Dec 1 2020

The New Way to Scale a Board of Directors

As we wrote in Bolster’s Founding Manifesto, one of the reasons we started Bolster was to create a new way; a faster, easier, and more cost-effective way, for startup and scaleup CEOs to grow their boards of directors and make them more diverse.

There’s a lot of research out there that the more independent a board is, the better it performs for companies — and that there’s a high degree of correlation between more independent boards and higher performing companies as well. There’s also a lot of research out there that shows that teams which have diversity of gender and race/ethnicity perform better. And everyone who has ever been on a high-functioning board of directors knows that a board is a team.

These facts are well known, yet it is still the case that most private company boards are overwhelmingly made up of founders and investors who are still largely white and male. I believe that the lack of independence and diversity on boards is a big miss for the whole startup ecosystem, and it’s a part of the startup game that we at Bolster want to help change.

Startup boards are tricky things. One of the very unique aspects of a CEO’s job that sets it apart from other executive positions is building and leading a board of directors. But most startup CEOs have either little or no experience building and leading a board, so that part of the job tends to default to a “because that’s the way I assume it’s always been done” kind of task. Of course, if you’re not intentional about building and managing a board, you’re likely to get lousy results. 

Building, shaping, and leading a world class board is one of the single most important things startup CEOs can do to help their businesses thrive and become industry leaders. It’s on par with building and leading an executive team. I’ve seen amazing companies held back by weak and ineffective boards and investor syndicates, and I’ve seen so-so companies succeed because the strategic advice, experience, and accountability coming out of the board room drives the management team in extraordinary ways.

So how is Bolster helping startup CEOs change the game with respect to Boards? We are doing three things. 

First, as you know, what gets measured gets managed. Our first-of-its-kind Board Benchmark application will soon produce an industry standard set of data around private company boards. You can’t find data on private company boards but we’ll soon have important data like size, composition (independents/management/investors), independent director compensation and diversity (gender/race-ethnicity/age). This will help answer questions that I know I have had many times over the years as a CEO such as 

  • How big should my board be at this stage? 
  • How many independent directors should I have? 
  • What is the right profile of an independent director? 
  • How many options should I give a board member? 

Starting next week, we’re opening up our Board Benchmark application to any company who creates a free Bolster account. It will tell us a lot about the baseline across the ecosystem, and it will answer a lot of questions startup and scaleup CEOs have but can’t get answers to. Although this is an ongoing real-time benchmark tool, I’ll post some results here when we have enough critical mass to start reporting out.

Second, Bolster is in the talent business, and helping match VC-backed companies with a strong diverse slate of board candidates who are well-matched with their company is at the core of our business. We are already working on many searches for independent board members, and we’ll only be doing more of them as our client base and member base grow.

Finally, this blog post is the beginning of a whole series of posts about startup boards that we hope will demystify them a bit and help change the world’s thinking about how to grow them. Some of the material I will borrow from other blog posts I’ve written, or from the Board of Directors section of Startup CEO. Some will come from other influential VC and CEO bloggers and from Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani’s book Startup Boards. But much of the content will be new. And because Bolster is a two-sided marketplace, roughly half of the content will be aimed at startup CEOs and the other half at executives who are interested in serving on boards and aren’t sure how to get from where they are today into a board room. We’ll be sending out all the CEO posts as an eBook to CEOs who complete the Board Benchmark study, and all the Member posts as an eBook to Bolster members who fill out their Board profiles. I’ll post both of those eBooks here eventually as well.

For CEOs, the topics we will cover include 

  • The purpose of a board
  • Size and composition on boards
  • Board evolution & turnover
  • Diversity in the boardroom and the importance of appointing first-time directors
  • What to look for in a director
  • How to recruit and interview directors
  • How to onboard directors, especially first time directors
  • How to compensate directors
  • How to build a director bench or Advisory Board
  • How to evaluate your board

For executives searching for a board role, the topics we will cover include 

  • What startup corporate boards look like
  • How to prepare yourself to get on your first board
  • Should you serve on an advisory board?
  • How to interview for a Board role
  • What you need to know about board compensation
  • How to approach your first board meeting
  • How to think about corporate governance as a board member
  • How to be a great board member
  • How to give advice or difficult feedback as a board member
  • Making sure your voice is heard during a board meeting
  • How to know if you’re doing a good job as a board member

We believe that boards can make or break a company and we intend to chart a new course for startup boards. I look forward to sharing thoughts and data with you on that topic in the weeks to come.