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Don’t Ask Your Board for a Strategy

August 17, 2022

This is a guest post written by Bolster Prime Mentor Ari Paparo.

Over the course of my career, I’ve held a variety of leadership positions at Google, Nielsen, and elsewhere, and I’ve been the CEO at venture-funded companies including Beeswax and Marketecture Media. I’ve worked with multiple boards and served as an advisor to dozens of startups.

One thing I’ve learned?

Don’t ask your board for a strategy.

Wait, what? I thought the point of having a board was to help the CEO steer the company strategically. Yes, you want them to support and buy into the strategy you present to them, but you don’t want them to actually define that strategy.

Imagine your business is facing a major decision, let’s say whether or not to invest in a new product line over the next twelve months. Who has the most information, instinct, nuance, and—frankly—time to consider the options and evaluate the pros and cons? Is it the board that meets with you for three hours every couple of months, or is it you and your executive team who lives and breathes every aspect of your business every day?

Let’s play this out the wrong way first. And, for full disclosure, this is exactly what I did in a board meeting as CEO of my last company, so thank you for letting me share.

I worked hard with my CPO and CRO to evaluate one of two directions for the company’s product investment. We put together the pros and cons of the approaches, along with costs and other considerations. Then, we put it in front of the board as an either/or choice. All hell broke loose. When faced with an open-ended question like this, any board is going to have all kinds of opinions and ideas that are likely not as well informed as those you bring to the table as the expert on your company. You might hear something like: “My other portfolio company solved this problem by….” This kind of advice is the kind of maybe useful—or maybe not so useful—outcome I’ve found can come from an open ended discussion.

Even when you have an actively engaged board, with really smart and well-meaning professionals, they’re still making decisions based on partial information, pattern matching, and other methods of analysis that are much less precise than what’s available to your team. As a result, may get options and advice on your company’s key questions that ring as superficial to the problem being discussed. In all likelihood, you’re not going to leave the meeting with more clarity than you started with. And worst of all, you won’t leave with a decision that lets you move forward.

So what’s the right approach?

You’re the manager. You should come to the board prepared with a suggested path forward, and then look for their advice and consent. Imagine how much better my board conversation would have gone if we had specifically advocated for a course of action instead of just leaving it open-ended. “We have these two options, and the management team recommends option one. Here’s how much it will cost, and here are the trade-offs. Let’s discuss.” This approach still may (and should) receive feedback, and your plans may need further research and adjustment, but that’s exactly what you want from the board—a different point of view to challenge your own.

Maybe this is obvious advice and I’m just a noob. Not sure. But I learned a valuable lesson. Your board is there to support, advise, fund, and approve your strategy. It is not there to determine your strategy. That’s your job.

-Ari Paparo, August 17, 2022.

Ari Paparo is a well-known expert in the advertising technology world. He was the co-founder and CEO of Beeswax, an innovative ad tech platform that was acquired by Comcast in 2021. He is now the CEO of Marketecture Media and a stealth SaaS startup.

Previously, Ari has held a number of product leadership positions in the ad tech and marketing tech sectors, most recently as EVP of Product Management for Bazaarvoice, a publicly traded SaaS company that enables retailers and brands to better connect to their consumers through ratings, reviews, photos and other user generated content. Formerly, he was the Director of Product Management at Google’s DoubleClick business and the head of product management for AppNexus.

Ari is a serial entrepreneur, exploring opportunities in ad tech, SaaS, and marketing after over 20 years of serving in various professional leadership positions. He mentors other CEOs through Bolster Prime, and offers valuable advice backed by a wealth of knowledge and experience.

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