Help Us Help You: The importance of board re-education

Here are three simple truths about your board of directors:

  1. We don’t understand your business as well as we once did
  2. We don’t understand it as well as we should
  3. We don’t understand it as well as you want us to

As a founder and/or CEO, you’re living and breathing your business 24/7. You know it inside and out, all of its nooks and crannies, the things that make it special and the things that are less than special. As the business has gone through various twists and turns, you’ve had your hands on the wheel every second, sometimes not even realizing that a long, gradual turn has led you down a materially different trajectory. As someone who’s sat on dozens of boards over the past 15 years, here’s one trap I want to warn you of:

Don’t assume that your board members are up to speed.

In fact, you should assume the exact opposite, and therefore make it a priority to continually re-educate us on your mission, your strategy, your messaging and what it is that makes your business so unique. Remind us why we invested in the first place.

Because here’s the thing: Board members - be they VC board members or active operating executives - are busy people with tons of balls in the air at any given moment. We run our own businesses, we evaluate hundreds of others, we sit on several boards at once, and we’re constantly running in 100 different directions. On the day we joined your board, we were all fresh off a detailed diligence process that got us totally dialed in on - and excited by - the details of your business. But we are not members of your company, and we’re not living and breathing it with anywhere near the intensity that you are. Since that original diligence process, we’ve been paying attention and continually learning, for sure. But for most board members, that intensity isn’t at the same level of detail that it was in those earliest days. That’s not a good thing, nor is it the right thing, but you’ve got to accept that it’s almost always a thing.

“But nothing’s changed!” you say. “There’s been no strategic pivot, no major shift in the marketplace, the unit economics are similar, we haven’t changed our ideal customer profile.” And that’s where you’re wrong. Businesses, especially startups, are necessarily in a constant state of evolution - often in subtle ways that you may not recognize, living so close to the business as you do. Remember when you were a kid and every six months Grandma would say, “My how you’ve grown!” That’s what being a board member is often like. Given those subtle, gradual shifts, if you’re not careful, come board meeting time you may find yourself with some confused glances around the table.

This is a scenario that can be easily avoided by making it a top priority to routinely re-educate your board members on your business. Any misalignment there could result in serious implications on the quality of feedback and input you get from your board, and worse still, it can lead your board members to be flawed ambassadors of your business in the marketplace. You may think we have our story straight when we’re bragging about you to potential customers and future investors, but if left uninformed, we’re likely to get something wrong. Like it or not, like so many things in your business, it’s up to you to make sure this doesn’t happen.

How and when you do this re-educating is a personal choice, but I would encourage you to establish some sort of regular cadence throughout the year. This can take the form of a quick email prior to a board meeting with your updated talking points/elevator pitch, or maybe taking the time twice per year to actually re-pitch the business to your board. Exactly how you do this is less important than why: Your board members and your investors are amongst your best ambassadors and evangelists in the marketplace. We can and want to help you make the best decisions for your business. But to do those things effectively, we need to know how to talk about you, how you’re pitching the business, what’s resonating with your audience and - most importantly - what’s changing. It’s your job to bring us up to speed on those points, and if you think you’ve told us enough, tell us one more time. After all, over-communication is a vastly superior (and less risky) alternative to flawed decision processes and miscommunication in the market.

 

Brad Svrluga