Managing Boards

“Managing boards? I can help you with that. But that’s a tough one…” Dan kept on telling me. 2 months of browsing the web, listening to podcasts, exchanging with experienced CEO’s and board members – made me realise what he meant.

On the 17th of February, I had the pleasure to run the SLP class on Managing Boards. I picked the topic not knowing anything about it, partly because half the selection had already vanished by the time I was ready to grab my topic, partly because I could assume the blurriest topic would get me the strongest learning curve.

Many takeaways from the class but I would say the ones that stuck were:
Stand your ground. Board members sometimes act like experts when all they know about the topic is what they read on the airplane magazine the day before. Make sure you’re being influenced by the right voices for each topic.

Make the board work for you. It makes them much more engaged, and that is the attitude you should take. Board members can be phenomenal assets.
Know your articles. If you go back a few days later and read about the articles, it is too late. You need to know the board’s rules during the meeting.

Run an elegant performance, prepare well, and don’t leave surprises: actually, for some topics it is worth speaking to board members individually beforehand.

You don’t need to have a big board, it is fine keeping it to a minimum and not seeking expertise in your board, people can give advice in many other capacities. It’s worth thinking about having a personal board, a board of friendly contacts who advise you and to whom you report regularly.

Keeping minutes can demonstrate good governance when trying to raise.

We were lucky to host 4 speakers for the night: Casey Cole, Megan Neale, Giles Clark and Andrew Wordsworth. They all had experience on being board member for another company and being CEO. They had been on both sides. To add to that, Casey, Giles and Andrew all work on products and services to help the climate issue. I was glad I could bring the sustainability twist to the session.

Especially, Andrew from Sustainable Ventures making it clear that he would happily answer questions by email but with the caveat that he would be unlikely to be a mentor/investor if the startup is not in the sustainability sector. Our planet needs more Andrews.

During the whole evening, I was glad to see the fellows so engaged, eager to ask a lot of questions. It challenged my timekeeping skills though. An excellent board chair will be strict on the timekeeping and “herd the cats”. I did not do that. On the flip side the discussion flowed well and we achieved a good sense of community.

The session started with my book recommendations:

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. I wanted to run a Mentimeter poll, with everyone answering the Gapminder test on their phone – but that failed! Note to self: trial the poll in advance.

Getting Motivated, by Ernest Dichter, autobiography from the founder of motivational research.

I then shared some basics about boards. For example that there were not one formula and that you find many dimensions to it: the type of directors (non-executive directors or investors), the purpose (advice only, or keeping investors happy, or strategic), the frequency (every month, twice a year), the payments (0£-2000£ a year). It was emphasised later in the session that how you design and set these dimensions has a huge impact in how it will perform, and could have consequences, like a child who suffered from malnutrition!

Each speaker introduced themselves and gave a story related to their board experience, punctuated by questions from the fellows. I must admit I was not able to be as captivated as I would have liked to at all times, because I was conscious of the timekeeping, conscious of wanting everyone to find the session interesting. That, added to my freshness to the entrepreneur vocabulary and added to English being my second language, meant I did find it challenging at times to understand every story they mentioned.

After an hour and a half of stories and tips, we finished with an exercise in groups of 4. Each group with one of the speakers went through a series of questions, applied to one of our businesses: What to look for when composing your board? What to avoid? Who are your dream board members? Etc. I found it useful to apply the knowledge in a smaller conversation, although some fellows fed back that the exercise was not necessary.

In hindsight, it was an engaging and rewarding experience to run the class, including the preparation, meeting and inviting the speakers beforehand, and finally being able to give back to the fellows what I had been enjoying for months: a well-prepared Monday night session full of insights for our startup!

My favourite articles on lessons learned about boards:

The Secret to Board Meetings Sucking Less

What You Learn from Serving on A Board

What You need to know about Startup Boards

How to Build A Great Board