Startup Boards: VCs and CEOs need to do their jobs!
Was anyone else as appalled as I am by the contents of Connie Loizos’s recent article, Coming out of COVID, investors lose their taste for board meetings? The stories and quotes in the article about VCs reducing their interest and participation in Board meetings, not showing up, sending the junior associate to cover, etc. are eye opening and alarming if widespread.
The reasons cited in the article are logical—overextended VCs, Zoom fatigue, and newbie directors. Connie’s note that “privately, VCs admit they don’t add a lot of value to boards” is pretty funny to read as a CEO who has heard a ton of VCs talk about how much value they add to boards (although the good ones DO add a lot of value!).
For the most part, everything about the substance of this article just made me angry.
Disengaged or dysfunctional boards aren’t just bad for CEOs and LPs; they’re bad for everyone. If the world has truly become a place where the board meeting is nothing more than a distraction for CEOs, and investors think it’s a tax they can’t afford, then it’s time to hit the reset button on boards and board meetings.
Here are four things that need to happen in this reset:
VCs need to do their job well or stop doing it. The argument that investors did too many deals in the pandemic so now they don’t have any time is a particularly silly one, since the pandemic reduced the amount of time VCs needed to spend on individual board meetings as well. I used to have four board meetings each year with directors who were traveling for the meetings, having dinners, spending time with the team and sitting in on committee meetings.
Today, boards are lucky to have one in-person meeting a year (more on that later). And as everything else takes less time, and there’s little transit, any given VC should have doubled the time they spend on board meetings.
Serving on a board post-investment is a central part of the VC role. They have obligations to the founders they back and to the LPs they represent. The entire role is “find deals, execute deals, manage the portfolio.”
If they no longer have time for the third job, they need to admit that to both founders and LPs before stepping down. If a VC can’t be bothered to focus on minding their investments and adding value, they should work with the company to find their replacement.
CEOs need to take their job as leader of the board seriously. Would a good CEO just throw their hands up if they found management team meetings boring or a waste of time? No. They’d fix the structure of the team or meetings. If not, they shouldn’t be the CEO.
It’s no different with boards. Whether or not the CEO is the board chair, they’re the leader of the organization. So, one of the few “must do” items in their job description is leading the board. The board is part of the CEO’s team, just like the management team.
CEOs get to call the meetings, run the meetings, and insist on attendance. The CEO’s obligation is to make it easy and meaningful for everyone so the board isn’t a tax but rather a secret weapon for the company’s success. As my long-time independent director Scott Weiss used to tell me, boards consume whatever you put in front of them. Garbage in, garbage out. That means paying careful attention to the board materials, to meeting etiquette, and everything in between.
If the CEO doesn’t know how to do that, they should find a CEO mentor who can teach them, observe some well run boards in action through their network, or read Startup Boards: A Field Guide to Building and Leading an Effective Board of Directors, a book I just published along with co-authors and VCs Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani.
Here’s one tip on making Board prep more efficient: work your Operating System and your Board Book formats so you do one set of reporting for the company and management team that is 95% reusable without any changes for your board.
The format for Board meetings needs to evolve. Board meetings need to evolve in our world of hybrid work just as office work needs to evolve. The format that works for in-person can’t just “lift and shift” to Zoom as is, indefinitely.
Here’s how I’m steering my board:
- I insist on one or two “old school” meetings per year, meaning in-person attendance required, half a day long, and including a meal and even an activity. If I’m only going to see my directors together infrequently, I make it mandatory, but I also make it worthwhile and fun.
- Remote meetings that happen between the in-person meetings are becoming shorter and tighter. I still send out a lot reading material beforehand, but I make sure to keep the focus on a fixed number of major topics to keep the discussion engaging.
- We need a new set of expectations around Zoom meeting etiquette for long meetings. It’s okay to ask people to close their email, browser, and Slack before the meeting starts. If a meeting is more than two hours long, a 15 minute break in the middle is important. Use breakout rooms to mix up topic discussions and working sessions.
- I am trying a new meeting format to maximize director conversation and team development. I start every meeting with a director-only session for half an hour that’s not exactly an Executive Session but is more fun and social—usually including a nonwork discussion topic, as if we were sitting around the dinner table having a cocktail. That gets the conversational juices flowing. Then when my team and observers join the meeting, I ask those people to turn their video off, and I ask directors to adjust their Zoom setting to “hide participants not on video” to keep the number of Zoom squares down to the bare minimum. Any time a team member or observer wants to engage in a particular topic, they turn their video on. Then we follow the meeting with Executive Session and Closed Session and a single-director debrief with me. That is a lot of moving pieces to manage, I find that but doing so keeps the meeting fresh and well paced.
- Finally, I’m following Fred Wilson’s advice and running a very short survey post-meeting to ask directors basic questions so they can summarize their thinking for me and the team: What are we doing well? What do we need more work on? And did the meeting meet your expectations?
Companies need to Follow the Rule of 1s
The secret to engaged and diverse boards is to mix up their membership more than most companies do. Our Board Benchmark study at Bolster indicates that the vast majority of private company boards have no independent directors at all—only founders and investors—and every year, the vast majority of the “open independent seats” specified in those companies’ charters go unfilled.
It’s hard work hiring a new independent board member, and it rarely rises to the top of the CEO’s priority list. But the more independent the board is, and the more diverse the board is in every way (in terms of demographics as well as experience and background), the more robust the conversations around the table become, and the more valuable the board is to the CEO.
My Rule of 1s for building highly effective boards is simple:
- Add independent directors to your board on Day 1
- Try to limit your Board to 1 founder/team member
- Then, for every 1 investor on your board,
- Add 1 independent director
A great board is one of a company’s greatest assets. A weak board can kill a company. A mediocre board is just a waste of time. There’s no question that running an effective board, or serving as an effective director, takes serious time and energy and diligence. But that’s not a reason not to try.
(This post first ran on TechCrunch+ and is also running on the Bolster blog)