Couchbase is on a mission to empower enterprises to develop, deploy, and maintain their mission-critical applications by delivering a high-performance, flexible and scalable modern database. Today the company listed on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol “BASE.” I sat down with Couchbase President and CEO Matt Cain to get a little more insight into how leadership and culture paved the way for Couchbase’s journey to IPO.
Congratulations on Couchbase becoming a public company! What role do you think culture plays in a company’s success?
I believe that the foundation of any leading company is its world-class team, a combination of industry leading talent and a set of values that enables those people to do the best and most fulfilling work in their careers. Culture is the product of those values in action, and leaders must be the stewards of ensuring the company is living consistently with them. When it comes to teamwork and communication, I have tried to create as many opportunities as I can to ask what’s working, what’s not working, and where the team needs help. At Couchbase our culture is a sustainable competitive advantage as we attract, develop and retain the highly-skilled talent necessary to execute on our business growth strategies. The leadership team and I work relentlessly to make Team Couchbase feel valued so they can then work together to create value for our customers, partners and shareholders.
Describe your leadership style and approach as CEO.
Several early-life experiences shaped my approach to leadership. First, my parents raised me with strong Midwestern values. I also developed a love and passion for teamwork and collective goals through competitive team sports. And going through a Jesuit education reinforced the concept of leveraging your talents to make the world a better place and act as a “person for others.” Roll all of these together and you get a servant leadership style with an emphasis on teamwork. I’m about the “extreme ownership” and “servant leadership” philosophies to drive the best results while building a culture that is durable– and wins. In this model, the leaders are ultimately responsible, but teams make the difference. My goal has always been to build, reinforce, and model a culture of openness, transparency, and trust that delivers results. And we have to have fun along the way!
Couchbase was founded in 2011 and you came on board in 2017 as a first time CEO. What was that like, stepping into a new role to lead a company?
So one of our company values is Attack Hard Problems, and that’s sort of the approach I took head on when I arrived at Couchbase. I think there’s a razor-thin edge that elite performers must balance between self-confidence, or a willingness to try new things, and humility, or knowing that you will get things wrong. With this mindset and when facing challenging times as a leader, I try to stay calm and work through things as a team. I also try to remember that I’m in service of others, like employees, customers, partners, and shareholders, to derive motivation to work through hard things. I can’t fix problems I don’t know about, so I work hard to maintain a genuine connection with as many of our team members and possible. As an example, in my first 100 days I committed to setting up at least 100 meetings with employees, customers, investors, partners, vendors and analysts to listen and learn. I’m a true believer that people can do amazing things when they work together and put the team first. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished so far as a company, and I think you can see some of that reflected in things like our Glassdoor rating and also in our business results which allowed us to become a public company today.
What advice would you give another CEO as they begin to prepare for the IPO process?
Surround yourself with a world-class team. No one person can go through this rigorous process alone– it really does take a tremendous amount of teamwork and collaboration. Invest in your people and your culture because at the end of the day, the results the team delivers are what are going to help position the business to go public. That and get ready for the grind! In all seriousness, it really does require a super talented team to pull it all off. I’m grateful for the team’s continued dedication and passion for our business, even in the face of a global health crisis. It inspires me every day.
Congratulations again to Matt and the entire Couchbase team on their IPO, which marks the latest milestone in our decade long journey – looking forward to all that is to come.
Led by former Nutanix co-founder and CEO Dheeraj Pandey, the startup’s investors include Mayfield Fund and Khosla Ventures.
In this session in partnership with Him For Her and Neythri, Navin joins Rashida Hodge, Board Director at Misty Robotics, and Roli Saxena, Board Director at Culture Amp, to share real-word experiences of the firsts in the boardroom — the challenges and opportunities, successes and regrets, and tips for those who find themselves in similar situations.
So just to let you know, we are recording today’s session, and that’s for the people who wanted to be here and who couldn’t be here, because I know it’s going to be an amazing conversation and the people who aren’t here are going to want to hear this recording. So, first of all, welcome to everyone who’s choosing to be here today, who’s logged in, familiar faces and new faces alike. Welcome, Navin. Welcome, Rashida. And welcome, Roli, and just a huge thank you for sharing your time and your stories.
So for those of you who may not know me, my name is Jocelyn Mangan. I am the founder and CEO of Him For Her. And we exist because we saw an opportunity to help accelerate the pace of change in the boardroom. As we sit here today, only one in five directors of public companies is a woman, and in our study of the most highly funded private companies, almost half of those boards are still all men with only 3% having a woman of color. So we have a lot of work to do. And yet the reason is pretty simple, is that people tend to find their board members in their personal networks. And so we exist really to help close what we’ve seen as a network gap, and we do it in several ways. We actually host small, curated conversations. We as education events like today. We also provide curated referrals for board openings for free.
Today’s topic is one that is near and dear to my heart, maybe to many others here on the call, which is the concept of being the only. And there are numerous ways of being only. Gender’s one of them. There’s race, ethnicity, country of origin. There’s also the only independent or the only operator on the board, which might also have all investors. But each of our speakers has found herself or himself as an only in countless rooms throughout their career. They’re here to talk to us about that today. And our focus is really on that experience. We’re using only because it conveys some of the challenges associated with bringing your voice to the boardroom. But our mission is really to ensure that you’re not the only for long and that you’re actually the first.
