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5 things tech executives should know when talking to boards

Corporate boards can be intimidating. Don’t be afraid to be bold, but always be honest.

5 things tech executives should know when talking to boards
[Photo: Creative-Touch/iStock]

Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. What should a technologist disclose to the company board? My board wants to know where things are. Do I give them a detailed report? Or steer clear of the nitty-gritty?

 —Chief technology officer of a successful startup

If you want a simple answer, tell them the truth.

Next, help the board understand what it means by putting it into context. Learning to speak in the board’s language is imperative. This is something you probably already do. Think about how you speak to your business partners as opposed to engineers. Now, when you talk to the board, you have to elevate that communication even further, so that what you say is free of jargon and incredibly clear.

I understand that you may have concerns about sharing all of the details, especially if you have set aggressive goals and you are not certain you will meet them. It is intimidating. A board has tremendous power over your career, and they don’t see you every day, so you’ll want to use every chance you have with them to demonstrate that you are competent and that they can trust you to deliver.

The best way to do that is to be honest. Tell board members the truth about your goals and where you stand against them. But also include how risky the task at hand is and the degree of confidence you have in delivering on your goals.

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I believe that people respect seeing aggressive goals. I used to give bonuses for achieving 80% of goals, and I’ve always felt that if you achieve 100% of them, they were not aggressive enough. Tell the board about what you are striving for, and articulate the difficulty—share that you expect to make most of them and that if you make all, it will either be a miracle or that the goals were not high enough. Calibrate the board to this idea, but always tell the truth on how you are doing against what you set.

Let me share with you a true story. A few weeks after I joined eBay as president of technology, Meg Whitman asked me to create a board presentation. This seemed ridiculous to me because I had just arrived, the place was a disaster, and things were not looking good—I was still trying to figure out how to survive. I was pulling all-nighters trying to keep the site up. What was I possibly supposed to tell the members of the board?

“When is the meeting?” I asked.

“In a week,” Whitman said. “They are interested in hearing your plan.”

I created a presentation called Dire Straits. I opened it with the following sentence: “We are in dire straits.” Normally I’d start with architecture, but there was nothing normal about this. I began by addressing what was broken and then talked with the board about what would get fixed right away and what would take longer. It was honest, and we mostly lived up to it—not perfectly, but enough to keep my job.

In general, I suggest:

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  1. Be honest about the situation
  2. Articulate where you are
  3. Share what you are working on and what you are doing to get to a better place
  4. Specify what you need from them to help you get there
  5. Live up to what you say you will do

How technical do you get? This is an art more than a science, but often board members want more than a purely technical update. People want to hear a story, they want to hear about your journey, and they are looking for your conviction.

Everyone wants to hear that everything is perfect, but nothing ever is. So, give them what they need: tell them the truth, share the story of what you are doing, and live up to it. Show them that they can trust what they are hearing, that they can trust you. Credibility is incredibly powerful, and that’s true for whatever role and whatever condition you are in.

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