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7 Habits of Highly Effective Boards

May 12, 2022

(This blog post was first published as an article in Entrepreneur Magazine on April 15 and is also on Matt Blumberg’s StartupCEO blog )

Creating strong boards can help propel a board forward. Weak and ineffective boards hold a company back.

As a CEO, one of the most important (yet overlooked) tools in the playbook is building and leading a board of directors. Throughout my 20+ years of entrepreneurship, I’ve led four companies (including Bolster, where I’m a co-founder and CEO today) and served on eight boards. I’ve learned that strong boards can help propel a company forward and I’ve also witnessed how weak and ineffective boards can hold companies back. Mediocre or mismanaged advice, plus lack of accountability, can do long-term damage to a business as well.

Drawing from personal experience and anecdotes from dozens of Bolster’s client CEOs, here are some tried and true “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Boards.”

Habit 1: Begin with the board in mind

A lot of CEOs treat board curation as an afterthought, which means that boards tend to consist largely of who happened to be in their network at the company’s inception: investors. CEOs also tend to treat their boards as a distraction or an annoyance. Both of these lines of thought are problematic.

Boards should be viewed as a CEO’s second team (along with their management team), as a strategic weapon that helps the company succeed and as an opportunity to bring new voices and perspectives. Research has shown the more independent and diverse a board is, the better it performs.

Habit 2: Be proactive about board recruiting

Devote as much focus to building a board as to building the executive team. This process is time-consuming and can’t be delegated to anyone else. Aspire to reach people who may feel out of reach. Asking someone to join the board is a big honor, so that ask becomes a good calling card. When recruiting, interview as many contenders as possible, don’t be afraid to reject those who aren’t a good fit and have finalists audition by attending a board meeting. Source broadly, too. Diversity is really important for many reasons; challenge any recruiter, agency or platform to surface diverse board candidates.

Habit 3: Keep your board balanced using the Rule of 1s

Whether it’s a three-person startup board or a seven-person scale-up board, it should include representation from all three director types: investors, management directors and independents. A few basic principles on board composition that work well are what I call the Rule of 1s: First, boards should include one, and only one member of the management team: the CEO. Even if co-founders or C-level managers are shareholders, don’t burn a board seat for a perspective that you have access to regularly. Second, for every new investor to the board, add one independent director, which is the biggest opportunity to introduce external perspectives. If your board gets too crowded with subsequent funding rounds, ask one or more investors to take observer seats to make space for independents. And don’t be afraid to change your board composition over time. Companies are dynamic and boards should be, too.

Habit 4: Cultivate mutual accountability and respect

While a board might seem intimidating, work past the power dynamic and push toward collaboration and mutual accountability. To ensure board members are prepared for meetings, keep commitments and leverage their networks, set the example by demonstrating preparation, consistency and reliability. By regularly delivering pre-read materials to the board several days in advance, the board will build a new habit. By soliciting feedback from board members after each meeting (and even offering them feedback), you’ll show the board that you’re listening. Over time, they’ll lean in, too.

Habit 5: Drive intellectually honest discussions

Even on the healthiest leadership teams, it can be scary to disagree with or challenge a sitting CEO (after all, they are still the one in charge!). But this power dynamic flips in a boardroom, which gives that group a unique opportunity to push and challenge business assumptions. While it may be tempting to look for board members with softer dispositions, it can be more beneficial to have tough, direct board members who aren’t afraid to express their opinions, but who are also good listeners and learners. My favorite discussions are conversations where I’m pushed to consider a different direction. It helps get more done, surfaces better ideas and increases the effectiveness of the company.

Habit 6: Lean in on strategic, lean out on tactics

Even board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area. But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business: economics, competition and ecosystem. This is an easy habit to reinforce in meetings. If board directors drift toward getting too tactically in the weeds, that’s great feedback to offer after the meeting.

Habit 7: Think outside the box

Good board members understand all the pieces on the chess table; great board members go one step further and pattern match to provide advice, history, context and anticipated consequences. This is an enormous benefit to CEOs focused on the minutiae of the day-to-day, particularly if a business operates in a trailblazing industry where many of the rules may not yet be written. As a CEO, if you’ve never seen something first hand before, it’s hard to get clarity and external perspectives, which is why it’s crucial that great board members bring pattern recognition and “out-of-the-box thinking” to their role.

At the end of the day, boards are there to support and direct a company. There’s no perfect formula, but by implementing these steps with a few healthy habits, CEOs can cultivate strong, dynamic boards for their companies.

-Matt Blumberg, May 12, 2022.