Boards are very much a human enterprise, and it is inevitable that with any group of humans you will eventually have some "people problems." In this board-hacking mini-series, we have adopted the term "hacking your board" to reflect the fact that for early startups, dealing with a board is about making 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, and how to handle difficult personas. Now in this penultimate installment we tackle recognizing some of the key sources of interpersonal conflict and how it is brought about by difficult interactions. In this installment, we take the measure of the problem and in the next two installments, I will explain how to solve them.
Directors are People, and Boards Tackle Tough Issues
Boards are complex creatures. They join people from different experience bases and with different perspectives. The situations require them to come together and focus on detailed discussions centered on abstractions and hypotheticals. Usually there are many uncertainties about what the right path forward might be and no single right answer. These kinds of situations can be stressful and really bring people's personality and temperament to the fore. And with certain personalities come associated problem behaviors. Left unchecked, these behaviors can lead to tensions and even serious interpersonal issues amongst board members and management.
Example Problem Behavior Categories
The Disruptive Director - She has outbursts which disrupt the flow of discussion, offers criticism which is so black and white it is awkward for other directors to disagree, she stalls the discussion with interruptions, and she changes the subject to fit her whims.
The Disrespectful Director - He doesn't give others their due; he does not respect their ideas and contributions, nor their right to have some airtime. He treats the CEO like a subordinate rather than a partner. He can be selfish and domineering.
The Despot Director - She needs to be the leader and alpha wolf. She is an acting or former CEO, she is used to being obeyed and has to be the boss of everything. She acts like the chairman, whether appointed or not, and will not tolerate being challenged.
The Forgetful Director - He repeats the same questions over and over again, and wastes the board's time by dragging everyone back to subjects already covered. He does not recall what has been agreed to and wants to go through and agree on it again. He does not do the action items he is assigned and he doesn't remember the meeting the same way as everyone else.
The Pedantic Director - She needs to lecture everyone about everything. Nothing can be stipulated, everything has to turn into a chance for her to showcase her superior knowledge and patronizingly explain everything to everyone all the time.
The Incompetent Director - He simply does not know what he is talking about. He doesn't understand the company's technology or market. He is inexperienced in the area and what skills he has, are out of date. He doesn't know how boards work and is not familiar with stage-specific, stage-appropriate controls. He lacks relevant benchmarks and always wants to be cheap with management salaries and options. He asks overly basic questions and is not self-sufficient.
Three Categories of Fixes
These problem behavior types 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. There are three different ways to tackle these: relatively easy fixes you can adopt during the meeting itself, slightly more involved fixes you can tackle 1:1 with the problem director, and the more drastic fixes which require getting the rest of the board involved. In the next two installments we'll take you through and explain each one.