How CEOs work with their Boards to run as smoothly and efficiently as a well-oiled machine.
Thoughtfully selecting and effectively working with your investor board members and independent board members (who are not typically investors in the business but asked to join the board to add value in a particular area of expertise) are incredibly important skills for entrepreneurs that are rarely discussed and can have a major impact on your experience as a founder and, in some cases, the success of your business.
Don't go silent for weeks on end and don't just provide a simple, high-level report when you do connect with your board members. As a venture investor in early stage companies, I like a combination of weekly updates (with context on what is working well and what is challenging), along with ad hoc emails and calls as particular issues arise.
Decide what to talk about at the board meeting and what to discuss between board meetings in order to maximize the efficiency of your time with your board members. Michelle Zatlyn, Cloudflare Co-Founder says, "Management is in charge of the company and the entrepreneur should go to board meetings for approvals and to discuss strategic issues. If you want in-depth, 'in the weeds' input from your board, go for coffee with individual board members."
Be Smart About Preparing For Your Board Meetings
Prepare well for your board meetings and send board materials out at least 48 hours in advance. Having prepared board members makes for much more efficient board meetings.
It can be very helpful to get any potentially difficult issues on the table prior to a board meeting. Have one-on-one calls with your board members to give them a heads-up, get their initial input, and get them thinking about the issues for a more thoughtful board discussion. Don't avoid these difficult discussions. It's better to raise challenging issues early, as they always get worse later on if not addressed.
Bob Kavner, former EVP and CFO of AT&T and current board member for Pandora and BandPage, suggests that entrepreneurs, "Present problems and challenges on a timely basis in a constructive manner, asking the board if they have suggested improvements to the actions the entrepreneur is contemplating. Board members know there will be the unexpected and want to deal with it early."
Make The Best Use Of Everyone's Time At Your Board Meetings
When you hold your board meetings, focus on strategizing and problem solving rather than pure updates. An effective format for board meetings that I have seen used is to start with a CEO overview first. Then for each functional area, include what is working well and what the challenges are including proposed solutions. Keep the meeting as efficient as possible, while still providing enough time to dive into the details.
Michelle Zatlyn says that keeping the format the same for each board meeting makes it "easier to compare and remember back; helps to center the conversation; and makes the meetings more consistent." The format of their board decks is:
- Status update with the same set of metrics each time
- Team (changes, hires, etc.)
- Miscellaneous section at the end
Howard Gwin, former EVP at PeopleSoft and seasoned board member, recommends that materials and metrics shared at a board meeting should be the same as those used for running the business. He recommends, "If you are creating metrics and documents that are for the board only and not used and leveraged in the everyday management of the business, there is a disconnect. Well-run boards are simply an extension of the business. If you don't use the metric to run the company why would we discuss it during the board meeting?"
Engage And Leverage The Power Of Your Board
Your board is--or at least should be--there to really help you and your business. Get board members involved with executive hiring by leveraging their networks and getting them involved with management team candidate interviews. Most board members have interviewed hundreds of executives previously, and can offer helpful, objective input on candidates. They can also help to get a top executive candidate over the finish line where needed.
Arm your board with your three-to-five key company messages, and get them fired up about your company every time you meet with them. Having an excited board member talking about your company with everyone they meet not only helps to raise your company's profile, but it can also help to attract other interested investors, employees, partners and customers.
Venture firms often offer their own resources, so be sure to take advantage of their assistance. At my venture firm, for example, we believe that three key areas in which a venture firm can offer extended support include: marketing, talent, and go-to-market or strategic guidance. We offer these high-leverage resources to our companies, and encourage our companies to take advantage of these services.
Build Trust And Support
Think about building a strong relationship with your board members rather than an arms-length, transactional one. Focus on: clear communication, candor, raising challenges early, presenting strong suggested solutions to issues, planning ahead, and meeting your commitments.
Bob Kavner says, "I have found that the best CEOs get to know each board member individually so that a trust and freedom of expression is established over time."
Foster An Engaged And Healthy Board Dynamic
Creating a healthy board dynamic will save you a lot of headache. A large part of this is being very careful about who you get to invest in the company or invite to join the board (as an independent board director) in the first place. Also, don't pit people against each other; encourage and set a tone for constructive discourse around the table, and ask a 'balanced' (i.e., experienced, objective, calm) board member to take on the role of moderating conversations (either explicitly via the Chairman role, or more informally).
In terms of how to best engage your board, Scott Bonham, Co-Founder of GGV Capital, suggests, "Build an engaged and diverse board. Encourage and promote divergent thinking, and don't treat the board as one homogeneous group. Each board member should have a unique set of interests and capabilities. Engage each of those members in those particular areas."
There is no exact formula for how to best select and work with a board as it will change depending on each individual CEO's personality type and the company context. Following some of the basic rules of the road in terms of how to best select and work with your board, however, can provide a surprising amount of leverage in your maxed-out life as a busy entrepreneur. Having an unhealthy board dynamic can unfortunately waste a lot of your time.