Jun 23 2022

Two Great Lines (and One Worrisome One) About the Current Macroeconomic Situation

I was trading emails a few weeks ago Elliot Noss from Tucows about the current state of the economy after being on a panel together about it, and he wrote:

The market is fascinating right now. Heated competition AND layoffs and hiring freezes. It feel like an old European hotel where there are two faucets, one is too hot and the other too cold.

While a quick rant about European hotel bathrooms could be fun…we’ll just stick to the sink analogy. As anyone who has ever tried to use one of these sinks that Elliot describes knows, they’re hard to use and illogical. Sure, sometimes you want freezing water and sometimes you want scalding water (I guess), but often, you want something in between. And the only way to achieve that is to turn on both freezing and scalding at the same time? That’s weird.

Then I was on another email thread recently with a group of CEOs, when John Henry from Ride With Loop said this:

Whatever the climate, we all surely agree there is no bad time to build a good business.

How true that is!

But here’s the worrisome part. It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. We are in uncharted territory here with a land war in Europe, a partial global oil embargo of a top tier oil producer, a pandemic, supply chain problems, etc. etc. There are days and circumstances where everything feels normal. Plenty of businesses, especially in the tech sector, are kicking ass. And yet there are days and circumstances that feel like 2001 or 2009. It’s tough to navigate as a startup CEO. Yes, it’s obvious you should try to have a couple years of cash on hand, and that you should be smart about investments and not get too far ahead of revenue if you’re in certain sectors (presumably if you’re in an R&D intensive field and weren’t planning to have revenue for years on end, life isn’t all that different?). But beyond that, there’s no clear playbook.

And that’s where the worrisome line comes in. I saw Larry Summers on Meet the Press last weekend, who predicted that

a recession would come in late 2023.

Wait, what? Aren’t things messed up now? Yes, inflation is high, the stock market is down, and interest rates are creeping up. But the economy is still GROWING. Unemployment is still LOW. Summers’ point is a reminder that contraction is likely, but it may still be a ways off, it depends how the Fed handles interest rate hikes (and about a zillion other things), and it’s impossible to predict. That was more worrisome to me. If we’re navigating choppy waters now, it may not just be for a couple of quarters. It may be that 4-6 quarters from now, we are in for 2-3 quarters of contraction. That is a more than most companies are able to plan for from a cash perspective.

Frothy macro environments lead to bad businesses getting created, too many lookalike businesses popping up, or weak teams getting funded. When the tide goes out, as they say, you can see who is swimming naked. But if you’re building a good business, one that has staying power and a clear value proposition, with real people or clients paying real money for a real product or service, and if you’re serious about building a good company, keep on keeping on. Be smart about key decisions, especially investment decisions, but don’t despair or give up.

We’ll all get through this.

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Jun 15 2022

Startup Boards, the book, and also why they matter more than ever these days

My latest book (I’m a co-author along with Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani), Startup Boards: A Field Guide to Building and Leading an Effective Board of Directors, is now live on Amazon – today is publication day! The book is a major refresh of the first edition, now eight years old. I was quoted in it extensively but not an official author – Brad and Mahendra were nice enough to share that with me this time. The book includes a lot of new material and new voices, including a great Foreword by Jocelyn Mangan from Him for Her and Illumyn. It’s aligned with Startup CEO and Startup CXO in look and in format and is designed to be an easy-to-read operator’s manual to private company boards of directors. Brad also blogged about it here.

We’ve done a lot of work around startup boards at Bolster the past couple of years, including working with over 30 CEOs to help them hire amazing new independent board members. Our landmark Board Benchmark study last year highlighted the problem with startup boards, but also the opportunity that lies within: not enough diversity on the boards, but also not nearly enough independent directors — and a lot of open seats for independent directors that could be filled. That conclusion led me to my Startup Board Mantra of 1-1-1: Independent directors from Day 1, 1 member of the management team, and 1 independent for every 1 investor.

As we posted on the Bolster blog last week, our quick refresh of the Board Benchmark study revealed some good news and some bad news about progress on diversity in the boardroom with startups. The good news is that the needle is starting to move very slowly, and that independent directors present the best opportunity to add diversity to boards. Our data shows that half of all new directors brought onto boards in the last year were independents, and of those, 57.9% were women and 31.6% were non-White board members. Those numbers are well above the prior study’s benchmarks of 36% and 23%, respectively (our experience running board searches skews even further to women and non-White directors being hired).

