Or I would fill board decks with pages and pages of details – making sure that we spent so much time in the meeting going through the materials that the opportunity for free form discussion or dialogue never materialized.
Of note, I wasn’t doing this on purpose or to hide anything – rather I just didn’t know how to get much from my board. As a result, I was either giving them too much or too little information, so by default the meetings were never really that constructive.
And while I would get through the meetings just fine, I NEVER realized I was “keeping my board in the dark and covered in shit.” AND yet I found myself feeling more and more frustrated after every meeting. I wanted more insights from the people who were most likely to help me look around the corners I hadn’t seen before. But I just didn’t know how to get what I needed from my board.
And while I understand (FULLY!) how painful it can be to deal with annoying, boastful, arrogant, know-everything board members (I better stop now), I did ultimately learn how to get the best out of my board without wasting huge cycles to do so.
For this lesson I owe a debt of gratitude to one of my best board members, Bruce Dunlevie, founding partner of Benchmark Capital, the preeminent Venture Capital firm in Silicon Valley. When Bruce first joined my board, I was consistently making the “too much information” mistake I described above – frankly giving my board too many details and hoping they would – from the same minutiae I had scoured – divine some nugget of information that I had not yet gleaned myself.
After one particularly frustrating board meeting, Bruce called me to give me some incredibly sage advice.
Bruce could see what was happening from a mile away – because HE HAD seen so many other Entrepreneurs fall into this trap – and he could emphasize with me and my effort to deal with a powerful board. And, like any good board member is apt to do, Bruce asked me a couple of simple questions that changed my perspective completely:
“Mike, does anyone on the board know as much as you do about your business? Seriously – how big is the gap between what you know about the operations versus what the board even understands about the business. Have you taken this gap into consideration when building the board agenda and supporting materials?”
As I reflected on this question, I quickly reminded myself that I spent close to 80 hours (at least) A WEEK thinking about my business – while my average board member thinks about the same topic for 40 hours A YEAR (at best).
This is a huge discrepancy, and noticing this delta is probably the most important realization for any entrepreneur when thinking about how to manage a board, set an appropriate agenda, or build a compelling board deck. Simply put: don’t attempt to get your board up to the same level of understanding as yours. Rather, use this gap to your advantage.
WHAT BRUCE DUNLEVIE TAUGHT ME: MIND THE GAP
The first step here is a mindset shift. Once you have made this shift and stop trying to get your board to the same level of understanding that you have about your business, you will change both the context and content you use in your board communication. By setting the right agenda and developing a board package that is good mix of key operational updates AND open-ended strategic discussion, you’ll be amazed at how much more you can get from your board in very short order.
WHAT BILL CAMPBELL TAUGHT ME: THE BOARD AIN’T YOUR BOSS
Another mistake I made along my journey was giving my board too much input on the operations of the business. This is a pretty common mistake and is more prevalent with first-time entrepreneurs, especially those who have raised institutional capital from a PE or VC firm where the relationship between capital provider and entrepreneur is still being cemented.
The mistake here is to give your board too much credit – assuming the members know more than you do – or assuming that their suggestions must be followed to a fault.
One of my early mentors was the legendary Bill Campbell. He was on the board at Loudcloud / Opsware, and I was fortunate to stay in contact with him and get his input from time to time during my journey.