09/29/21 | Founders, Leadership

How a Board Can Support Founder & CEO Success

Frequently, founder’s and CEO’s focus on the “oversight” function of their Board, and miss the opportunity to learn and grow with the support of their Board. As a serial entrepreneur, Corporate Director and CEO Coach, I am not only a CEO of an AI software company, but I also talk with a lot of entrepreneurs and CEOs. It has become clear to me that Boards of Directors and Advisors are an enormous, untapped resource for most entrepreneurs.

I see consistent attitudes about Boards that limit CEO success. For example, I’ve heard CEOs say things like “the Board is looking for me to fail” or “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.” Some CEOs feel adversarial with their Board, particularly if some Board members are investors and therefore feel reluctant to ask for advice or admit to weakness or ‘not knowing’. However, Board members, and particularly investors, are actually evaluating entrepreneurs and CEOs on their ability to learn. One way they can tell you are a learning CEO, is if you ask for insights and thoughts.

Your Board wants you to succeed

Almost by definition, anyone who has joined your Board, whether Corporate or Advisory, already believes in you and your vision and wants you to succeed. Your Board members are almost always experienced executives and leaders with a lot of lessons learned in their own careers.

It’s important to know that anyone who’s had any board training has been cautioned that THEY are not the executive and they’re not supposed to jump in and try and do your job. They want to respect your right to make decisions, and to make mistakes. Therefore, they will wait to be asked before they offer you help, but they’re anxious to help if asked!

So, why wouldn’t you ask them for their help and insights?

How can you invite your board to support you?

Here are some suggested actions you can take as a founder or CEO to invite the help and feedback from your Board Members. These actions can make all the difference in your success!

1) Invite your Directors to add questions/discussion items to the next board meeting agenda that you and your management team respond to or that the Board discusses together. These may be “big picture” or tactical, but their input to the agenda engages all of their expertise on your behalf!

2) Individually schedule a one on one discussion with each Director who joins your Board. Spend the time to get to know them and develop a rapport with each of them. This becomes priceless in the case of crisis or difficulty or tremendous opportunity. It opens the door to candid conversations over time.

3) Be deliberate about seeking mentorship and advice from your Directors. Ask them what you can do to improve and ask them for any weaknesses in your leadership that they detect. Further, ask them to share their experiences (hardest, funniest, most complex, failures) that may benefit you and the management team. Individual calls with your Directors over the year is a good time for this.

4) As the relationships develop and your management team matures, consider partnering Directors with management team members to develop mutual learning opportunities. Board members learn more about the business, and senior management team members get one on one exposure to the Board.

Using Board/Advisory meetings to get richer insights from Members

As part of the Board agenda, distributed in advance of meetings, pose big picture questions to your Board members. Invite their perspective on these and other important questions. One such discussion topic per Board meeting is usually about right. Some example questions might include:

  • What are the biggest risks “out there” they’re watching?
  • Are there problems that they think you (management team) are ignoring or haven’t thought of?
  • Identify issues the management team is working on that Board members think are more urgent than management does?
  • What needs to be discussed that isn’t being addressed?
  • How does the company culture measure up and what areas of culture, including DEI, are they concerned about?
  • Management Team: Are you getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus? Are there areas of weakness in the management team that need to be addressed?
  • Where is potential white space the management team may be overlooking?
  • How is the world changing in ways that may affect the business?
  • Are there other strategic opportunities the company should be considering? Are there strategic initiatives that the Board does not see bearing fruit and that should be re-evaluated?
  • Where are other company blind spots?
  • Are there regulatory or other legal changes or issues that are emerging that can affect the business?

Welcome questions from your Board

Great Board members will come to your meetings with their own questions. Of course, if you’re inviting them to add them to your agenda, you may already know what they are! I received powerful advice from an experienced Director – as a Board Member, come to every Board meeting with two thought provoking questions. Great Board members will bring questions, thoughts and comments. Don’t assume that these are “gotcha’s”, but rather opportunities to learn and share. Be ready to respond to them non-defensively. If you don’t have answers, use them as an opportunity to expand the Board discussion at the next meeting. Of course, make sure you follow through.

Welcome the experience of your Board Members to help you succeed

You don’t have to take all the advice of your Board Members, you’re still the founder and/or CEO. But if you’re open to listening to their experience and insights, you’ll accelerate your own learning and growth and dramatically expand your likelihood of success.

You can visit my blog to hear a podcast where I discuss how to “Get the Most Value From Your Board” for additional insights.

Nicole Davis

Nicole Davis

Nicole Toomey Davis is Co-Founder & CEO of Enclavix, a corporate director (Board Member), serial entrepreneur, innovator, entrepreneur coach and mentor, professional speaker and the President and CEO of AI-software company Enclavix, LLC, and Co-Creator of the VentureWrench Startup Coaching Platform.

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