Viewpoint / Company Building

What Makes A Great Startup Board Member



In my two decades as a venture investor, I’ve served on about 50 startup boards. I’ve had the privilege of working side-by-side with experienced independent directors, operating executives, and venture investors. I’ve come to learn that empathy, curiosity and hard work are among the most important qualities for a truly great startup board member.

I’ve seen firsthand how great board members can help a startup achieve more that it would on its own, or allow it to work through a problem that might otherwise prove fatal. I’ve also seen board members who didn’t make much impact, or worse, engaged in ways that hurt a company.
Here are my thoughts on how to be a good board member.

Be clear about your role. Being a board member is a big responsibility and your relationship with the CEO is a special one. Even if you’ve served on boards — and even if the CEO has worked with lots of board members — the two of you have never before worked together in this capacity.

Take the time up front to talk about what kind of working relationship the two of you want to have. How will you engage with one another? What are the boundaries? What does the CEO hope you can contribute? The answers to these questions can change over time, but by discussing these openly in the beginning, you’ll make sure you’re aligned and that you get off on a solid footing.

Do your homework. Good board members are prepared. Yes, that means reading material before the meeting. But more broadly, it means being committed to knowing well the company you signed up to help.

That begins by talking to people — and not just the CEO. Good board members meet with executives and non-executives alike in order to understand the nuances of a business. It’s this kind of engagement that allows board members to make informed suggestions and to have insight into what may underlie anything they’re presented with during a board meeting.

Speak your mind. You’re on a board because you have knowledge or experience that the company has decided is valuable. If you don’t share what you’re thinking, you aren’t doing what you were brought in for. Sure, it’s important to listen and important to use tact. But I’ve yet to serve on a board with someone who I couldn’t learn from and whose opinion I wasn’t interested in.

By that same measure, good board members ask questions. There’s no shame in not knowing something, and probing is often the key to unlocking fresh and valuable insights.

Empathy and support.

At my firm, we pride ourselves on being loyal to a fault. That means that we have our founders’ backs, even when times are tough. We feel this is critical to having a successful board. The main reason is trust: In order to get the best advice from a board member, a CEO needs to be upfront and open. But it’s hard to be open if you’re worried about your job security.

By always acting with empathy towards CEOs and showing them that you support them no matter what, you can create an environment where it’s possible for them to be open. Which in turn makes it easier for board members to help.

Represent the customer and employee. From a fiduciary standpoint, boards represent shareholders. But operationally, a good board member thinks like and acts on behalf of customers and employees. It’s an obvious point, but companies succeed or fail based on how well they deliver value to their customers and take care of their employees so that they work at their peak performance. And while a good CEO is always thinking about these constituents, board members need to reinforce that perspective and bring up any questions or issues a company hasn’t thought of itself.

Be patient. Change is hard and takes time. Even if you see things that need to be fixed, remember that it’s hard to do it all at once. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Company building is a marathon, not a sprint.

Board members who treat it that way — and who demonstrate the qualities listed above — are more likely to help the startups they work with win that long race.

Article originally published on Forbes.

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