Do You Publish Your Board Book To Your Entire Company?

Over and over again people talk about transparency. Many people assert they are transparent, or are being transparent. Few actually are.

I was thinking about this last night while watching the last few episodes of Revenge: Season 2 with Amy. Suddenly the word “transparent” started being thrown around by the Grasons, referring to their new found desire to be transparent. In this case, it was simply disingenuous – they are transparent only when it suits their purposes and usually as a setup of some other nefarious act they were about to perform (or had performed).

Whenever a word makes it into a TV show like Revenge, you know that it’s lost all meaning. And, as I’ve observed in the world of tech and startups I play in, transparency is used all the time to justify something, but rarely actually supported by behavior.

In the “everything that is old is new again” category, the master of transparency, and likely the originator of “open book management“, is Jack Stack. I remember meeting Jack and hearing him talk at the very first Birthing of Giants event created by Verne Harnish in 1991. I read Jack’s book – The Great Game of Business: Unlocking the Power and Profitability of Open-Book Management – about his experience at Springfield ReManufacturing Corp – and was blown away by his thinking. My first company – Feld Technologies – was definitely not run with an open book and Jack’s ideas were very provocative to me.

Over the years, several CEOs I’ve worked with have been incredibly open book, or – if you want to use today’s lingo – transparent. My two favorites are Matt Blumberg of Return Path and Rand Fiskin of Moz. Matt shares his entire board book after the board meeting with everyone at the company (now over 400 people). He’s been doing this since the beginning, and only redacts specific compensation information and occasional legal stuff. Rand shares – well everything – including one of the best, most detailed, and completely transparent posts about a private company financing in the history of private company financings.

When an entrepreneur says he’s transparent, I now ask “do you publish your board book to your entire company?” I view this as a benchmark for transparency. If the answer is “no”, then I ask the entrepreneur what he means by “I’m transparent.” If you can’t be open with your company about the information you report to your board, how can you actually be transparent?

  • http://www.pingup.com/ markslater

    brad –

    Do you have an opinion one way or the other on whether someone should share or not?

    i have refrained so far (we are only 2 board meetings in since series A) but feel it would be a useful way to emphasize alignment at the operating level.

    BTW i have the priviledge of counting Rich Levandov as a board observer – i know you both have invested together over the years..

    Mark

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I’m strongly in favor of sharing the board book with the entire company.
      Rich is awesome!

  • http://fullcontact.com/ Bart Lorang

    I met Jack Stack in the late 90’s. It was one of the first business books I read. Simply loved the sports analogy: “How will your team win if they don’t know the score?”

  • Chris Chaten

    Wouldn’t true open-book management, especially at a smaller startup, include things like compensation? That’s a key bone of contention as companies scale, and folks get bitter when they find X person got Y options.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Maybe, but compensation is one of the two thorny issues. Legal issues are the other, as sharing them broadly often impacts attorney / client privilege.

  • http://www.pointsandfigures.com pointsnfigures

    interesting thought. have to chew on that one for awhile-gut is I like it but have to really chew on it. I favor being open and honest BIG TIME. It’s how I roll. I’d rather be direct and say what I am thinking rather than hide it, couch it, or be polite. In the VC fund I am currently raising money for, we will give all our due diligence to the LP’s. Our books are open to them anytime they want to see them-it’s their money and we want them to know where and how it’s spent. On exits, the money goes to them-not reinvested. They take the risk betting on me, they get paid. When they call, we don’t hide. If they want to know IRR etc; we have set up and independent auditor to value our companies. I want them to be able to look through me and know exactly what’s going on, not be the door blocking the entrance.

  • http://www.valideval.com/ Adam Rentschler

    Is there a best practice for putting a BoD book together? How consistent is organization of content from BoD to BoD? Wondering if there’s room for improvement for the industry.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      There is a lot of room for improvement. I’ve written a little about it on feld.com and my upcoming book Startup Boards will talk extensively about it. Also, Matt Blumberg’s book Startup CEO which should be out shortly has a lot about this.

      • http://www.valideval.com/ Adam Rentschler

        Excited to read the books. I find myself wondering if there is utility in Directors evaluating the board books prior to the meeting in a *structured * way to help focus the CEO (and sr. mgt.) during the meeting itself. (Thus saving everyone’s time if all agree that the sales plan looks fine, e.g.)

        If that would be valuable, the next question is: Can one generalize this across a wide enough swath of the startup world to use the similar evaluation criteria for BoD books?

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Yes – I encourage this. I’ve been doing this with many companies via Google Docs where the board book comes out in advance of the meeting by several days and everyone then comments on the board book, management responds, and that helps focus all of the discussions.

          • stevewfindlay

            Brad – we’ve just put the finishing touches on Invrep.co – a freemium investor reporting platform for startups and SMEs. Would love to have your thoughts…or even better, have you adopt it for your investee companies!

          • http://www.feld.com bfeld

            Just poked around – neat! Checking with TechStars to see if there’d be interest in trying it.

          • stevewfindlay

            Great – thanks Brad!
            We’re just out of beta – very happy to have a direct dialogue with Techstars if they would like some tweaks and/or extra bits & pieces…or a “guided tour”!

  • http://www.cornfedsystems.com/ Frank W. Miller

    My first question is why? Your post seems to imply that transparency is good compared to non-transparency. Why is “transparency” good? There are lots of reasons why you should be not transparent. The only one I can see for being transparent is some potential for employee morale or something improving?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Read Jack Stack’s book. He makes an incredibly powerful argument for transparency, which at the time was called open book management.

