Board Meeting Cacophony
Aspire to be truly heard by portfolio CEOs.
An invitation to join a board meeting early in one’s venture career is a notable event. It’s a signal that the partners at your firm both trust that you will be a positive (or at the very least neutral) contribution to the board group and that they value your career development as a venture capitalist beyond just a cog in the wheel of the sourcing and diligence machine.
It’s also a career milestone because you can take credit. Stick “Board Observer at [Company X]” on your LinkedIn profile. But wait until it’s official and/or at least you’re attending with quite regularly or frequency. The bright line for this accolade is if the Founder would agree whole-heartedly that this designation is indeed your role. One tag-along board invitation does not make a superstar VC.
That’s the key -- for now, remember that you are an observer, and that should be respected. Regardless of roles and power, the more VC cooks in the board room kitchen, so to speak, the more challenging the meeting is to run for the CEO. But quite quickly you’ll realize that the mystique of the proverbial board room is gone. Those images of folks sitting around a mahogany table in leather chairs run straight into reality of the beat-up table with folding chairs in a room with no windows of a seed stage company. The mundane doesn’t just stop at the literal environment. Most board meetings are run-throughs updates of KPI metric graphs and OKR results, as well as the mundane of 409a valuations, option grants, and previous board meeting minutes’ approvals. (Oh, and bringing the other VCs up to speed again who weren’t paying attention at the last meeting.) It’s only every so often that an important real deep-dive strategy discussion ensues.
Along those same lines, your value as a board member or observer won’t be evenly distributed over time. Don’t over-index on speaking up in every meeting at any possible time just to prove your worth.
For non-partner observers, rising board members, and even veteran VCs, the real importance of the typical uneventful board meetings is about developing trust and a rapport with the CEO, facilitating a deep understanding of the business, and offering a sounding board or assistance only when it’s most opportune. Regularly showing up and truly listening provides the context which you need to share a thoughtful perspective when it’s constructive .
Looking back at my own career, times when I as a board contributor have added the most value to the CEO have included introducing a candidate who became the #2 exec of a now-public company, texting back-and-forth on a Friday night with a Founder as he was real-time negotiating a multi-hundred million dollar acquisition, and vocally questioning a large spending initiative (which in hindsight would have been wasted) even when we had plenty of cash. But beyond specific incidents, I view my role as board member as serving as a trusted thought-partner to the CEO as she is thinking through the milestones which need to be accomplished in the next stage of the business and the plan towards reaching them. That function is certainly unevenly distributed over time.
Without a decade or two of board experience to draw from, for rising VCs touchpoints for being helpful include offering tactical functional feedback based on previous operating experience (e.g. perspective on content marketing if you previously worked at HubSpot), helping to source potential candidates for open roles (thriving startups are always hiring), and yes, of course, sharing one’s opinion as a contributor to the board-level conversations when offering a true insight. Being present for multiple chapters of the journey helps earn the credibility to speak with genuine authority. For all venture board members, the most important voices aren’t necessarily the loudest and most frequent, but rather the ones who are the most heard by portfolio entrepreneurs.