What you learn from serving on a Board — a must for Founders

My role as Board Chairman recently came to an end and upon reflection, it has profoundly changed both my professional and personal life.

For any Founder who has to report to a Board, there are huge benefits to you by also being a Board member elsewhere. Below a are a few of the key learnings that are relevant to Board members and Execs alike.

Following some time in the Army, I spent 10 years in finance. The sense of service and purpose are very strong in the military but lacking in the City. In order to try and rebalance this I applied to 20 unpaid non-exec adverts and luckily one said yes (18 didn’t even reply to me!).

Joining the Board was a real eye opener and coming from a large company it highlighted my lack of practical knowledge of business and of managing a company. Initially, I listened and learned and asked lots of questions and felt very out my depth.

Out of the blue, I was called by the then Chair and informed of his ill health and his need to leave the Board. To my surprise he asked if I would consider being Chair and that he would support me. Always one to accept a challenge and embrace an adventure, I said yes.

Then the reality sunk in. I was 20–30 years younger than most other Board members, in fact, one Board member had been a Board member for as long as I had been alive. The CEO had been there for 20 years and was part of the fabric of the place and I was now his boss. I felt like a huge imposter.

The honeymoon period was short and I soon realised that there were a number of items that needed to be addressed and that had, frankly, been ignored for years. We had neglected a number of key infrastructure projects, our Board had 6 sub committees and a total of 28 meetings a year. It was a small company with less than £10m in turnover, it was not a FTSE 100 company. The Board was little more than a group of friends getting together for a chat and a cup of tea.

Action was needed and difficult conversations were inevitable.

However, having come through them all with only a small amount of blood shed, the Company is now in a much better place. It has a more skilled and relevant Board, a much more efficient operating rhythm, a strong executive team and is near to completing its first multi million pound major project.

Also, during my tenure, partly inspired by the Company, I left finance and started a company of my own (florence.co.uk) and now have to face a Board myself. It was the best decision I ever made.

So looking back what are the key learnings?

1. Being a Non-Exec helps you as an Exec — it’s hard to understand the different perspectives if you have not experienced them both. As an Exec the Board can be frustrating and ask what you deem to be tedious questions. As a Board member you often ask questions and get frustrated by the answers. The best way is to have lived both sides and this helps you truly understand each others challenges.

2. Boards have to take tough decisions — if you are in a leadership position you absolutely have to take tough decisions. If that’s hiring or firing or starting or stopping something, by all means think for a bit but don’t take too long. You will know the right thing to do so make sure you do it. If you don’t your organisation will suffer and you will be failing in your role.

3. Build a strong team — while you may be a leader, business is complex and unless you are a true exception, you will not be an expert in everything. Make sure you build a balanced team with different skill sets, motivations, experiences and goals. Add people who you don’t naturally agree with. Be aware of your own shortcomings and plug those gaps with others. Focus on your strength of leadership and build expertise around you. Leadership is harder to find than you realise, technical expertise is not.

4. Board’s support but don’t step on toes — you may be a successful executive but when you are acting as a non-executive you will see and hear things you don’t perhaps agree with. Be very mindful about making operational suggestions just because you would do it a different way. Your role is not to run the day to day and don’t think it is.

5. Think twice before you ask a question — when you are in a Board don’t ask a question for the sake or it or because you are curious. Be aware of the day to day pressures of being an executive, you probably know about this if you are one. If you don’t like the way a graph looks then don’t ask for it another way just to make it look nicer. Focus on the really big items that impact risk or long term performance. If you feel really strongly then consider offering to do it for them to help, don’t be a pain.

6. Offline preparation is essential — make sure you prepare for Board meetings. Read the materials, ask questions to other Board members beforehand, call the Executive team prior to the meeting. Please respect the executives’ time and make sure you are aware of the key items. The best members work in the background and get themselves up to speed prior the Board. If you don’t prepare, then do the right thing and make way for someone else.

6. Patience — as an Exec you probably work at a million miles an hour. It is unlikely that this will be the case from a Board seat. Make sure things are going in the right direction. Challenge but you will need to be patient. It’s a skill and hard to learn.

Serving on a Board, paid or unpaid, is incredibly rewarding but also hugely beneficial in terms of personal and career development. Don’t leave it to late or until you are about the retire to do this. Even as a relatively young executive you can add tremendous value and benefit hugely in return. I certainly did.

Thank you to everyone on the Board. I will miss being your Chair.

Good luck!

Founder — Passionate about helping startups and their Founders succeed and to avoid the silly mistakes I have made myself

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