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 email@example.com.
Q. I’m finding that serving on the board of directors has become increasingly complex. There are more materials than ever, and they often come late or are delivered piecemeal. I like to be prepared and do my job well but am finding that to be a challenge. Any advice on how I can work with the company get things more under control?
-A loyal board member
Dear Board Member,
I appreciate how dedicated you are to your board role.
The responsibilities of board members have changed with the need to provide ever more regulatory oversight. I also know that the materials can be very dense, sometimes hundreds of pages to review. The complexity and the demands on one’s time has increased significantly. That combined with management’s lack of timeliness in how they share materials sounds like a recipe for unhappiness for board members.
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes, though. Companies don’t mean to put you in this position or make your job more difficult. They have to review the materials with many people before they share them with the board. Additionally, it’s likely that they don’t have all the information until late in the cycle.
You want to be able to do your job well and the company wants that as well. You’re aligned. But the kinds of problems you are dealing with can have a ripple effect. It doesn’t behoove management to have directors who are annoyed by the process, frustrated that they received materials late, or had their flights to board meetings messed up. (All things I’ve seen!) A company wants its board members to have a frictionless experience so they can come in fresh and ready to deal with issues that are material. Dealing with pesky problems takes time and attention away from what’s important.
You asked about how to get things under control. The good news is this is possible. You should provide more guidance about what the board needs and suggest a structure for the company to follow.
Here’s some tips for resolving this issue:
Encourage the company to share things early and elicit feedback. Sharing materials and fostering a dialog early prevents surprises for both board members and, importantly, CEOs. Advise them to plan for difficult questions and address them early on as much as possible.
Set guidelines and get agreement on the timing with which things will be sent. It’s important to get alignment between the CEO and the directors on what the timing will be. Big company boards should get materials out a week in advance. If you are working with a startup, two days in advance of the meeting will be fine. Make sure the company understands the importance of shipping everything early and delivering on the expectations—and if anything changes make sure they know to let you know. Establish a culture where you communicate early and often.
Don’t accept sloppiness. Ensure the materials are complete. If it is not complete, ask the company to communicate when things get added. Companies should put the time and effort into the board materials to properly set the context and update the board members on the state of the business and how this compares to the plan and explain the reasons for any deviations.
Work with the company to get be better but don’t let it derail the important work that has to get done. Even if the materials aren’t perfect or didn’t come in a timely fashion, I encourage you to make sure the board focuses on its most meaningful work—helping the company achieve its destiny.