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Founders: Don’t whine about a pesky board member, get on the same page

Make allies, not enemies, with your board.

Founders: Don’t whine about a pesky board member, get on the same page
[Source illustrations: arbaz bagwan/iStock; aelitta/iStock]

Editor’s Note: Each week, Fast Company presents an advice column by Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay. Webb offers 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.  I’m getting annoyed with one of my board members. He’s bugging me every day, and I wish he would just go away. That won’t happen—my board is mostly made up of our investors. Can you offer advice on how I can better manage my board?

 — Founder of fast-growing, venture-backed startup

Dear Founder,

I think you may have to rethink how you view your board. Instead of thinking of your dealings with the board as something you have to do, consider the board as a strategic body that needs to be aligned with you.

Here’s the truth: the board’s only job is to determine your fate—they are the only ones who can fire you—so it’s best for you to show up with your best foot forward on every interaction you have with the board. It’s important to point out that board members generally get to know you and experience your leadership skills mostly through board meetings, so they may (rightly or wrongly) extrapolate how you perform in other areas of your company based on how you perform in the boardroom.

Make allies, not enemies with the board. Appreciate the board in the best of times, so they are there for you in the worst of times. Board meetings and board assignments can either be very tedious and boring (when things are really going well), or very intense and crazy (when things are stalling or in flux). When everything is going well and the CEO and company meet or exceed goals, it is often easy to be a little arrogant with your board. Don’t do that. Having great chemistry and trust is very important, because when the tide changes (success is not usually linear), you want the board to feel informed and eager to help you.

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Instead of thinking about meeting with the board as something to get done and out of the way so you can get back to work, take a different approach. Put the board to work. The importance of having a close collaboration with the board is one of the most valuable things I learned as a CEO. I always took my biggest issues to the board, sought their input, and then made my decision.

Make meetings a source of affirmation and insight. Ask for assistance on lead generation, problem-solving, and pattern recognition. Advice from seasoned veterans can also help you grow and operate as a manager and leader.

You have to do your part to set up every interaction and every meeting for success. As someone who has sat through hundreds and hundreds of board meetings over the decades, I can tell you the best way to run an effective board meeting is simple: run an effective company. If your company is meeting or exceeding expectations, almost all board meetings—even when sloppily run—are good. On the flip side, even if you run an effective board meeting, if business is not going well, don’t expect the meeting to go well.

A successful meeting starts with alignment between the board members and you. In the beginning, ideally these meetings can be like deep 1:1s with a little time carved out for legal formalities (e.g., approving, stock, and other formalities that need to be discussed). These meetings will go much more smoothly if you have understanding and agreement in advance—on frequency and length of meetings, agenda, and management participation.

As you get bigger, these meetings become more formal and require an adjustment. As you go through round after round of financing, you are often adding a board member at each round and changing the overall board dynamic. When you are a public company, you have lots of regulatory and compliance activity to contend with, and you will need special committees (such as audit, compensation, nominating, and governance, to name a few), in addition to general board topics. Board and committee meetings at big companies are often two full-day events (or longer) and include a dinner as well. Themes and topics for board meetings are often baked in well in advance.

(If you are freaking out, now is the time to take a deep breath. The good news is that you are years away from that kind of setup, but I wanted you to understand that if you go public, that is where you are headed.)

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In the meantime, it’s important to note that your board will grow and that it will always require active management. A few simple rules to make things easier for everyone:

  • Set up the meetings well in advance.
  • Make sure board members know whether it is okay to attend remotely or not. (I once experienced a board meeting that the CEO changed to video at the last minute, and one of the board members had cut a European trip to make it back in person. You don’t ever want to do that.)
  • Send out a proposed agenda a week or two in advance, and solicit input for any topics the board wants to cover.
  • Make sure all materials get out in advance (at least two days before the meeting). Board members are usually busy but want to do a good job. When you don’t give them time to do their jobs well, they get cranky.
  • Leave time for an executive session with the full board and with just outside board members.
  • Save time at the end of the board meeting for board members to give you feedback.
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