Should Your Board Members Be On The Email List?

tl;dr – Yes.

I’m on the list for a number of the companies I’m on the board of. CEOs and entrepreneurs who practice TAGFEE welcome this. I haven’t universally asked for inclusion on this list mostly because I hadn’t really thought hard about it until recently. But I will now and going forward, although I’ll leave it up to the CEO as to whether or not to include me.

In an effort to better figure out the startup board dynamic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of continual communication with board members. The companies I feel most involved in are ones in which I have continual communication and involvement with the company. This isn’t just limited to the CEO, but to all members of the management team and often many other people in the company. Working relationships as well as friendships develop through the interactions.

Instead of being a board member with his arms crossed who shows up at a board meeting every four to eight weeks to ask a bunch on knuckleheaded questions in reaction to what is being presented, I generally know a wide range of what is going on in the companies I’m on the board of. Sure – there are lots of pockets of information I don’t know, but because I’m in the flow of communication, I can easily engage in any topic going on in the company. In addition to being up to speed (or getting up to speed on any issue faster), I have much deeper functional context, as well as emotional context, about what is going on, who is impacted, and what the core issue is.

Every company I’m involved in has a unique culture. Aspects of the culture get played out every day on the email list. Sometimes the list is filled with the mundane rhythms of a company (“I’m sick today – not coming in”; “Please don’t forget to put the dishes in the dishwasher.”) Other times it’s filled with celebration (“GONG: Just Closed A Deal With Customer Name.”) Occasionally it’s filled with heartbreak (“Person X just was diagnosed with cancer.”) Yet other times it is a coordination mechanism (“Lunch is at 12:30 at Hapa Sushi.”) And, of course, it’s often filled with substance about a new customer, new product, issue on tech support, competitive threat, or whatever is currently on the CEO’s mind.

As a board member, being on this list makes me feel much more like part of the team. I strongly believe that board members of early stage companies should be active – and supportive – participants. My deep personal philosophy is that as long as I support the CEO, my job is to do whatever the CEO wants me to do to help the company succeed. Having more context, being part of the team, and being in the flow of the communication helps immensely with that.

There are three resistance points I commonly hear to this:

1. “I don’t want to overwhelm my board members with emails.” That’s my problem, not yours, and the reason filters were created for people who can’t handle a steady volume of email. If you are a Gmail user, or have conversation view turned on in Outlook, it’s totally mangeable since all the messages thread up into a single conversation. So – don’t worry about me. If your board member says “too much info, please don’t include me”, ponder what he’s really saying and how to best engage him in continuous communication.

2.”I don’t want my board members to see all the things going on in the company.” That’s not very TAGFEE so the next time you say “I try to be transparent and open with my investors”, do a reality check on what you actually mean. Remember, the simplest way not to get tangled up in communication is just to be blunt, open, and honest all the time – that way you never have to figure out what you said. If you don’t believe your board members are mature enough to engage in this level of interaction on a continual basis, reconsider whether they should be on your board.

3. “I’m afraid it will stifle communication within the company.” If this is the case, reconsider your relationship between your board members and your company. Are you anthropomorphizing your board? Are you shifting blame, or responsibility to them (as in “the board made me do this?”) Are you creating, or do you have, a contentious relationship between your team and the board? All of these things are problems and lead to ineffective board / company / CEO interactions so use that as a signal that something is wrong in relationship.

Notice that I didn’t say “all investors” – I explicitly said board members. As in my post recently about board observers, I believe that board members have a very specific responsibility to the company that is unique and not shared by “board observers” or other investors. There are plenty of other communication mechanisms for these folks. But, for board members, add them to you list today.

  • Andrew Tschesnok

    Brad, I have been thinking about this since our discussion. I worry about the following situation:
    Junior Engineer “Hi all, just solved that big bug. Now we can all do XYZ without worry again”Board Member: “Fantastic. Good job! Does this mean you can now do Y?”Now I have a junior engineer spending his next hour worried about his response. Even worse it could drop from the all list and the conversation could continue in private. Even worse a few words may lead that engineer to do work or test something to satisfy the “bosses boss.” Perhaps a Read Only rule for board members on the ALL list?

    • bfeld

      Great example of “stupid board member behavior.” CEOs should be comfortable setting the communication rules. In my case, I have a simple one – I never respond to specifics like this unless it’s clear that my perspective is asked for. In addition, anything that I send to any employee includes a cc: to the CEO.

      I learned a long time ago the risk of being the investor who asks random questions in the stream sending off everyone in random directions.

  • pbreit

    Board members (and other outsiders) should also consider being on company Yammers.

    • bfeld

      Yup – or whatever other social stream is used.

  • DavidCohen

    we use yammer instead of email and include BoD and close advisors so they see the right stuff vs the mundane stuff. (e.g. management level stuff, not lunch chatter). easy to do with yammer.

    • bfeld

      Yup – that works also, although I find the mundane stuff is also useful in listen only mode.

  • Dan Morel

    I’ve often used the rates of WFH and “sick” as a metric on morale and office culture, so I guess I can understand why even the “mundane” info can be important.

    Overtime though you pick up more investors and clearly this practice has to stop. At what stage do you see that happening?

    • bfeld

      I’d constrain access to the list to board members only. This will limit things over time.

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