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tl;dr – If you are a CEO and want to take an amazing online course about being a CEO by Return Path’s Matt Blumberg, sign up for Startup CEO from NovoEd now.
Yesterday, I wrote about Rand Fishkin of Moz falling out of love with the CEO role. Today I read Jason Goldberg of Fab’s great post on his struggles as CEO in 2013 and what he learned from it. This topic is front of mind for me as many of the companies I’m on the board of are growing extremely fast and the demands on the CEOs are significant.
It’s really hard to be a CEO. Becoming a great CEO takes a lot of time, work, focus, coaching, and introspection. I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible entrepreneurs who, over many years and several companies, became remarkable CEOs. Dick Costolo (Twitter CEO) immediately comes to mind. While I didn’t work with him at Twitter, I was on the board of FeedBurner and worked with him and his three founders (Eric Lunt, Steve Olechowski, and Matt Shobe), who are all still close friends. I learned an amazing amount from each of them, but especially from my time with Dick.
Another great CEO I’ve had the honor to work with is Matt Blumberg who has led Return Path since founding the company in 1999. Matt is a first time CEO and has a fun blog titled Only Once which references the idea that you can only be a first time CEO one time. In a delicious twist, he’s now been a first time CEO for 14 years. While Return Path has had countless twists and turns along the way, Matt has been CEO from inception and presides over a large and significant company that continues to be a leader in a market it helped create.
Fred Wilson, who is on the board of Return Path with me and Matt (along with the FeedBurner board, and the Twitter board) had a frank and insightful post about turning your team three times through the life of the company to meet the different challenges that face a company from its journey from sweat driven startup to massive scale. Often this process of turning the team includes the CEO; other times it doesn’t. In Matt’s case, there have been plenty of team changes along the way, but Matt has demonstrated an impressive ability to scale and adapt himself in the evolving role of a CEO of a rapidly scaling company.
As a result, when Matt started talking to me about writing a book about the role of a Startup CEO, I was super excited. I encouraged and supported this, and it resulted in another book in the Startup Revolution series that I’ve done with Wiley. Matt’s book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business, is a must read for any CEO.
Last summer, Matt began exploring doing an online course around the content in Startup CEO. He teamed up with the Kauffman Fellows Academy to put together a course titled Startup CEO, an online class that really drills into the important material of the book. It’s the real deal with hours of video, Q&A that Matt did in front of a live studio audience of NYC startup CEOs, as well as engagement with the teacher through the NovoEd platform.
I’m encouraging all the CEOs in Foundry Group’s portfolio to take the class, and I encourage you to take the class as well.
The class starts on January 20th on the NovoEd platform. You can learn more about it on Matt’s blog post about the Startup CEO course.
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:
- They are prepared and keep commitments: They show up to all meetings. They show up on time and don’t leave early. They do their homework. The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings.
- They speak their minds: They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room. They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think. I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
- They build independent relationships: They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings. They get to know individuals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well. None of this communication goes through you.
- They are resource rich: I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice. After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add. Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis.
- They are strategically engaged but operationally distant: This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area. But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like.
My interview/vetting process for Board members:
- Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member.
- Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high.
- Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists. Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well.
- Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors.
- Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand. Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting. You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way.
- Have no fear of rejecting them. Even if you like them. Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor. Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC). This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company.
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:
- Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
- Comes with an opinion
- Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
- Call out your blind spots
- Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
- Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team
- Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative. Then get out of our way
- Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
- Pattern matching: they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching. To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
- Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
- Colorful and unique metaphors
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!