So with that, warm welcome to everyone. I’m going to kick it off with you, Navin. So Navin, you came to the US from India to get your graduate degree at Stanford. Went on to become a successful serial entrepreneur turned venture investor who’s been on the Forbes Midas list 13 times. And grateful to call you a supporter of our organization, a champion, a leader in the space, and one of the best storytellers I’ve heard. So really excited to have you here today. But you’ve also served on dozens of boards throughout this experience. Can you tell us about a time when you felt like the only in the room and what unique perspective were you able to contribute?
Absolutely. Let me first thank you and my fellow panelists. It’s going to be a fun panel and would love to make this as interactive as we can. So to your question, where I have felt being the only in the room, actually is not only true for me, but I find it often, and it’s at every board meeting that one of the board members is the only, if you will, where they have a different perspective than others. And it happens when you’re not in sync with what others are seeing, and you’re probably seeing something they haven’t been able to think through. And it doesn’t just happen to me. It happens with everybody.
So, and at that time, you don’t know whether your thinking is right, but it’s different. So what do you do? Your style needs to be authentic and practice radical candor, where you let people know you care deeply, but do you want to challenge them. And this is where I would say your influence skills come to work, where you move the conversation to a constructive discussion rather than criticism and help people, each one of you, get to the right conclusion. And you do that by framing questions, not giving your answer, and getting into listening more when you ask those questions on, are people looking at the situation the same way or in a different way? And what ends up happening is, when you do that, everybody opens up. They’re not guarded. The feeling is, Hey, how do we move the puck forward if we are not in sync?
And the first you need to do is, let’s just be on the same page on how much time they have for this topic. If we think we can get closure at this board meeting, great. If not, essentially what you end up asking for is a followup meeting where you do it as a group. Yes, you can have one-on-one conversations, but you arrange a follow-up meeting where you can reach consensus and not stall things. And this happens especially in cases where companies trying to change strategy, or somebody says they needs to be profitable, but then somebody says, “Hey, grow at all costs.” And that’s where I think one needs to have the balance. But you need to lean a lot into how the founders and managers are thinking and really get your thoughts on the table. Because at the end of the day, they are the ones in the trenches who are doing the work every day.
So that’s what I would say, right? When you see a disconnect, when you feel you or anyone is in the room, just raise your hand and call it, and encourage people to engage in a dialogue and a constructive dialogue where the aim is, how do we get to the right solution? So that’s the role I end up playing often. And for that, you need to be an active listener and see the body language and just facilitate that, whether you have a different perspective or somebody else has a different perspective. So those are some of the things that come to my mind on what I’ve seen done by myself and others at board meetings.
Thank you, Navin. Rashida, so you credit your childhood in St. Thomas being raised by teenage parents for instilling in you the curiosity and the intentionality that’s propelled you your entire life. You were recently, and congratulations, appointed to the board of Misty Robotics. Tell us more about how your upbringing shows up in the work you do, especially in the boardroom at Misty.
Yeah, I think … I mean, look, absolutely. My upbringing continues to play a big role in everything that I do. I mean, when you grow up on an island that is 32 square miles, there’s an intimacy of listening, learning, and nurturing a perspective that is really important, particularly always recognizing that where you start is not where you finish. And so open up those thoughts and perspectives to the reality of what’s really important from a business perspective, but also assessing the character of individuals, which is something that I was really grounded with growing up, has really has been important to me and is certainly a point of reference that I reflect upon in everything that I do, including Misty.
If I look at the Misty board, it’s really been an opportunity for me to be able to provide a lens and perspective of how something as innovative like robots can be used and in what spaces. We’re talking about a technology that we want to be used in offices and homes. Thinking about that from a variety of use cases, a variety of different people, a variety of demographics, really changes the conversation. So I feel in those instances, I bring a different lens to the conversation just based on the life, one, that I’ve lived, and second of all, the sense of perseverance that I’ve also lived through a society that, quite frankly, said that I would fail and be nothing because my parents were teenagers.
And one may say like, “Well, what does that have to do with a board at Misty?” Right? I mean, Misty is still a growing company, a venture-backed Series A company. So I characterize it to Biggie Smalls, right? Biggie Smalls, a rapper, says, “Treat everything like it’s your first project.” And so bringing that lens and that perseverance and that strength to say that, “No, there is an option. Have we assessed all of our options?” And assessing every challenge like it is your first project is a test of character. It’s a test of will. It’s a test of approach. Not necessarily always the test of the balance sheet, but something that is important when you’re dealing with companies like Misty that is truly innovative and still in the early stages of forming.
Yeah. Thank you for that. And Roli, congratulations on your recent appointment, President of AdRoll and partner at Neythri Futures Fund. You also serve on the board of Culture Amp. So tell us a story of how you became appointed to the Culture Amp board.
Yeah, no, it’s a fun story. Early in 2018, as I was leaving Lever, which was a education technology company, to really spend time with my daughter, she was a junior in high school and I knew I had only a couple of years left before she headed out to college. I was leaving there and mentioned it to a couple of my friends in the network that, “Hey, if you come across an interesting company that I could just sort of help them and be available as a sounding board, let me know.”