The bad news is how slowly the needle is moving — only 20% of open independent board seats were filled over the previous year, which is a lot of missed opportunity. The main takeaway is that while overall representation on boards is still skewed largely White and male, the demographic profile of new board appointments looks a lot different from the representation on boards today, indicating that CEOs are making intentional changes to their board composition.

Startup boards are a great way to drive grassroots change to the face of leadership in corporate America. More CEOs need to follow up by filling their open board seats and fulfilling their stated desires to improve diversity in the boardroom. This takes time and prioritization — these are the places where we see board searches either never get off the ground, or falling down once they do, for all the searches we either run or pitch at Bolster.

Hopefully Startup Boards will help the startup ecosystem get there.

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Jun 9 2022

Open All-Hands Meetings

I love stealing/borrowing other people’s good ideas for management and leadership when they’re made public, and I always encourage others to do so from me. I call it “plagiarizing with pride.” So I was intrigued when I saw a new way of doing all-hands meetings published by my friend Daniel Odio (DROdio) on his founder community called FounderCulture. You can see the original post here.

We’ve experimented with different formats and cadences for all-hands meetings over the years. They tend to vary with the size of the company and complexity of the material to cover. Larger companies usually fall into the rhythm of doing quarterly all-hands meetings sometime after the end of the quarter, usually around a Board meeting, with a quarterly recap and forecast for next quarter.

But for early stage companies, there’s no tried-and-true method. We struggled with that for a while at Bolster. Weekly felt too much. Quarterly felt like too little. It seemed weird for me or my co-founders to just have a meeting where we talked at everyone…and it also seemed weird to just host an “open mic night” type meeting. Then I saw DROdio’s video, and we adapted it. It’s working pretty well for us. Here’s what we do in what we’re calling our Open All-Hands Meeting:

  • We hold an all-hands meeting every Monday for :30
  • A different team member is responsible for being the host/chair/emcee for each meeting
  • We run the meeting off of a dedicated Trello board with specific columns of information. Everyone is invited to contribute to the Trello board in the days leading up to the meeting. The columns are:
    • Values-Kudos-Good News: Anyone can call out anyone for doing something that demonstrates one of the company’s values, that is just a big thank you, or that is some other piece of karmic goodness they want to share
    • Wins: All client wins are shown here with some detail, each in its own card with its owner highlighted
    • #MAD: This is where we trade items on which we Made A Decision during the prior week, big or small. We’ve always struggled with the best way to keep everyone informed on things like this…and this works really well for that purpose
    • Learnings/Product Ideas: Anyone can populate this with anything they want as they go about their work and either come across learnings or product ideas they want to share
    • Announcements: Pretty self-explanatory, any corporate announcement, new employee introductions, etc.
    • Swim Lane Updates: Each we, we ask one or two of our functional or project areas to do a deep dive update — Product, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Ops, etc. — and this is also where we’ll do product demos of newly released functionality
    • Permanent Items: this isn’t a column that’s read…it just warehouses things we want on the board like the schedule of hosts, schedule of swim lane updates, instructions for running the meeting, recordings of prior meetings
    • BOLSTER 2022: this isn’t a column that’s read…it contains our mission, values, strategy, and key strategic initiatives and metrics for the year
    • Archive: this isn’t a column that’s read…it just contains the prior week’s items
  • There’s a series of light integrations between Slack, Hubspot, and Trello to automatically populate Trello based on certain channels, keywords, and emojis. Every week, the board is automatically wiped clean after the meeting
  • The host moves the meeting from column to column and card to card, sometimes reading the cards, and sometimes asking the person who submitted the card to read it or give color commentary on it
  • I do jump in from time to time, as do some of my co-founders or our other leaders, to give extra commentary or amplify something or help connect the dots. But that’s about as formal as my role gets other than…
  • …when we do have a quarterly board book and board meeting, I host that one meeting and recap the meeting, ask other leaders to comment on specific topics, and facilitate Q&A on the materials we send out ahead of time. So I’m hosting 4 meetings per year
  • The host can add a personal touch to any meeting. Custom wallpaper for the Trello board. Asking everyone in the company who has a pet to send in a photo of the pet ahead of time and introducing their furry friends during the meeting. Playing intro or outro music to fit the occasion. Doing spot surveys or game show questions to keep things lively. Interviewing new team members. Asking everyone to do a one-sentence “here’s what I’m working on this week” at the end of the meeting
  • Finally, the host passes the baton from one person to the next each week. No one can escape this responsibility!

