“Denial,” said Mark Twain, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Mark Twain wasn’t talking specifically about start-up companies, or companies in general, but his words ring true, nevertheless.
Many companies think they can get along quite nicely without the need for outside directors.
Why bring ’em in when we can make all the right decisions without the added cost and without the added hassle – they only cause arguments, y’ know.
There are three things wrong with that that outdated, blinkered, but oh so common response to the suggestion of an outside directorship:
- When we can make all the right decisions. There’s an inherent arrogance in that comment. It’s easy to imagine the three spirits of Commerce Past – Insularity, Limited Experience and Immutability – haunting that particular boardroom.
- Without the added cost. Of course Non-Executive Directors cost money, but they soon prove their value to the company in several ways: opening up new contacts and new opportunities; bringing an expertise in their particular field; increasing the professionalism and business profile of the board; offering unbiased and balanced opinions on difficult issues, and so on.
- Without the added hassle. They only cause arguments, y’know. CEOs who want “yes-men” should invest in a ventriloquist’s dummy, where he or she can pull the strings and work the mouths to their hearts’ content. Non-Executive Directors have a vast wealth of knowledge and experience to bring to the board, and often see things from a different perspective. Their role is to tell it like it is, and if this means the occasional difference of opinion or the occasional heated debate around the table then so be it. Heated debates are a sign of a company’s robust good health. Nodding heads should be limited to toy dogs
Here are some questions you might like to reflect on as far as your own company is concerned.
- When did we last refresh the board with new, outside directorships?
- How often do we really debate the issues on the agenda, rather than simply giving them lip service?
- How has our list of business contacts grown over the last year?
- What have we done to make best use of these new contacts?
- Is there a range of expertise sitting around the table, each with a clear perspective of his or her field?
Harry Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, said in 1927:
Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?
It’s a good thing [probably!] that his was a minority view. Still, look back over the last year or so and examine the views expressed by your own executive board members then. Compare them with the current situation and even projected scenarios. Hindsight is, of course, twenty-twenty vision, but it might be a salutary exercise to weigh up the advice you were offered by fellow board members twelve months ago and compare it with the current situation.
Now do the same thing with the input from your Non-Executive Directors.
If you can see a difference, you can see the difference.