Sure enough, you let your network know, and interesting opportunities come your way. And one of my networks actually introduced me to the CEO of Culture Amp, who at that time was really starting to think about scaling his go to market strategy. And so for me, I was familiar with the company, I was familiar with what they did, and I was a huge fan of what their product was, which is they’re really in this space of employee engagement and performance management. I’d seen that work really well at LinkedIn, which is where I spent about six years prior to being at Lever, and saw the power of what great culture can do. And so, yeah, so I jumped at the opportunity and said, “Yes, I’m all in. Let’s set up a meeting with Didier and let’s go from there.”
So it really just started off with me just offering my time to really help think through some of the go to market strategy for them. They were very early stage. They were at about sub 20 million in revenue and thinking about how to scale that. We ended up spending like several hours sort of just discussing questions, like what Navin said, which is like, “Hey, by the way, my board’s saying we should really be growing at all costs. What do you think? How do I think about this? My board said go hire a CRO at this level. And what do you think? How does this fit in?” So many of those conversations, and providing what I didn’t know at that point was providing a unique perspective to what the board was saying, led to Didier at the end of it saying, “Hey, you know what? We hadn’t really thought about adding an independent board member, but we love to find a way for you to get involved.” And so very organically is how that conversation led to the board position.
Yeah. That’s a great story. And you’ve also mentioned publicly that as both an introvert and a woman of color, it’s important to you that you feel like you belong, which was one of your considerations in joining NextRoll. So how did you assess that when you were joining or considering joining the board of Culture Amp?
Yeah, no, it’s a great question. I think for someone like me, it was wonderful to just start building that relationship with Didier first. Right? So having that intimate set of conversation where we really aligned on what the values for the company are, what the mission alignment was. We aligned on the problems that he was trying to solve for and how we worked through those problems together. I think that was very unique, where you actually are really having an intellectual conversation and you sort of, at the end of it, realize that not everything that I’m proposing is something that they will implement.
It was almost sort of a great place for me to reframe my mindset as an operator saying, “Hey, by the way, you should do X, Y, Z. And this is how we should do it,” to a place where I was like, “Have you considered looking at this?” Sort of open-ended questions. So the fact that it actually worked really well, that chemistry was really strong, was one. The second one is just spending a lot of time with the rest of the management team and the rest of the board. So for me, this was my first board role. One of the things that I wanted to make sure was the dynamic around the board table was one that felt constructive, where I felt like I could belong and be able to provide a perspective that is valued and considered. Doesn’t mean it is implemented. And so all of those conversations were really, really good and it just felt the right place to be.
Great. Thank you for that. So obviously, as more companies look to bring diversity on their boards, we often hear women that we work with in our network, they’re wary that perhaps they might be seen as a token. Right? And so Rashida, I believe you’re not only the first independent, you’re the first woman, first female, first person of color on the Misty Robotics board. I’m right about that, yes?
Yep. You are right. Trifecta of it all.
It’s a trifecta of all of it. So as you evaluated that opportunity to join the board, how did you ensure you were being recruited for your expertise and your potential contribution?
Yeah. I mean, this is a really good question. And as I talk to others about boards, it’s something that I deal with all the time, I refer it to dating. I think evaluating a board is like dating. It’s like, while you may want the union, you’re super excited about a potential union, I think taking a step back and listening to what you are hearing in the process is really critical so that you have a clear view on intentions and motives. Growing up, my mom always taught me that everyone has a motive. It could be good, it could be bad or it could be indifferent, and it’s really up to you to determine the totality of those motives. So ultimately, I think assessing that, getting an understanding for that through listening, truly listening and hearing, not dismissing what you’ve heard through the excitement and really understanding where the board is, what we’re really looking for, where do you fit into that is really important. And then you deciding if you’re willing to be in that space or not. I think in some cases, knowing the intentions are not aligned, but using it as an opportunity to say, look, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to drive change, that can work, right?
I mean, there’s sort of this notion that if you’re not in the space, you can’t make changes, so it’s good to have a seat at the table so that you can influence that. But I think it’s a balance that you have to make, right? And to really ensure that if either the initial intentions are not there, that there is space to get in alignment where you can drive change and you can drive evolution of the board. And also you have a clear understanding of the character of the board as well, and that can evolve because if it becomes just you and you only and you’re not able to bring others along and you’re not able to change sort of the character and the persona of that board, then ultimately you really didn’t make a difference at the end of the day. But I would also say on the flip side, don’t go where you don’t belong.
Kind of like what Roli said, right? Like she felt in her instance like she belonged. If you don’t feel like you belong, then that’s not a space for you, and it’s okay. There will be other opportunities and you wait for the opportunity where you feel a sense of belonging. And I’ve had interviews where I knew I was the token, like I can feel it, I can smell it, I can sense it. And in those moments, I think it’s also important to not be afraid to call those instances out in a very constructive way because I think it’s also an opportunity to use it as a learning and a teaching moment for those individuals, because I think it’s important for us to teach people how to treat us. And so a lot of times when talking to folks, they just kind of walk away and say, oh, I was the token person and they say, “Well, did you let them know that you felt that way?” And they’re like, “No. I didn’t want to mess up the next thing.”
