Don’t hide behind your board

This is a lesson that first time entrepreneurs in funded companies usually learn very quickly. I’m on the board of several companies currently, and if you know me you know that I rarely take an aggressive stance. I use the magic of subtle influence, not a brick over the head.

I’ve adopted Brad Feld’s mental model and I try to think of my role on the board as one in which I work for the CEO until the CEO no longer has my support. It’s binary. If I support the CEO then I work for him or her. If I don’t support the CEO, then it’s time to find a new one or to get off the board.

Using this framework I think of my role on the board as a my conduit to make constructive suggestions. I’m very careful to make sure my suggestions are never perceived as marching orders. And I’m supportive and not disappointed when my suggestions are not taken as long as I know the management team has been thoughtful about my suggestion.

Something I’ve seen a couple of times now is a CEO hiding behind the board. This is almost always going to backfire. Here’s how it usually works: Someone on the board or the whole board has a strong opinion on an issue, and the CEO points something out as a board decision to a vendor, employee, investor, or partner. The cart is then pulling the horse – this is the definition of dysfunction. Here’s the punch line. Often, the CEO will actually agree with the board on the issue, and usually the CEO is on the board too! It’s just easier to say “well, the board decided that…”

As a general rule of thumb, a CEO should never start any sentence with “The board said …” or “The board decided…” The CEO makes the decision. Always. Presenting something to a third party as a board decision is simply going to cause a loss of respect for the CEO. Replace “The board said…” with “I’ve decided…” Parenthetically, the advice of the board was taken. So what. That’s irrelevant.

The bottom line is that the CEO is the CEO and as such should make and take responsibility for all of the decisions made by the company. This is true even in the face of a strongly opinionated board member. Magically, when they do so, they’ll almost invariably earn respect from the board members rather than losing it as they might have feared.

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