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Boardroom drama: My fellow directors are ignoring a potential problem

Public board members should have strong opinions, but also pick their battles, says Maynard Webb.

Boardroom drama: My fellow directors are ignoring a potential problem
[Photo: Mariakray/Pexels]

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. I recently pointed out a troublesome issue with a key executive to the other members on my board. They listened but ultimately didn’t follow what I suggested. I don’t agree and I’m not sure how to proceed.

 –Board member of a public company

Dear Board member,

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If you’re like me, or most board members, you have very clear opinions. Often, you may have the instinct to try to win on every issue that arises. Sometimes it’s better to concede and live to fight another day.

The old proverb that warns you can win every battle, but lose the war is true. You likely already know that every battle comes at a cost. Each one requires expending energy and that can also take focus away from other things that demand your attention.

Throughout my career I’ve learned that you can’t argue about everything you disagree with because that can exhaust you and eat away at the trust others have in you. Remember, you are building or losing trust and credibility every day. Therefore, you must really know which decisions are worth imposing your will on—and which ones aren’t. This is something I employ every day at my boards, where there are many issues that arise, but only a small number of decisions I force. I choose to let many things go so I can have a say in the big issues that I believe will determine the fate of the company.

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This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever fight for what you want. It does mean you need to determine what things are worth fighting for. Let me give you an example from something that happened with one of the companies in our WIN portfolio: A CEO and board member were at odds regarding a decision over removing another board member. This disagreement came in the middle of a sales process outcome. If I were in this situation, I would have put up with some dysfunction on the board and focus on the prize of selling the company. We must always be aware that choosing the wrong battle will make getting to the real prize take longer—or even risk it from happening.

How do you know what’s worth it and what’s not? I look to the great Stephen Covey’s work delineating the difference between a “sphere of influence” and “circle of concern.” If you want to spark change, it’s better to focus on the areas in which you have a sphere of influence. How do you tell if something is in your circle of concern or sphere of influence? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it in my scope? Is this my responsibility? Is this something I have to do? Or, is it an opportunity to let someone else lead this and learn?
  • How important is this decision? Is it a company decision where there are great stakes? Or, is this an experiment? If it doesn’t work out, will it be uncomfortable or will it be a catastrophe?

Finally, assess whether you’ve articulated your point of view and if it has been acknowledged and heard. You should always fight if you feel the decision will harm the company. If it will not, understand that you have tons to do and one of the best decisions you can make is deciding to let it go.

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