Feb 022012

What Makes an Awesome Board Member

What Makes an Awesome Board Member

(This post was requested by my long-time Board member Brad Feld and is also running concurrently on his blog today)

I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path.  And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation.  All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts:  Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.

But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members.  I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others.  Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.

Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:

  • They are prepared and keep commitments.  They show up to all meetings.  They show up on time and don’t leave early.  They do their homework.  The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings
  • They speak their minds.  They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room.  They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think.  I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
  • They build independent relationships.  They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings.  They get to know inviduals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well.  None of this communication goes through you
  • They are resource rich.  I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice.  After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add.  Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis
  • They are strategically engaged but operationally distant.   This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful.  Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area.  But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like

My interview/vetting process for Board members:

  • Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member
  • Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high
  • Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists.  Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well
  • Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors
  • Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand.  Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting.  You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way
  • Have no fear of rejecting them.  Even if you like them.  Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor.  Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC).  This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company

I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member.  Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine (with only two inside jokes that I couldn’t resist putting up for the Board):

  • Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
  • Comes with an opinion
  • Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
  • Call out your blind spots
  • Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
  • Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team – Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative.  Then get out of our way
  • Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
  • Pattern matching:  they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching.  To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
  • Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
  • Colorful and unique metaphors

Disclaimer – I run a private company.  While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary.  And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture.  That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!

  • http://www.resonanceensemble.org Dori Thompson

    Matt, I am COB of a not-for-profit Theatre in New York City, for 7 years running. We have a small board – 8 people. Every single one of the tenets you suggest are true. We, due to our by-laws, must operate within Robert's Rules, we work together as a team and get much accomplished. Oour agendas are set. I find for chairing, commitments and agenda are priority. No one on my Board is getting paid to do this. They do it out of passion and love for my Theatre Company. Not sure about the Shake Shack throwdown, because my board resides all over the country. But bringing fearless opinions, a few shakedowns and also letting other members express their opinions so the group as a whole can work together for the common good is, at the end of the day/call/initiative, most gratifying for everyone. Kudos to you for writing this.

    • Matt Blumberg

      Thanks, Dori – non profits are different in some ways, the same in others.  I’m getting a different perspective on that now as DMA Chairman, too.Matt

  • Jeff Richards

    Great post Matt. I also think many entrepreneurs think they can't give Board members feedback (especially investors). At a minimum, ask the board to read this post!

    • Matt Blumberg

      Certainly some board members won't take feedback well — lots of humans don't, and many board members are less likely to get regular feedback and be used to it. But the good ones will respond, and that's a tone you can set up front.Matt

  • http://www.venturestrategy.biz Martin Stillman

    Great piece Matt and epitomises what I've found to be true in the many hundreds of Boards I've been lucky enough to sit on or Chair…….

    The biggest issue WORLD OVER it seems to me – and why your post is SO good Matt – is that Entrepreneurs / SME's are often great "at what they do" and typically thats not the mechanics of running a business. They're fantastic engineers, coders, marketeers, salesmen, scientists……as a result, they end up running their own enterprise but few have been trained or prepared for that role in life.

    So a Board with an independent Mentor / Chairman plus other non-execs if appropriate / affordable, can quite literally be the difference between success and failure. It's an issue that in my humble opinion, needs to be resolved by developing the enterprise culture in our education system – including basic training for all on how to run a business….skills that are transferable to other walks of life!

    The traits you describe are bang on target!

    • Matt Blumberg

      That is a great way of putting it, Martin.  Everyone has a role to play!

  • Monica Longworth

    Wow. Thank you. I have been looking for something like this to share with fellow board members of a small, great museum about 80 miles from NYC (Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation). I found you – and this article – via Twitter through Joshua Baer (1 Semester Startup at UT Austin, which my son took last fall). Of course the same things that were true when I started out my career 25+ years ago are still true. But – you've figured them out and articulated them early enough in your career – good for you! Some people never do learn these lessons. And I really like the way you've set your tenets out – already on their way to my colleagues! Good luck, Monica Longworth

    • Matt Blumberg

      Thanks so much for the comment and enthusiasm, Monica!

  • Brandon Gardner

    Hey Matt, we have a board of 4 people. As CEO of the company however, I would really like an informal advisory board. What do you think about having more of an informal board? or "Kitchen Cabinet"?

    • Matt Blumberg

      I’ve never really made an advisory board work well. I have individual advisors who help on odd things here and there, but a lot of the magic in the Board is getting them all in a room, the same group, on a regular frequency, to discuss and debate. The learning that comes from the group being together over time, and the establishment of group dynamics and relationships, actually make it a team. If you can do that with an advisory board and there’s some reason you prefer that to a Board, then I guess it serves the same purpose. But why would you prefer that?