In addition to the Open All-Hands Meeting format, I send the company an email every Friday with some musings on the prior week. The content of these varies widely – from “what I did last week,” to “here’s something I saw that’s interesting,” to welcoming new team members with their bios, to customer testimonials. Sometimes other founders write these. They’re a good way to add a personal touch to the operating system of the company — and we also send these to our board and major shareholders every week so they, too, can keep a finger on the pulse.

These two things together are proving to be a good Operating System for keeping everyone informed, aligned, and connected on a weekly basis.

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Jun 2 2022

Book Short: New to the Canon of Great CEO Books

Please go put Decide and Conquer: 44 Decisions that will Make or Break All Leaders by David Siegel on your reading list, or buy it. David’s book is up there on my list with Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. It’s a totally different kind of book than Startup CEO, and in some ways a much better one in that there’s a great through-line or storyline, as David shares his leadership framework in the context of his journey of getting hired to replace founder Scott Heiferman as Meetup’s CEO after its acquisition by WeWork, including some juicy interactions with Adam Neumann, through the trials and tribulations of WeWork as a parent company, through COVID and its impact on an in-person meeting facilitator like Meetup, through to the sale of Meetup OUT of WeWork.

It’s hard to do the book justice with a quick write up. It’s incredibly concise. It’s clear. It’s witty. Most of all, it’s very human, and David shares a very human, common sense approach to leadership. I particularly like a device he uses to reinforce his main points and principles by bolding the key phrases every time they show up in the book: be kind, be confident, be bold, expand your options, focus on the long-term picture, be pragmatic, be honest, be speedy, do what’s right for the business, work for your people and they’ll work for you, be surprised only about being surprised. These all resonate with me so much.

One of the interesting things about the book is that David is a CEO, but not a founder (although he was sort of a re-founder in this case). A lot of CEO books talk about how to run a company, or give stories from the trials and tribulations thereof, but few focus on the elements of interviewing for the CEO job, or taking over the reins of a company in the midst of a turbulent flight. So the book is about getting the job, starting the job, doing a turnaround, leading a company through growth, a buy-out, and managing a company inside of another company. And because Meetup is such an iconic brand and business, it’s easy to understand a lot of the backdrop to David’s story.

I just met David for the first time a few weeks ago. We knew a bunch of people in common from his DoubleClick days. We instantly hit it off and traded copies of our books, and then were reading them at the same time trading emails about the parts that clicked. I just can’t recommend the book enough to any CEO or founder. In my view, it joins a pretty elite canon.

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May 26 2022

Signs Your CFO Isn’t Scaling

Post 4 of 4 in the series on Scaling CFOs – other posts are How to Engage with Your CFO, When it is Time to Hire Your First Chief Financial Officer, and What Does “Great” Look Like in a CFO?)

While all the functions of a team are needed, perhaps the most critical function to make sure your company is able to scale is the CFO. Cash flow, investments into the business, compensation, budgets—nearly everything that happens in a company flows through the CFO—and it should. So, getting this role right is one of the most important tasks of any startup team. But how do you know if your CFO is up to the task of scaling?

For CEOs, one of the first things that’s a telltale sign is what I call the gut check: do you have an uneasy feeling about cash, either that you’re running out of cash, or that you’re unsure how much cash you’re burning through and how fast you’re spending it?  Do you spend a lot of your time dealing with finance-related issues like fundraising, debt, investors, or cap table questions? Are you on the hot seat during board meetings on finance-related questions, metrics, runway, cash burn, or other issues? Trust your gut. If you have even a little uneasiness about how your CFO is operating, it’s probably worth heeding. You might not have a person capable of scaling, or you might have to invest more resources (time, mentor, fractional executive) to level up your CFO.

For members of the executive team, a telltale sign is whether or not your CFO engages with you and your team to understand your part of the business. Do they spend time learning and steeping in the substance of the business? Do they interact with all the functional leads like product, marketing, and People? Do they spend time in-market with customers, partners, or vendors? Sure, a CFO can understand the business by looking at the numbers, but you’ll never be able to scale if that’s the primary focus of your CFO because the numbers—all of them, and all of the time—are lagging. It’s impossible to be proactive if your CFO is totally focused on the numbers but doesn’t understand your functional issues, timelines, upcoming events or expenditures—and why. A CFO who is capable of scaling doesn’t see their role as “corporate,” as “administrative,” or as an enforcement function. They see it as strategic and as a partner to other parts of the business.