  • http://wmougayar.com/ William Mougayar

    Openness and transparency are good traits for a company’s Culture and that transcends into how the Board operates. Dharmesh’s Culture deck (HubSpot) has rule #3 as “We are radically and uncomfortably transparent.”

    I like the “uncomfortably” part & this quote from the same deck:

    “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” – Louis Brandeis

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I love the “uncomfortably transparent.”

  • Cambria Vaccaro

    Very timely post Brad. We just had a board meeting a few weeks ago and our CEO shared the report with the entire company. He walks the walk and we are better for it.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Awesome.

  • http://www.chriskurdziel.com/ Chris Kurdziel

    There are so many great reasons to do this: at the deepest level I think it inspires a culture of transparency among employees where information sharing, transparency are a normal part of working together as a team. A company is growing quickly, that can be a huge help to scaling culture and keeping things moving efficiently. Thanks for this post.

  • Roberto Krishan

    Great Topic! Fear of loosing control on “Leadership” may have something to do with it, but I will read Jack’s book to get his point of view. Great leaders have no fear of keeping the information open to the rest of the crew.

  • http://tarheel.tumblr.com dovcohn

    I got to to to the “Gathering of the Games” Open Book Management conference back in 1994 and it had a huge influence on my thinking about business metrics and the ability of all employees to affect business outcomes by knowing the big picture and the details. At my last company, the CEO shared not only the board book, but his periodic email board updates with all employees. It increases accountability and trust and breaks down the ‘wall’ between management, the board and the rest of the team.

  • http://blog.kwiqly.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Hi Brad

    What a great post – I often read Rand because of the TAGFEE despite not being a Moz user – and enjoyed following back to your Buckethead post which was encouraging.

    That reminded me of a great inspirational poem my mum sent me at one low point in our long journey towards success. I thought I would share at risk of filling your comments to the gunnels.

    Its worth remembering that a great wife and a loving family are part of the team too if you are are lucky enough to have them.
    Hope you enjoy it (I don’t know the attribution)…

    When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
    When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
    When the funds are low and the debts are high,
    And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
    When care is pressing you down a bit
    – Rest if you must,
    but don’t you quit.

    Life is queer with its twists and turns,
    As every one of us sometimes learns,
    And many a fellow turns about
    When he might have won had he stuck it out.
    Don’t give up though the pace seems slow
    – You may succeed with another blow.

    Often the goal is nearer than It seems to a faint and faltering man;
    Often the struggler has given up
    When he might have captured the victor’s cup;
    And he learned too late when the night came down,
    How close he was to the golden crown.

    Success is failure turned inside out
    – The silver tint in the clouds of doubt,
    And you never can tell how close you are,
    It might be near when it seems afar;
    So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
    – It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Love it!

  • Martin Babinec

    Brad – Meeting Jack Stack at Birthing of Giants in mid 90’s was a watershed event that put me, and my company (TriNet), on a path truly embracing transparency from that point forward. Even though his company was manufacturing, the beauty of the Great Game of Business was laying out the principles of “how to” incorporate transparency into all the major decisions and building a company filled with team members seeing they have a stake in the outcome – thus thinking and acting like owners. Great to see his name brought up on this blog. I don’t run across enough tech entrepreneurs who are aware that a whole movement on company transparency and employee engagement got spawned and continues to thrive from Jack’s brilliant management processes. visit http://www.greatgame.com.

  • steve baker

    Well spoken, Martin, and great post, Brad! I love your challenge to entrepreneurs, “do you publish your board book to your entire company?”

    At SRC, not only do we give every employee the ‘board book’, we have them vote on it!

    In two weeks, we’ll hold our semi-annual High Involvement Planning meeting. We’ve been doing them twice a year for 30 years. What’s interesting about the meetings is that you see that transparency is one thing…understanding is another. When you hear Jack talk about The Great Game of Business, he’s always quick to point out that being ‘open-book’ is one thing; to actually teach your people business is another. If you want employees think, act and feel like owners, you’ve got to teach them how.

    For those interested in the process and the movement, the 20th Anniversary Edition of The Great Game of Business comes out July 16th. It includes a brand new, full-blown ‘how to’ implementation guide. If you preorder at http://book20.greatgame.com you can get the full audiobook today, and the books dropships to you in July.

    Thanks for helping us spread the word!

    Steve Baker & The Great Game Team

  • http://simplifilm.com/ Chris Johnson

    At what point do we do this? I want to create a culture of openness and I want the people’s best ideas. But when does this happen?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      From the beginning!

      • http://simplifilm.com/ Chris Johnson

        Where is there a safe space to speculate, assess risks? Let’s say we want to talk about something to see if it’s a potential disruption. When do we loop people in?

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          You get to choose!

  • Joel Trammell

    Great post Brad! I agree wholeheartedly. I linked to it on my own blog today and discussed how as CEO of several start-ups I would share board information with all employees. It’s extremely important for building trust and camaraderie: http://theamericanceo.com/2013/06/11/the-importance-of-ceo-transparency/

  • http://www.sumall.com/ dane

    Brilliant post and a key to the future of companies success. We, sumall, stream our board meetings, which we call Company Strategy, to the whole company. We also have open salaries so have no need for redaction. This open/transparent culture has been the key to our success, it works!