And my view is, you want to do that. You want to do it constructively, but you also want to let them know how you made them feel, right? Because it could maybe not have been their intention, but if it was their intention and that’s where they’re aligned, they need to know that you’re willing to stand up, take a stance and to be one to check them on it so that they can improve. Because if no one does, we’re never going to make progress.
Yeah. And it’s such a good point too, about really making sure that it’s an opportunity that you want and that you feel welcome in and not just jumping at the first one, because there’s lots of opportunities out there for all the people on the call. Navin, so you’ve worked with countless companies, as we know. I’m sure you’ve seen them add their first independent many, many times, and certainly some companies approach the process of sourcing and vetting and onboarding more successfully than others. Also hear this from our network, various tales of onboarding. But can you give us some do’s and don’ts when it comes to bringing on an independent and what should companies, what are some of the things they should do, but also what are some of the things they should not do?
Absolutely. I think first of all, I wholeheartedly agree with what Rashida and Roli just mentioned. I think where it starts from is why do you need an independent board member? So you need to get the board, the management on the same page. Why do you need one? And when you’re on the same page, why you need one, I think one should list down the qualities you’re looking for in that independent board member, because then it’s not a place holder, it’s really somebody who’s input you want to value and they’re going to be additive. For example, some of the things which come to mind in the companies which have been successful in getting the right independent board members, first and foremost, they start with looking for alignment with their company mission, values and culture, because that’s the most important thing. What companies will do, it can keep changing.
So you want people who are aligned with you, you’re going to enjoy working with them. Then you ask the question, hey, what functional expertise do they bring to the table? Are they bringing something on the finance side, so they can be heading the finance or the audit committee? Do they have a sales background? Do they have a marketing background? Have they been a former CEO? Or what do they bring to the table that is missing with this board? Because all my board members initially might just be investors, right? Then you try to make sure with them that they’re willing to spend the time. As was mentioned earlier, that if it’s not a token, then you need to reciprocate. Are you going to make this board a top priority? Yes, you’ll have a job that you’re doing, but on the outside activities, how important this is.
So I think those are some of the things come to mind where you get on the same page on why you need an independent board member. Look at the qualities you need, and then you look for some other characteristics in these independent board members. First and foremost, you need to get people who are going to be authentic, right? They’re going to bring their perspectives forward and you look for diversity in their experiences, in their growing up, in their thought process, and bring on people who are going to invest in long-term relationships rather than looking for a short-term relationship and a win. And those are some of the things, right? Like I would say, and the companies which succeed spend a lot of time on onboarding these new board members. And first and foremost, they spend time in building relationships with them. So it’s not only the CEO who does that, it’s the management team, it’s the board members.
If just the CEO wants to bring you in and rest of the board is not spending time with you, it’s a red flag. You have to spend time with them to understand, make them understand your business and your team, what’s going well, what’s not going well. Share the board decks for the last two to three years, let them go read them and then listen actively to what they have to say and encourage them to bring their thoughts to the table. So I think some of the things which have succeeded are the ones I mentioned right now. And one has to just come in with an open mind of what you’re getting into and be ready to accept another board member.
Thank you for that. And before I ask the next question, just a reminder to the audience, we may have time for questions at the end. We have a lot of content today, and I thank you for submitting the questions you submitted in the RSVPs, which hopefully we’re covering. But if you have additional questions, just throw them in the chat and we’ll try to get to them. But a few of our guests, this is for Rashida, submitted questions about finding allies on the board. How have you built relationships with your fellow board members? I have some follow-up questions, but let’s start with that one.
Yeah. I mean, I think building relationships on the board is like building relationships just in life or in your job. And so I don’t think that it’s particularly different than you would do as you’re starting a new job or anything like that. But I think it’s something that you have to spend time to do. When I joined the Misty board, it was in the heart of the pandemic. So my entire interview process, all of my board meetings have been remote over Zoom. So I haven’t even met my fellow board members in person. But I took the opportunity to put time on the calendar to have get-to-know-you sessions, like how I would probably normally do if we were having a board meeting and we were meeting for dinner and just talked and got to know each other. Reached out getting prepared for my first couple of board meetings, just to kind of get context and perspective since I wasn’t there.
Taking the opportunity to follow up maybe on perspectives that one of my fellow board members said in the meeting that I didn’t necessarily want to use the meeting for to ask those questions, but get perspective and thoughts on them on, tell me a little bit more about your perspective, your thoughts, what has happened. And those naturally led into other conversations. In some cases, it led into one of the board members saying, “I’d love for you to kind of talk to one of my other portfolio companies about go to market. One of my portfolio companies is doing some really interesting things in AI and can you just kind of listen to them.” Or even saying, “Hey, I have another portfolio company that’s looking for a board position. Do you want to come in and sit in as an absorber and see if this is an opportunity for you?” And so I think in that just get-to-know-you process, just making it kind of like Navin said, being yourself, right?
I think I was just myself. I reached out naturally, I took the time, I took the effort, I carved out the time to be able to build and forge those relationships. And over time, just like any relationship, it became more and more natural where I just emailed one of the fellow board members the other day and say, “I want to go to ski in Colorado. Can you give me some tips on what I should do and what should I expect?” And so it’s not just a conversation about the board, it’s a conversation like any relationship that extends beyond that.
