with your VCs by giving them assignments. At the end of the first board meeting, spend some time talking about your expectations for your board members (including your VCs), ask if they are reasonable, and then go around the table and ask each board member what they’d like to specifically help with between now and the next board meeting. Explain that you want to develop a cycle of accountability for each board member to the company and use this to (a) develop deep engagement from each board member between meetings, (b) benefit from the experience and wisdom of each board member on a continual basis, and (c) set a strong tone for the leadership team (and the company) that everyone has functional responsibilities that they are held accountable to. Acknowledge that it will take a few board meetings to get into a good rhythm with this, but be clear that you’ll spend a little time at the next board meeting going through individual assignments, what was done, and what the new assignments are until the next board meeting.
The assignments should be specific – if they are general (such as “help with strategy” or “help with the financing”) they will be useless. Make sure the assignments play to the individual board members strengths and interests. They should provide leverage for the leadership team; not create make work. They should be impactful, but not mission critical.
In companies where the CEO hands out regular assignments, I’ve experienced an awesome tempo after about six months. The board members begin holding themselves accountable and the management team is much more comfortable working directly with the individual board members. Over time assignments become less “stiff” and the regimen of passing them out and reviewing them at the board meeting will fade away over time as everyone gets used to being held responsible for what they sign up for.
I’ve been involved in helping start a number of non-profits. One of them – National Center for Women & Information Technology – has surpassed my wildest expectations. Lucy Sanders and her team have done an awesome job of building a coalition of over 170 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits working to improve U.S. innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability by increasing women’s participation in IT.
I’ve been chairman of NCWIT since its early days. As with most of the non-profits I’ve been involved in helping start, the board of directors evolves over time. Unlike for-profit companies, each stage feels like a step function as you add new board members who bring a new set of capabilities, range, and diversity to the board.
Stage 1 for NCWIT’s board was a group of early board members who simply helped get things going. There was a lot of evangelism for NCWIT, a lot of ad hoc help, and plenty of ambiguity about roles and responsibilities. The board members were extremely enthusiastic and supportive – we wouldn’t have made much progress without them.
Stage 2 for NCWIT’s board was an effort to build some formality into the board. We included several members from our larger investment partners, a handful of folks that played specific functional roles, and began to organize around a set of board committees. Some of these committees were effective; some weren’t. The consistency of board communication increased and while there was still plenty of ad hoc activity, in general things were more organized.
Stage 3 for NCWIT’s board has just been launched. We just announced the appointment of eight new board members.
It’s an incredible set of people that cross the boundaries between entrepreneurship, academia, and established technology companies. They are joining a well established board that has a great working tempo. I’m really psyched about the next stage of NCWIT.