4 min read
Tips for finding and managing your board
Until last month Disney CEO Bob Iger had sat on Apple’s board since 2011, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is a member of Facebook’s board (until he leaves in 2020), and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was on Disney’s board until 2017.
The question is: while the allure of joining a board like Apple’s is obvious, how does an early-stage company attract and find people who are of the right fit? And, once that’s achieved, what do founders need to know when it comes to managing them?
As Simon Calver, former LOVEFiLM CEO and ex-chair of Chemist Direct and Moo.com notes in Upscale: the book, founders, “Should think about the sorts of skills and experience they’ll need on the journey they’re about to embark upon, and how the board can help them on that journey.”
Being seen and heard
One way to attract a non-executive (or other) board member is to make sure that your business is known and visible in its local ecosystem. After speaking at an event at Cranfield University, Leeds-based Maiden Voyage founder Carolyn Pearson was approached by business angel Tony Rice, who invested £500,000 in the company and joined the business as chairman.
“We’re well connected and we’ve got a great brand within the industry so I find I can reach out to somebody and say ‘can we meet for a coffee’ and 99 per cent of the time they say yes,” says Pearson.
Being better connected increases the chances of luring board members with skills and experience that founding teams lack. That was the strategy for We Build Bots, an early-stage chatbot company from Wales.
“I’m supported by my management team which includes our CTO and CIO,” says CEO Paul Shepherd. “The team blends strong strategic, operational and technical skills and is supported by an advisory board which has great experience of founding, building, corporatising and exiting businesses in the UK and USA.”
Of course, attracting people who are the right fit won’t come so easy for every founder. Sam Chapman, Chief Innovation Officer at Sheffield-based The Floow, says that companies need to demonstrate a clear plan and communicate their offering to maximise their chances.
“To get a board that’s good, strong and powerful, you need to have a good, strong and powerful proposition,” he says. “If you’re trying to structure that at the beginning of a company formation, think about the fact that you’re going to bring in more people – and have a plan for doing that.”
“If you’re trying to structure a board at the beginning of a company formation, think about the fact that you’re going to bring in more people – and have a plan for doing that.”
– Sam Chapman, The Floow
“When you get bigger, you don’t want roadblocks such as existing people complaining that their power is being diluted,” he adds. “For us, the best way to maintain control is by remaining management-owned. We don’t have external pressures advising us to exit in so many years – we have full flexibility to drive the company in a way that’s sensible for the market.”
It’s also worth thinking about where the business will be in two or three years’ time, explains managing director of Sheffield-based Azzure IT Craig Such, whose first two board hires were focused on strategy and sales respectively.
“It’s about recruiting for the business we want to be – we’re a fast-growing company in the tech sector, and our landscape is changing very quickly,” says Such. “When we brought in our non-exec, his previous experience was with a business two or three times our size at the time, so the experience and knowledge he could add to our meetings was what we needed to continue our rapid growth.”
Going for goals
Simon Swan, founder of recruitment platform Hiring Hub, took on his first non-executive directors in 2010 when the business received investment. With no executive background, Swan was looking for board members who had experience of growing online companies, customer acquisition, operations and marketing expertise.
“We were less focused on them coming from recruitment businesses, more that they were good operators that could help us scale the business and get to the next milestone,” says Swan, who likens assembling a board to picking a football team. “You pick your striker, goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders and, like a good coach, you reconfigure the team every now and then to make sure it’s optimised.”
Cheshire-based Valuechain holds an annual board review every September, which founder Tom Dawes has discovered is one way to make difficult conversations less awkward.
Notable retirees in the industry can provide a wealth of experience, and won’t be afraid of (constructively) ruffling a few feathers, should a founder be able to act quick enough to bring them onboard. Newcastle’s Hedgehog Lab, which is aided by its investors when seeking board members, was successful in bringing onboard Bob Parton, the retired managing director of Accenture’s Newcastle Delivery Centre, as an NED.
“He had brutal honesty and he challenged us over some of our decisions, because sometimes we were so caught up in our own heads thinking everything was perfect,” says Sara Pediredla, the company’s CEO. “There was also the chance for newly appointed senior managers to receive mentoring so they were able to drive the business forward.”
Of course, once you have your board, it requires managing from time-to-time. Seedcamp has compiled a handy list of actions to undertake when preparing for, hosting and following-up board meetings.
Writing in Upscale, Calver suggests having a board meeting every other month, giving board updates inbetween meetings over the phone or by sending out metrics or information packs to fuel conversation when the board meets.
“It’s amazing how quickly monthly board meetings come around,” he says. “And actually, you can end up not focusing on some of the key issues facing the business when they’re too frequent. I’m not necessarily arguing that ‘less is best’ when it comes to board meetings, rather that it’s more a question of finding the rhythm that works best for you.”
Azzure IT’s Craig Such suggests taking an agile approach to ensure that the company’s core values and culture trickles down from the board into the business. In a presentation on managing a startup board, Upfront Ventures partner Mark Suster suggests an alternative to the traditional “waterfall board” where founders treat boards as administration functions that solely receive quarterly updates.
Instead, he suggests a “continuous board” approach, which involves more frequent interactions and allows board members to call, text or email at any time for quick input to iterate on ideas and correct course over time.
There’s no right or wrong way to manage a board, but there’s certainly best practices to follow. Why not join the discussion on Founders Network at #talent_hr to find out how your peers go about the challenge?