Yeah. I think that’s really important to think about those interactions, not just within the board meetings, but outside the board meetings with just some of the examples that you just gave. How do you think that that might evolve as we come out of the pandemic in your mind?
I think it’s going to remain the same. I think the media and just like work is going to be different. I actually think the pandemic brought a little bit of a blessing, right? Where we can connect more actually, right? In these virtual forums and we can do more things and have more connections really quickly. So I think the process of it, some of the things that I mentioned, you personally taking ownership, you carving out the time, you making those natural interactions and taking the real accountability, and being authentic about it. If you don’t have anything to talk about, right? Or if it’s just a 15 minute meeting, you don’t need to schedule an hour meeting to have a conversation, and I’ve done that before. It’s 15 minutes and we’ve ran out of things to talk about and that’s cool too, right?
So being very authentic with it and just being yourself is what’s going to make it lasting. I think the median, regardless if it’s virtual or in-person, I think is going to continue to vary based on the person in the relationship.
So Roli, you joined the Culture Amp board before COVID. So we’d love to hear from you just like, how did you get to know your fellow board members? Can you offer some advice for building relationships from your experience, both in-person and virtually since you’ve kind of crossed both?
Yeah. No, absolutely. I would sort of echo everything that Navin and Rashida have said so far in terms of it really needs to be authentic, right? Because it lasts longer, but it’s also fun, right? It gets tiring to be somebody that you’re not over and over again, and especially if you’re sort of going from a full-time operating job to a board role to sort of too many things. I think it needs to be authentic and it’s like any other human relationship, right? It should feel very similar. So I’ll share with you two examples. One, Culture Amp, where I did get onboarded pre-pandemic and where we could meet each other for coffee and go out for walks. I mean, really spent a lot of time meeting people, going for coffee.
Spending a lot of time actually prior to those meetings really reviewing a lot of the previous board decks just to sort of ask questions of, hey, by the way, when you had this question, or when you reached this pivot point, how did you guys make this decision? Why did you make the decision of doubling down in work at this stage of the product? Why did we consider X, Y, and Z? So really trying to understand what decisions were made and how they were made and what was the thinking behind from the board perspective. Asking a lot of questions about what are the things that are top of mind for them? When they think about the next two, three years of the company, what are some of the things that they’ve seen work well, because a lot of the board members who are from the venture community have seen many more companies just by the virtue of being involved in those companies.
So really understanding that matching that a lot of the venture capitalists have and seeing how that could apply here or bringing your own perspective. So spent a lot of time just getting to know people, but really doing it also in the context of Culture Amp. My second perspective which was different was getting onboarded, hired and onboarded in an executive role [inaudible 00:29:34] completely virtual, right? So I only met the CEO number of times and everybody else, never. And I think to Rashida’s point, it is similar, but it is a lot more work, right? And it’s a lot more work because it takes a lot more journeys and a lot more conversations to build that initial rapport. So don’t underestimate the effort it takes to onboard, don’t underestimate the time it takes to onboard, and when you’re getting on a new board or a new role, make sure that that becomes a really important part of it and isn’t… So, don’t jump too quickly into driving the operations and driving value, just get to know people early on, so take that time.
That’s really great. Thank you for sharing that. In our small conversations, one of the things that we’ve asked many times is who’s your most valuable board member and why, and one of the answers we hear back time and time again as a board member who has what we would call a high signal to noise ratio, meaning that the value of the contributions are high relative to the amount of airtime and that can be hard, I think, for new board members to figure out. So, Rashida, I’m going to start with you on this one. Do you have any rules of thumb about how you contribute during your board discussions?
That is a good question because this was something that I struggled with, being my first board and the first independent board director because my lens is a little bit different than the investors on the board. I look at it from a couple of categories, one is being prepared, just do your homework. You can tell who’s read the materials, who’s maybe vetted questions beforehand. Probably my first board meeting my CEO, he was just very gracious. He was like, “Do you want to review the Word materials with me in advance? You can do so if you’re more comfortable doing it with another board member. We’ve all discussed it and you can do that as well.” But, I think being prepared, I think it shows and it shows that you’re taking it seriously and it shows that you have a sense of curiosity and you really want to make sure that you are a valuable asset.
I think Navin touched on this before, but listening is really key I think. As natural operators, we feel like we have this inclination to just always do and to always speak up and to be the echo chamber in the room, and I think that’s not the case here. I think there’s a lot of contexts in the beginning that you just may not know, and so being an observer can actually be a very good thing and providing your perspective and your relevant perspective at the right time when it is important, when you feel comfortable, I think is really important. I’ve been in board meetings where one of the long-lasting board members stated, “Before I give my opinion, I would like to hear from Rashida first. I want to hear as the new fresh eyes on the board. I don’t want her to be biased or persuaded by what we have to say. I want to hear her perspective.”
And to me, that’s valuable. They recognize the value that I bring to the table, the lens that I bring to the table, and they want to take that into consideration as well. And, I think the third thing I would say is don’t feel like you need to know the answer or you need to solve the problem. Depending on the board, some of the problems can be really challenging and it could be problems that they’ve been faced with for a long time. So, I think it’s about guiding the management team through the question, through the decision tree of problem-solving assessment is really the value that you can bring to the table.
