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tl;dr – Yes.
I’m on the firstname.lastname@example.org 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@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com list today.
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.