Other Signs Your CFO Isn’t Scaling

One sign of a CFO that can’t scale is whether or not they’re scrambling to hit deadlines. Everybody has to pull an all-weekend stint or over-nighter—occasionally, but if it happens regularly…it probably isn’t going to improve over time as things become more complex in the business. There’s always a pending crunch time that requires their personal attention and a ton of manual work – the monthly close, the audit, the budget, commission planning, compensation cycles.  These things are not surprises, and they come up the same time every month, quarter, or year. CFOs who are mired in doing all these things personally and manually haven’t built the systems, teams, or processes required to scale the business.

Another sign that your CFO can’t scale is if their solution to problems is to throw more people at it. If the accounting teams swells in size you might have a CFO who can’t think strategically about creating innovative processes and systems. “Throwing bodies at the problem” is easy because it’s the path of least resistance, but would your CFO allow other teams to do that? Accounting teams in particular tend to be the most traditional, paper-based teams and don’t need to be. Your CFO should be thinking strategically about how to scale financial systems with process and procedure rather than adding headcount.

A final obvious sign that your CFO isn’t scaling is if they get forecasts wrong, or don’t even try to do them.  Especially while your startup is in burn mode and constantly calculating its runway and months until the next required financing, regular and accurate/conservative forecasts are critical.  Even without a ton of revenue visibility on forward looking sales, good CFOs should have enough of a grip on expenses, cash flow, and order-to-cash dynamics to produce good, rolling 12-month cash forecasts. Anything short of that and you’ll be blindsided in the market, unable to take advantage of opportunities, or limping along with so-so growth for a long time.

In many startups people are learning on the fly but at some point you’ll begin to wonder whether everyone’s able to keep up or, more importantly, whether the people you have will be able to help your company scale. The CFO role touches every part of the organization and it’s critical to figure out earlier rather than later if your CFO can scale or whether you need to go in another direction.

(Posted on the Bolster blog here).

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May 19 2022

What Does “Great” Look Like in a CFO?

Post 3 of 4 in the series on Scaling CFOs – other posts are How to Engage with Your CFO and When it is Time to Hire Your First Chief Financial Officer.)

 A lot of startups have a bookkeeper, accountant, or even a spouse of a founder or employee handle the finances when they first start out, and that’s fine. But at some point you’ll want to hire a CFO and if you’re dealing with a lot of chaos it’s easy to think, “well, anybody is better than what we have now.” But I would hold off on that thinking because the CFO, a great one, will do a lot more than just manage the finances, AP, and AR. A great one can do four things particularly well:

First, a great CFO will spend time learning and steeping themselves in the substance of the business; they’ll understand the product, the people who created it and market it and sell it, and they’ll spend time in-market with customers and partners.  They do not believe their function is only “corporate” or only a service function; instead, they see it as both of those, as strategic, and as pathway to greater financial understanding for every person in the company. They insist that the people in their department do the same.

Second, a great CFO is deliberate about regularly reviewing homemade systems, processes, and spreadsheets and looking for opportunities to streamline things, reinvent them, or move them into systems.  Once most things are automated and in systems, they are constantly evaluating whether or not the systems are serving the business well enough and are looking to integrate systems across the company.  They are not afraid to tear down and reinvent systems and processes that they themselves set up in the past. That is, their ego is less important than doing what’s best for the company.

Third, a great CFO will have the right balance of pessimism and optimism and they are strong at communicating both.  While they are proactive and timely about delivering bad news to you and the Board, their orientation isn’t around “no” and bad news.  Their orientation is around investment and return and always thinking about things going on around them in the company through the lens of realistic opportunity.

They can fly at multiple altitudes at the same time, noticing the smallest detail that’s off while thinking about business models and strategy.  While most executives need to be strategic and tactical at the same time, the CFO needs to be like that more than most — mostly because the details and tactics are frequently life-or-death for your startup.

(Posted on the Bolster blog here).

