With any group of humans you will inevitably have some "people problems," and as a startup founder, you'll experience plenty of them in the boardroom. You'll find you need to "hack your board" to make the best of a situation you did not create and cannot fully control. So far we've discussed hacks for planning and running a board meeting, a checklist of expectations you should have for your board, how to handle difficult personas and how to recognize the sources of interpersonal conflict. In this penultimate installment, I will explain how to resolve these conflicts gently before explaining the nuclear option in the final installment.
Directors are People, and Boards Tackle Tough Issues
There are a half dozen categories of problem behaviors which crop up as part of the somewhat tense board meeting environment. Behaviors range from disruptive and despotic to forgetful and incompetent. Each kind of problem director provokes its own unique sorts of interpersonal conflict. This can be incredibly frustrating for other directors and can completely undermine the proper functioning of a board. Left unchecked, they will either cause a warzone, or an exodus of your most talented directors from the boardroom.
Three Categories of Fixes
While there are many different behavioral problems on boards, there are really only three groups of solutions. The first are relatively easy fixes you can adopt during the meeting itself, the second are slightly more involved fixes you can tackle 1:1 with the problem director, and the third are more drastic fixes which require getting the rest of the board involved. We'll talk about the first two here and tackle the drastic fix in the final installment.
Meeting Level Fixes:
Some of the problem behaviors can be tackled on the fly during the meeting itself. The best formula is to establish an informal "meeting norms" code of conduct with your directors at the start, stressing the importance of mutual respect, not interrupting, trying to be succinct, reviewing the minutes to refresh oneself and so forth. Then, once you have such an agreed-upon set of norms, you can use them as a tool to more actively moderate your meetings and police conduct. In other words, you try to curb the milder forms of the behavior by bringing attention to it and making it clear that it will not be tolerated. Examples might include:
- "Hold on, Susan, I don't think Jack was finished"
- "That's a valid question, but I would like to park it for the moment and stay on this topic"
- "That's a pretty categorical statement; perhaps there is a milder way to put that?"
- "I believe we covered this and decided it at the last meeting"
- "Your input is valued, has been heard and weighed, but ultimately it is my decision and I will let you know where I come out when I have decided."
The key thing is that making a point of calling out the form of the input right when it crops up helps raise awareness and curb a lot of the milder forms of problems.
Personal Level Fixes:
In some cases, however, the problem director will not take the hint and it is necessary to speak to the person directly and explain that their conduct has become a problem. When doing this you want to be careful to challenge the behavior and the issues it causes, rather than challenging the person so that they don't become overly defensive or see it as an attack delivered in personal terms.
It can be very helpful to give what my business partner calls a "feedback sandwich" where you surround the meat of the criticism with some bread of encouragement and positivity. For example, you don't want to say "you are very disrespectful and people don't like you." Instead you want to say something like:
- "Your inputs are very valuable, but when you jump in and interrupt or attack, it makes great dialog more difficult; since you are such a pro, I am sure you are in favor of good dialog."
- "Since we are all part of the same team and we have many valid viewpoints, it is helpful to avoid using a challenging or argumentative tone when making inputs"
- "When you are prepared for a discussion, your input is extremely good; it would be super helpful to me if you could review the minutes before meetings so you are ready to go at meetings."
The point is to be gentle but direct in identifying the behavior and asking for it to stop.
Where the problem behaviors are the more passive kinds of problems such as forgetfulness or incompetence, you can suggest educational materials a director might want to read, or inviting them to attend some sales calls to get a better sense of the product and sales process, or suggesting they buy the CTO lunch to get a personal primer on the technology, or suggest they meet with peers on other boards to get a feel for board norms. It can also be helpful to remind them that when they lag behind, forget things or are not self-sufficient, they take valuable board and CEO time, which is not in their interest or in the company's interest. Tell them you have total faith that they can do better and make your expectation of improvement clear by asking how you can help them get to the level they need to be at.
In most cases, the meeting level and personal level fixes will be all you need. Most people on boards are successful and accomplished people who mean well and are there to help. Usually when you take the time to diplomatically point out an issue they will be embarrassed and fall right into line. It is only with the really tough cases that you have to go nuclear. In the final installment I'll explain how.