Looking for Board Members? Forget Credentials–It’s What They Can Bring to the Table That Counts
Young companies get too caught up in trying to lure high-profile types to their boardrooms. But you don’t need hood ornaments; you need time, expertise and an ability to help you drive the company forward.
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Budding builders of businesses and big-city mayors often seem to have the same problem when it comes to putting together boards, whether they're boards of directors, advisors, or industry experts. They tend to go for the gold and the glitz and they end up getting too little time, no real help, and nothing else of any actual value in the bargain. They consistently emphasize and over index on people's titles and credentials and forget that-; unless you're only concerned with window dressing and PR-;the object of the board-building exercise is to get some regular help, a sympathetic ear or two, and some people on your team who've been there before, who will tell you the truth when necessary, and who share your vision for the business. Having a couple of board members who have your back is the best feeling in the whole world and makes for a much better business as well.
Being an effective board member is a serious job, not a sinecure, and selecting the right people for these roles is just as important as any other hire you might make. You don't want planners and report writers; you don't need performers and pontificators; you want doers who can help drive results. I realize that some of these guys can end up coming with the deal, being a necessary part or necessary evil as the case may be in securing your funding or for other historic reasons. The trick is to make the smartest possible choices in those cases where you actually do have a choice.
Don't confuse someone's credentials with the kind of proper concerns and concrete commitments that it takes to do this very critical job correctly. Some people collect board seats like they were baseball cards or souvenir buttons. Stay away from these professional self-promoters because, in the end, it's always about them and not worth your time or wasting a seat that could go to someone with something real to contribute instead of some blowhard looking to bulk up his or her resume. We see the same kinds of issues with some of the unsuccessful mentors at 1871. You just need to invest the time to do this crucial job right.
There's no single or simple way to get the process going, but as you begin to evaluate the various candidates-; some you'll seek out and some will appear or be suggested and introduced by people you trust-; there are six basic questions/concerns that you should be addressing in your evaluation. There may be others and special circumstances may dictate additions, but the ones that I have found always to be relevant are the following:
(1) Do they have the time to do the job and will they make the time? Some of the busiest people you know still make the best board members because it's a matter of their commitment, not their calendar.
(2) Are they willing to show up and not just phone it in-; figuratively and literally? It's very easy to lose the energy and momentum at a board session when half the group isn't paying attention. If they can't really be there, in the moment, they shouldn't be there at all. Posture is actually pretty important and you want the folks leaning in and engaged, not sitting back, looking at their phones, and contemplating their cuticles.
(3) Are they able to do the work-; board materials reviews, meeting preparation and participation, job candidate interviews, your spur-of-the-moment conference calls, etc.? Entrepreneurs aren't patient people and spending a day a month or a quarter in a board meeting is almost always a painful process, but it's made unbearable if the board members don't take the time (and give management the courtesy) of doing their homework and coming to the meeting prepared. We're all busy people, but the real value of bringing the board together is the interactivity and the exchanges between smart and successful outsiders with important perspectives that might not be represented within the business. The worst board meetings are repetitive dog-and-pony shows by management where the biggest challenge isn't a corporate conundrum, it's trying to stay awake.
(4) Are they engaged and passionate about your business? It's just as bad to be a sycophant as it is to be a sarcastic know-it-all. It's important for board members to tell it like it is and to tell the harsh truth to the CEO and others when necessary, but it's even more important that they come from the right place-; a sincere and heartfelt desire to see the business succeed for the right reasons. These aren't smooth or easy journeys, but a little heart and a lot of good faith makes the medicine go down more easily.
(5) Are they good and additive collaborators-; team players? A good board leaves its own desires and its selfish concerns at the door and works together to reach the best decisions for the company rather than pushing or promoting choices that serve other outside interests-; including, sometimes, a board member's own investment objectives.
(6) Do they have a relevant something? It might be:
(d) Network/Connections; or
The bottom line is the same rule as in football. You don't want the 11 best people you can theoretically get. You want the best 11 people who can come together to help you build a better business, through thick and thin, and with only that desire, that agenda, and that goal in mind.