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May 12 2022

A Couple Tweaks to Running Great Board Meetings

I love innovation, and process is no different than product or business model in that regard. I’ve run and attended several hundred board meetings over the years, both those of companies where I’ve been CEO or Chairman, and those where I’m a director. I’ve written a lot about how I like running board meetings in Startup CEO, and as I mentioned the other day, I’m a co-author of a Second Edition of Startup Boards: A Field Guide to Building and Leading an Effective Board of Directors, which is coming out in June and is available to pre-order now, along with Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani.

There are two adaptations I’ve made to my standard board routines in the last year or so, one driven by the pandemic and one not.

In olden times (that makes me sound like I’m 400 years old, but “pre-covid” sounds so clinical), I used to have a board dinner the night before or after every board meeting, and of course, everything was in person. That was a really important ritual in my mind towards the end of building the board as an effective team, where people on the team know each other as people, share things going on in their lives, share vulnerabilities, and develop bonds of trust. Without regular in-person meetings and dinners or social events, that gets a lot harder. Even when we get back to “normal,” I imagine the most we’ll do in-person board meetings is 1-2x/year.

What’s the zoom version of this?

We now do two 30-minute Executive Sessions (directors only) one before the board meeting officially starts and observers and team join, as well as the traditional one after the meeting ends. The purposes of the two sessions are different. The standard post-meeting Executive Session follows up on the meeting and has me talk about business or team issues that I don’t want to talk about with the full group present or get feedback from the board. But the one before the meeting is almost entirely social. I try to come up with a different question or topic to get all of us talking that is not about Bolster. Last week’s meeting was a simple “what’s the best thing that’s happened to you so far in 2022, and what’s the worse?” One time I asked everyone to show a picture from their phone photo roll and talk about it. You get the idea. It’s not the same as a dinner, but it seems like an effective substitute given the medium.

The second adaptation, and full credit to Fred for suggesting this one a while back, is the post-meeting survey. Now immediately after every Board meeting, I send a simple Google form to each director with the following questions:

  • What are 1-3 areas/specifics where we are doing well?
  • What are 1-3 areas/specifics you’re concerned about or where we could do better?
  • Did the board book have the right level of detail and commentary?  Is there anything you’d like to see change about the format or the content?
  • Did the meeting meet your objectives for learning and discussion? 
  • If not, why not?
  • Do you have any other feedback for Matt at this time?

I get great feedback, almost immediately and always from all board members, while things are still fresh in everyone’s mind. I’m planning to do this whether or not the meeting is remote…although it’s definitely good when the meeting is remote, and things like Executive Session, Closed Session, and debrief with me after Closed Session are quick or sometimes rushed.

There’s always room for innovation, even in standard and time-tested processes like board meetings.

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May 5 2022

How to Get Credit for Non-Salary Benefits: The Total Rewards Statement

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about some innovations we’d made in People practices around basic benefits. But that post raised questions for me like “Why do you spend money on things like that when all people care about is their salary? When they get poached by another company, all they think of it the headline number of their base compensation, unless they’re in sales and think about their OTE.”

While that is hard to entirely argue against, one thing you can do as you layer in more and more benefits on top of base salary, you can, without too much trouble, produce annual “Total Rewards Statements” for everyone on your team. We did this at Return Path for several years when we got larger, and it was very effective.

The concept of the Total Rewards Statement is simple. At the beginning/end of the year, produce a single document for each employee – a spreadsheet, or a spreadsheet merged into a doc, that lists out all forms of cash compensation the employee received in the prior year and also has a summary of their equity holdings.

For cash compensation, start with base salary and any cash incentive comp plans. Add in all other classic benefits like the portion of the employee’s health insurance covered by the company, any transit benefits, gym memberships or wellness benefits, 401k match, etc. Add in any direct training and development expenses you tracked – specific stipends, training courses, conferences, education benefits, subscriptions, or professional memberships you sponsored the employee attending. All of that adds up to a much larger total than base salary.

If you have some other program like extensive universally available and universally consumed food in the office (or a chef, if you’re Google), you could even consider adding that to the mix, or perhaps having a separate section for things like that called “indirect benefits” so employees can see the expenses associated with perks and investment in their environment.

Finally, put together a summary of each employee’s equity. How many options are vested? Unvested and on what schedule? What’s the strike price? What’s the value of the equity as of the most recent financing? What’s the value of the equity at 3 other reasonable exit values? Paint the picture of what the equity is actually likely to be worth some day.