And, that’s where I have brought a lot of value from my perspective to the board that I’m on is just kind of asking the question right from my perspective and a lot of times I get, oh, we didn’t think about it in that way, or that’s an interesting way to approach the problem. So, remember in a board you’re not the doer. You’re trying to ensure that the management team is guided along the right path, and so helping them sort of assess that in the right way and from your perspective and from your lens, and from what you’re seeing, which maybe they do not see on a regular basis brings a lot of value to the team.
That’s a great answer and great experience. You already sound like a veteran board member, but we’ll move to our veteran board member, Navin. So again, you’ve seen so many boards, what guidance can you offer in the most effective way for new directors to contribute to board conversations?
No, I think I’m learning a lot, even as we have this conversation because hearing the other side is really, really important. So, I would say first and foremost, it starts with the new director, understanding their role. Why are they there? They’re not a player, they’re a coach and they’re coming in to work with others who already have a perspective. So, I would say one needs to just take a step back and say, what am I suppose to be here? I’m not the door, but what am I? What are the group looking at me for? Second, I would say spend a lot of time in building relationships with the CEO, the founders and existing board members, getting them familiar with the kind of stuff Rashida and Roli were talking about, your background, your passions, so that they feel and can relate to you because at the end it’s all about investing in relationships.
So once you do those two things, you understand what’s your role, be secure in your skin, and then you go and invest time with others. Then, you take a step back and say, “Okay, I’m going to my first board meeting. What should I do?” So, really understand the business and the team really well. How do you do that? Read past few years of board decks. Spend a lot of time with the company in their hallways, but now you can’t do that. Soon we’ll be able to, so do it over Zoom or Microsoft Teams because somebody from Microsoft is here. Good, that’s why I said Zoom or Teams and spend a lot of time and what I would say and somebody said also Google Meet, that’s true, and then take a step back and just be authentic.
And, I’m going to practice radical candor and in my first two board meetings, this is even true for me when I come in later, just listen. Just listen, be an active listener, be a fly on the wall and maybe follow up after the meeting with somebody. Don’t be eager. Being on a board is like running a marathon. It’s not a sprint. You don’t need to express yourself. Just listen, understand the roles, what people are saying, what are their perspectives, and sometimes… Not sometimes, always people who speak the least can be the most effective. So as a board member, just active listening and understanding can move mountains, but people when they become a first time board member or join a board, they’re over eager to contribute. So, you need to hold yourself back and say, okay, I’ll contribute, but there is a dynamic. It’s like in any sports team, people are already playing.
I can’t just come play my way. They will make room for me. Let me find how do I interact with this stuff and rather than in basketball, keeping the ball to myself, figure out where do I go play. So, I think those are some of the things that come to mind, but it’s all about give and take. You have to get into situations where you’re willing to give. Others are going to receive it well, but they are willing to give back and join only those situations where you want to really enjoy the journey. You will help the company grow, but you will grow yourself.
Some good analogies in there. I like the marathon not a sprint, especially if the operator’s joining that first board because you get your operating role and it’s what’s your 30 day plan, your 60 day plan, and that’s the mentality and it’s such a shift, so good analogies there, Navin. Thank you. Roli, so have you seen any sorts of behaviors among your fellow board members that were particularly effective in helping you bring your voice to the table and feel that sense of belonging that we were talking about earlier?
No, that’s a great question. So, if there’s one thing everybody is hopefully taking away is build that relationship upfront, build relationship with the CEO, build relationship with your fellow board members and what you realize is there are one or two board members that end up having a much stronger connection with and those become your allies in the boardroom. So, those are the sort of people that you could use them as sounding board before the board meeting, especially as you’re a first time board member. You’re trying to figure out, is this sort of how we looked at this perspective before and seeing this coming in from reading up all the board decks. Have you considered this perspective? If not, does this make sense for us to really elaborate on it? So, you can almost do a pre-board conversation to be ready for that discussion, and I used to do that and I still do that in almost all my meetings, mostly because I want to make sure that there is alignment in the direction we want to really have the focus of the meeting.
So, once you have those allies, you’ve had those pre-board, quick conversations like Rashida said, it doesn’t have to be an hour long conversation. Often, now the relationship has evolved to a place where a quick text is a good way for us to say, hey, by the way, this is what I saw on the deck stood out for me. What do you think? Is it worth pushing in further? So, it’s having that relationship helps and then how you run the meetings. I know, Jocelyn, you mentioned I’m an introvert, and so a couple of the times this is something that Didier does an excellent job making sure he does go around the virtual room to make sure everyone’s voice is heard because not everyone feels comfortable.
And, it’s okay to say nothing more to add, but just even having the opportunity for everyone to voice their opinion is a good protocol and I really would highly recommend it. If it’s not happening in, Navin, your boards or, Rashida, your boards might be worthwhile to try and get out. The second thing for me, I think, is now that I’ve been with Culture Amp for about three years, I still make a point that before every board meeting outside of the prep work, I ask myself two questions. My number one question is, what role do I want to play in this meeting Because it could be a different role depending on what stage the company’s at and what their last quarter looked like. Do I want to play a role of being a cheerleader?
