Nov 092010

Why I Love My Board

Why I Love My Board, Part II

I’ve written a few things about my Board of Directors over the years, some of which I note below.  Part I of this series isn’t particularly useful, though there’s an entertaining link in it to a video of Fred that’s worth looking at if you know or follow him.

Today, we are happy to announce that we are adding a new independent director, Scott Petry, the founder of Postini and now a senior email product leader at Google (read the official press release [here]).  Scott’s a fantastic addition to our already strong Board, and the process of recruiting and adding him has made me reflect a bit on my Board and its strengths and weaknesses, so I thought I’d share a couple of those thoughts here.

I think Return Path has cultivated a very high functioning Board over the years, and I feel very fortunate to have the group that we have.  Here are the top five things I think make our Board special, in no particular order.

  1. We have great individuals on the Board.  Each of our individual Board members — Fred Wilson, Greg Sands, Scott Weiss, Scott Petry, and Brad Feld (now officially an observer), (in addition to me) — could anchor a super strong Board in his own right and have all served on multiple Boards of related companies.  And not only do these guys know their stuff…they do their homework.  They all come to every meeting very well prepared.
  2. The individual Board members are different but have different experiences and personalities that complement each other nicely.  Among the three VCs on the Board, two have operating experience, one as a founder and one in product management.  Among the two industry CEOs, one has more of a business development focus, and the other has deep technical expertise.  Some directors are excitable and a bit knee-jerk, others are more reflective; some are aggressive and others are more conservative; some have extremely colorful metaphors, others are a bit more steeped in traditional pattern recognition.
  3. We have built a great team dynamic that encourages productive conflict.  I assume a lot of rooms full of great directors of different types are so ego-laden that people just talk over each other.  Our group, for whatever reason, doesn’t function that way.  We are engaged and in each others’ faces during meetings, no one is afraid to voice an opinion, and we listen to each other.  Some of this may be the way we spend time together outside of Board rooms, which I wrote about in The Social Aspects of Running a Board. Some is about just making sure to have fun, which I wrote about in The Good, The Board, and The Ugly (Part I, Part II, Part III), I talk about other aspects of running a good Board, including making sure to have fun – that post includes an entertaining picture of now-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and a few of his friends from his FeedBurner days.
  4. We are deliberate about connecting the Board and the Executive team, and the rest of the company.  We encourage every director to have a direct relationship with every one of my direct reports.  They connect both during and outside of meetings, and they have gotten to know each other well over the years.  This is much more helpful to us than a more traditional “hourglass” structure where all connections go through the CEO.
  5. We run great meetings.  We send out a single, well-organized document several days before the meeting.  Board members do their homework.  We focus on current and future issues more than reporting on historical numbers, and we no longer do any presentations — it’s all discussion (I also wrote about a lot of this here in PowerPointLess).

Welcome to the Return Path family, Scott P – we are delighted to have you on board our Board!

Aug 262010

Style, or Substance?

Style, or Substance?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who sits on a couple of Boards, as do I (besides Return Path’s).  We ended up in a conversation about some challenges one of his Boards is having with their CEO, and the question to some extent boiled down to this:  a Board is responsible for hiring/firing the CEO and for being the guardians of shareholder value, but what does a Board do when it doesn’t like the CEO’s style?

There are lots of different kinds of CEOs and corporate cultures.  Some are command-and-control, others are more open, flat, and transparent.  I like to think I and Return Path are the latter, and of course my bias is that that kind of culture leads to a more successful company.  But I’ve worked in environments that are the former, and, while less fun and more stressful, they can also produce very successful outcomes for shareholders and for employees as well.

So what do you do as a Board member if you don’t like the way a CEO operates, even if the company is doing well?  I find myself very conflicted on the topic, and I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with it myself as an outside Board member.  I certainly wouldn’t want to work in an organization again that had what I consider to be a negative, pace-setting environment, but is it the Board’s role to shape the culture of a company?  Here are some specific questions, which probably fall on a spectrum:

Is it grounds for removal if you think the company could be doing better with a different style leader at the helm?  Probably not.

Is it fair to expect a leader to change his or her style just because the Board doesn’t like it?  Less certain, but also probably not.

Is it fair to give a warning or threaten removal if the CEO’s style begins to impact performance, say, by driving out key employees or stifling innovation?  Probably.

Is it fair to give feedback and coaching?  Absolutely.

This is one of those very situation-specific topics, but probably a good one for others to weigh in on.  I do come back to the question of whether it is part of a Board’s role to shape the culture of a company.  Is that just style…or is it substance?

May 142004

Who’s The Boss?

That’s not just the title of a mediocre 1980′s sitcom starring Tony Danza, it’s a question I get periodically, including last week in an interview. A writer I know is working on an article on entrepreneurship and asked me, “Before you started your own business, how did you like working for other people?”

The question made me think a little bit. I know what she was asking — how I liked being the boss instead of working for one — but the way she phrased it is interesting and revealing about what it’s like to be a CEO. One of the biggest differences between being in a company and starting or running one is that you’re not working for a person, you’re working for many people.

As CEO of the company, I work for a Board and shareholders, I work for our customers, and I work for our employees. That’s how I approach the job, anyway.

Return Path’s Board of Directors is my boss, even though I’m one of the people on it. I report to the Board, and the Board is responsible for hiring and (hopefully not) firing the CEO, so technically, that’s my boss. The Board is also made up (for small private companies, anyway) of representatives of our biggest shareholders. As the main owners of the business, they are concerned with the growth, profitability, and overall health of the company, and they want to make sure we are building shareholder value day in, day out. That’s one very important perspective for me to have every day.

But I also work for our customers. I have to see myself as serving them — and more important, I have to steer the organization to believe that our customers are at the top of our food chain. If I do, then things will go well in the business. We will have the right products in the market at the right time to bring in new accounts. We will have a tremendous service delivery organization that wows customers and keeps them coming back for more. We will beat out our competition any day of the week. We will keep people paying our bills!

Most important, though, I work for our employees. This is very simple. An organization thrives because the people who make it up come to work inspired, focused, and productive. When they don’t, it doesn’t. I can’t wave a wand and make everyone happy all the time, but I try to focus a significant part of my time on making sure this is a great work environment; that the managers and executives are religiously focused on developing, managing, and motivating their teams; and that we’re doing a good job of communicating our mission, our values, and why each person’s job is important to the cause. This one’s the hardest of the three to get right, but it’s worth the effort.

Certainly, I don’t respond to each of my “bosses” every day as I would a direct supervisor, but in the long haul, I have to balance out the needs and interests of all three constituencies in order to have the organization be successful.

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