Yes, you could do these things and still lose an employee to Google or whoever offers them $50k more in base salary. It happens. But if you’re doing a great job with your culture and your business and people’s roles and engagement in general, having a Total Rewards Statement at least makes it easy for you to remind employees how much they *really* earn every year.

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May 3 2022

Book Short: Intentionality in Life

I haven’t done short book summaries in a LONG time, but I’ll try to start adding that back into the mix as I read interesting and relevant books. Here’s one to add to your list: One Life to Lead, by Russell Benaroya. I was recently connected to Russell by a mutual friend, TA McCann at Pioneer Square Labs. TA had a sense Russell and I would hit it off, and we did. Russell is a multi-time founder/CEO, a Coach, and an author, so we have a lot in common.

One Life to Lead is an excellent book. First, it is short and easy to get through. Unlike a lot of business books, it doesn’t go on too long or contain anything extraneous. It’s to the point!

Second, the book is a business book that’s not really about business. It’s about life and what Russell calls Life Design, which is a great framing of how to be intentional about leading your life. While I have become less and less of a life planner as I’ve gotten older under the headline of “man plans, God laughs,” I am a huge believer in being intentional about everything, which I talk about in Startup CEO quite a bit in the nuts and bolts context of building your business.

Finally, Russell’s framework is easy to understand and full of concrete exercises you can to. Here are his five steps, but you’ll have to read the book to get the details:

  • Ground stories with facts. This reminds me a lot of the principles we have taught team members over the years in our Action/Design (and related) trainings. First, start with absolute concrete facts that everyone will agree are facts.
  • Establish your principles. This is brilliant. Your company has documented values or operating principles. Why don’t you?
  • Harness energy from the environment. Figuring out what makes you tick, and what drains your energy, is so important.
  • Get in and stay in your genius zone. Shouldn’t we all focus our time on the things we do best and love the most?
  • Take action. How to put it together and make it all happen.

If you don’t get out in front of life, it will happen to you, and Russell’s framework is about how to make sure you are in the driver’s seat of your own life. Here’s to that.

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Apr 28 2022

Open Expense Policy

I wrote a post the other day about innovating employee benefits practices, and I realized I’d never documented a couple other ways in which we have always tried to innovate People practices. Here’s one of them: the Open Expense Policy, which I wrote about in the second edition of Startup CEO in a new chapter on Authentic Leadership when talking about the problem of the “Say-Do” gap.  Here’s what I wrote:

I’ll give you an example that just drove me nuts early in my career here, though there are others in the book.  I worked for a company that had an expense policy – one of those old school policies that included things like “you can spend up to $10 on a taxi home if you work past 8 pm unless it’s summer when it’s still light out at 8 pm” (or something like that).  Anyway, the policy stipulated a max an employee could spend on a hotel for a business trip, but the CEO  (who was an employee) didn’t follow that policy 100% of the time.  When called out on it, did the CEO apologize and say they would follow the policy just like everyone else? No, the CEO changed the policy in the employee handbook so that it read “blah blah blah, other than the CEO, President, or CFO, who may spend a higher dollar amount at his discretion.”

When we started Return Path, we had a similar policy. It was standard issue. But then over time as our culture became stronger and our People First philosophy and approach became something we evangelized more, we realized that traditional expense was at odds with our deeply held value of trusting employees to make good decisions and giving them the freedom and flexibility they needed to do their best work.

So we blew up the traditional policy and replaced it with a very simple one — “use your best judgment on expenses and try to spend the company’s money like it’s your own.” That policy is still in place today for our team at Bolster. We do have people sign off on expense requests that come in through the Expensify system, mostly because we have to, but unless there is something extremely profligate, no one really says a word.

Similar to what happened when we switched to an Open Vacation policy, we had some concerns from managers about employees abusing the new un-policy, so we had to assure them we’d have their back. But do you know what happened when we implemented the new policy? We got a bunch of emails from team members thanking us for trusting them with the company’s money. And the average amount of expenses per employees went down. That’s right, down. Trusting people to exercise good judgment and spend the company’s money as if it was their own drove people to think critically about expenses as opposed to “spend to the limit.”

I don’t think in 15+ years of operating with an Open Expense policy that any of us have had to call out an employee’s expenses as being too high more than once or twice. That’s what the essence of employee trust is about. Manage exceptions on the back end, don’t attempt to control or micromanage behavior on the front end.