Do I want to play a role of being a sounding board or someone who’s going to challenge on the strategy going forward? And, usually it’s a combination of those two roles, but thinking that ahead of the meeting allows for you to be in the right frame of mind in the meeting as well in addition to listening. The second question I ask is, if there is any one thing I could recommend that the team could do differently to change the trajectory of their outcome, what would that look like? And, by doing that prep work ahead of time and coming into the meeting and listening to cues that either challenge your thinking, or validate your thinking, allows you to then make a contribution in the meeting that I think has worked well for me. So, sort of just doing the prep work and thinking about what your contribution would look like.
And, I want to just plus one that concept of asking everyone what they think. That happens on one of my boards at the end of the meeting and it just is a chance for those people who maybe didn’t get that chance to speak up to give their thoughts or to your point say nothing further to add. So Rashida, what about you? If you were going to give advice to your fellow board members, what couple of do’s and don’ts might you offer them when thinking about building an inclusive boardroom?
One thing just to go back a little bit to the previous question, before I answer this one, I was thinking. One of the things that was really important to me when I joined my first board was the openness and the interaction with the CEO. I wanted to be able to join a board where I really felt that level of inclusiveness, where I felt that I could give, but I can also learn. And in the interview process, there’s some CEOs and there are some boards who have no desire in bringing you along the journey. And so, I think, especially for those individuals that are assessing their first board positions, as you look at what you bring to the board, look at how you want the environment that you want to learn, the interaction that you want to get from the CEO and the interaction that you want to get from board members as well.
I think it’s a really good point from an evaluation standpoint that we don’t always think about and it was very valuable to me as I learned governance, as I learned structure, and it really helped me get up to speed because that was such a transparent and open dialogue and communication with my other board members and the CEO. So, I just thought about that, Jocelyn, as Roli –
It’s such a good point. That relationship with the CEO and how that relationship with the CEO translates to the rest of the organization, or to say it another way, transparency and communication flowing in both directions is something to definitely interview for and expect and in a healthy situation.
So, I think to answer your question about the do’s and don’ts to fellow board members, reach beyond your friend circle. I think when you kicked off the meeting, I couldn’t remember the stats it was, but most of these boards are filled by a nucleus of who the board members know. And so look, the reality is that there’s talented people that you don’t know. It is your job as a board member and for the company to go find them and it’s not hard. We talk about this all the time. It’s not a pipeline pipeline problem, right? It’s an effort problem. Make the effort, make the time because there’s talented individuals out there that can bring value and they can bring perspectives to your company. And we just have to do it more. And we have to continue to push me off to continue to say it, and we have to continue to repeat it because it’s not hard. We just need to do it and we need to continue to reinforce it. We need to make it more programmatic. We need to institutionalize it in the conversations, so it can just click and it can be the standard. And today it’s still not the standard, which is a shame for the year 2021. I think the other thing I would say is, look, take risks.
I personally, I don’t believe that there’s an ideal board member, maybe for the audit committee, but, I think, yes, maybe for certain management teams, there’s an ideal operator. But I think for a board member, there’s a lot more flexibility. And I think we should take advantage of that flexibility. Go after someone that has never been on the board before. Assess someone early in their career. I was listening to a session recently where I heard someone say like, “I would never look at someone who doesn’t have at least 30 years in the business.” And I said, “Why does that matter?” Someone can have 10 years or 15 years in the business, but the experience that they’ve garnered could be absolutely amazing. It could be unique.
It could be differentiating. So why would you count them out? Because they didn’t meet your magic number of 30. So I think, which was odd, it’s like, what? So don’t profile these stereotypical ideals when we’re assessing value, because value is not age. Value is not how many years you worked. Value is not the company know in this plaster. It could be the company that you don’t know, that they’ve gotten these unique experiences. I like to call it the lens of the three D’s like. Look for people that are different, that are diverse and bring a dynamic perspective to the table. And I think we just have to push it more, be adamant about it and get rid of these ideals. Because if we look at all the things that we talked about, in terms of the value that one brings to the board, we didn’t talk about someone that brings these deep expertise To the table. We’re looking for other things to help provide a wider perspective to the management team. And there’s a variety of people that can do that.
Yeah, no, I think listening to this, something occurred in my mind. I think I have a strong belief that organizations, which are not agile, don’t survive in the long run because, like dinosaurs, they never survive. And one of the beliefs I have is a company can grow as fast as the CEO is growing. And the CEO always needs to grow faster than the company, or the CEO at the end is also looking at the board. So if the board doesn’t have an open mindset, the growth of the CEO is going to be limited. So I think to me, company, CEO, board, in terms of thinking and adaptation otherwise boards become dinosaur. So what Rashida was saying, once you look for growth, if you just go with 30, 40 years of experience, people will just give the same advice they’ve been giving. They may not even know what the current stuff is. So I think you need a healthy balance and you need a growth mindset.
Yeah, and on that note and, Rashida, that was such a great answer. I feel like I want to clip that video and send it all around. You just said it so clearly. Thank you. Navin, I’m curious, how do you and the CEOs of your portfolio companies think about building out your boards with respect to diversity?