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Apr 26 2022

7 Habits of Highly Effective Boards

(This blog post was first published as an article in Entrepreneur Magazine on April 15.)

Creating strong boards can help propel a board forward. Weak and ineffective boards hold a company back.

As a CEO, one of the most important (yet overlooked) tools in the playbook is building and leading a board of directors. Throughout my 20+ years of entrepreneurship, I’ve led four companies (including Bolster, where I’m a co-founder and CEO today) and served on eight boards. I’ve learned that strong boards can help propel a company forward and I’ve also witnessed how weak and ineffective boards can hold companies back. Mediocre or mismanaged advice, plus lack of accountability, can do long-term damage to a business as well.

Drawing from personal experience and anecdotes from dozens of Bolster’s client CEOs, here are some tried and true “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Boards.”

Habit 1: Begin with the board in mind

A lot of CEOs treat board curation as an afterthought, which means that boards tend to consist largely of who happened to be in their network at the company’s inception: investors. CEOs also tend to treat their boards as a distraction or an annoyance. Both of these lines of thought are problematic. 

Boards should be viewed as a CEO’s second team (along with their management team), as a strategic weapon that helps the company succeed and as an opportunity to bring new voices and perspectives. Research has shown the more independent and diverse a board is, the better it performs.

Habit 2: Be proactive about board recruiting

Devote as much focus to building a board as to building the executive team. This process is time-consuming and can’t be delegated to anyone else. Aspire to reach people who may feel out of reach. Asking someone to join the board is a big honor, so that ask becomes a good calling card. When recruiting, interview as many contenders as possible, don’t be afraid to reject those who aren’t a good fit and have finalists audition by attending a board meeting. Source broadly, too. Diversity is really important for many reasons; challenge any recruiter, agency or platform to surface diverse board candidates.

Habit 3: Keep your board balanced using the Rule of 1s

Whether it’s a three-person startup board or a seven-person scale-up board, it should include representation from all three director types: investors, management directors and independents. A few basic principles on board composition that work well are what I call the Rule of 1s: First, boards should include one, and only one member of the management team: the CEO. Even if co-founders or C-level managers are shareholders, don’t burn a board seat for a perspective that you have access to regularly. Second, for every new investor to the board, add one independent director, which is the biggest opportunity to introduce external perspectives. If your board gets too crowded with subsequent funding rounds, ask one or more investors to take observer seats to make space for independents. And don’t be afraid to change your board composition over time. Companies are dynamic and boards should be, too.

Habit 4: Cultivate mutual accountability and respect

While a board might seem intimidating, work past the power dynamic and push toward collaboration and mutual accountability. To ensure board members are prepared for meetings, keep commitments and leverage their networks, set the example by demonstrating preparation, consistency and reliability. By regularly delivering pre-read materials to the board several days in advance, the board will build a new habit. By soliciting feedback from board members after each meeting (and even offering them feedback), you’ll show the board that you’re listening. Over time, they’ll lean in, too.

Habit 5: Drive intellectually honest discussions

Even on the healthiest leadership teams, it can be scary to disagree with or challenge a sitting CEO (after all, they are still the one in charge!). But this power dynamic flips in a boardroom, which gives that group a unique opportunity to push and challenge business assumptions. While it may be tempting to look for board members with softer dispositions, it can be more beneficial to have tough, direct board members who aren’t afraid to express their opinions, but who are also good listeners and learners. My favorite discussions are conversations where I’m pushed to consider a different direction. It helps get more done, surfaces better ideas and increases the effectiveness of the company.

Habit 6: Lean in on strategic, lean out on tactics

Even board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting 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 and ecosystem. This is an easy habit to reinforce in meetings. If board directors drift toward getting too tactically in the weeds, that’s great feedback to offer after the meeting.

Habit 7: Think outside the box

Good board members understand all the pieces on the chess table; great board members go one step further and pattern match to provide advice, history, context and anticipated consequences. This is an enormous benefit to CEOs focused on the minutiae of the day-to-day, particularly if a business operates in a trailblazing industry where many of the rules may not yet be written. As a CEO, if you’ve never seen something first hand before, it’s hard to get clarity and external perspectives, which is why it’s crucial that great board members bring pattern recognition and “out-of-the-box thinking” to their role.

At the end of the day, boards are there to support and direct a company. There’s no perfect formula, but by implementing these steps with a few healthy habits, CEOs can cultivate strong, dynamic boards for their companies.

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