Yeah. I think this is a conversation I try to have very often with my companies and I advised them that, “Hey, you should be building a diverse board, not when you’re a late stage company and filling diverse board members when you’re planning to go in IPO, do it earlier.” And my belief is if the addition of one plus one is not 11, is there going to be four to five? And every time you had a board member, can they do 10 X value add? Because if you’re not thinking about taking moonshots, you won’t even reach the roof.
So I believe in bringing complimentary backgrounds, networks and diversity to the table, and my advice always to CEOs is do it early because you will learn your value, what a diverse background and experience can do for your company, and hopefully lead to exponential value add. And as Rashida said, work hard towards it. Why only look in your own network? Come to organizations like Him For Her. Come to other places, do a search if you’re serious about it. Like you go hire execs, you don’t just look at the five people. You want to get the best person. So you need to believe in your core as a board and as a CEO, why this is important. When you have that in your gut, just drop everything and make it happen.
I think his is very, very important to get different perspectives, different backgrounds, because it can create exponential growth in the mindset of the CEO on a book.
Well said, so Roli, Rashida, I’m going to ask you both this question. You’re both prominent advocates for diversity and inclusion. How does that show up in the boardroom. And Roli, why don’t you take this one first?
Yeah, no, absolutely. So we are in a very unique position with Culture Amp. So Culture Amp by default is really very focused around building a culture of inclusion. So one of the things that we actually look at is every board meeting, and actually every Culture Amp report, if anybody is using Culture Amp, every Culture Amp report actually has a diversity and inclusion component to it. And one of the things that we’ve been really focused on at the board and promoting more vitally is most boards of our customers should really start looking at the diversity and inclusion as a whole picture, right? So it’s really at multiple levels, looking at the diversity and inclusion of your company and making that as a priority to be talked about in the board meeting. It should be similar or at similar levels as you talk about financial performance, because that stuff, let’s be clear, I mean, diverse board, the diversity of the organization is strongly correlated to overall success of the company. And so bringing that upfront. So that’s one level.
The second level is every time we actually talk about bringing in new members to the management team, that becomes a huge part of our conversation. And the third one is diversity of the board itself. So as Culture Amp has been growing, I’m still the first independent board member. But as Didier and I are having conversations about adding more board members to the table, one of the ways I’ve been supporting him is connecting him to diverse networks. And he’s motivated and focused on bringing in more diversity to the board, but sometimes it’s a lack of having access to those networks.
And so I’m connecting him and the CEO of Next Role as we are hiring more board members here to networks like the Neythri Community. The Neythri Community is the largest South Asian women professional community. And it’s such a massive community that does not necessarily have all the right board opportunities surfaced up to them. And so connecting the right people, we’ve got way talented people. So that’s the third way then I’m supporting the board, but it really is multifold. Make it a priority, talk about it at the board level, at every time you’re thinking about hiring people.
Yeah. Thank you. Rashida, what would you add to that?
Yeah, I mean, well, first I would say, “Look, I’m a Black woman,” so there’s no mistake that I’m Black. There’s no mistake that I’m a woman. And so my lived experiences, if I’m being my authentic self has to show up in the boardroom. And so that’s something that I start with. And I’m also very open when I discuss board opportunities to say, “Look, that is …” whatever my lived experience is. My thoughts and perspectives are going to be aligned to that. And I think that’s why making sure that we have different people from different backgrounds across is going to be extremely different and bring a different perspective. And we need that. And I think the second thing I would say is I think that as we continue to expand the diversity of our boards, it is really important for us to continue to speak for those that are less empowered to do so, or who may not have platforms or who may not have the opportunity or the access to speak.
And that happens in the boardroom. And so I take that as a huge responsibility to say, “I have been given this opportunity.” And whether it is the lens or the perspectives that I bring, or it’s making sure the conversation that we’ve totally excluded use cases or a market or a dynamic that is not really equally representing the society. Me feeling comfortable bringing that up. And that goes back to my earlier point of to comfortably bring that up, you want to make sure that you are in a board or amongst individuals that really welcome that and feel that sense of belonging. So to me, it goes back to this whole point of one, making sure that you can be your authentic self in whatever board you’re on, because being your authentic self allows you to be an advocate. And once you’re there being an advocate, making sure that you bring truth to power always.
So well said. And you guys got at the top of the hour. I can’t believe it. I had a feeling this would happen. I want to thank first and foremost, our founding partner Mayfield Fund. I want to thank you, Navin, I mean, you have supported us since day one and you took a bet on us as at an early stage and look at all the things that we’ve been able to co-create.
So just thank you for that and for all the work that you do. Thank you, Roli and Rashida, your stories are so incredible and you were also very authentic today. I know I learned something and I hope everyone else did. Thanks to everyone who’s on the call, especially those who are from the Neythri organization, who are from All Raise, what a cool partnership to have those groups here today. We’re going to be sending out the recording in the next few days. Also, please, we’ll send a link to find time if you want to follow up with anyone from the Him For Her team and have a conversation with us. And finally, we’ll also send out key takeaways. So thank you. And thank you Him For Her team for putting this together.
Thanks, Jocelyn. Thank you very much.