So, you can burn the dance floor, but can you tango in the Corporate Board room?
I have had the pleasure of attending many board meetings and am happy to share some experiences and tips in the lessons on how to dance in the Board Room:
Always Maintain Direct Eye Contact
One of the biggest learning is to maintain direct eye contact with your fellow board members – at all times. The eyes speak a thousand sentences. In VC funded companies, you can quickly understand what your investors like to hear and what they don’t find palatable – just by looking into their eyes.
An interesting strategy I follow is to place my co-founders at direct eye contact with the VCs so that all partners get a vibe of who is reacting to whom and how in the meeting.
See my Eye Contact Flow below.
Your CFO is the best observer. Since she will be doing the least talking, she will be ideal to gauge body language of the other attendees.
One of the most interesting lessons that I learnt in this strategy was thanks to Sandeep Singhal (now of Nexus Venture Partners India). A few years ago, the Mobile2win CEO of India – GK was making a passionate pitch to Sonali De Rycker (now with Accel Venture Partners) for a series B investment. Sandeep and I were present as board members (we had nothing to do with the day to day management of mobile2win). GK was very lucid and charged in his pitch, and I thought that it went well. The next day, Sandeep called me and told me, ‘Alok – Sonali has passed on the investment’. She said, ‘every time GK completed a sentence, he looked at Alok as if to check if he was on track. It showed that Alok, the founder is actually the CEO and not GK. I cannot invest in a company whose CEO is not in real command’.
Look into the eyes of your partners at all times.
Figure out who likes to Dance with whom
I have always noticed that sides between external board members get created instantly when the board meeting starts. It’s almost like dancing partners getting magnetically aligned when the music starts.
Typically, if the meeting is going to point towards an objection or disagreement, you will notice one Board Member (VC) make a strong comment and the other VCs (who are in agreement with that thought) quickly follow suit.
As an entrepreneur, it’s great to get feedback. Pay attention to the groups on your board that think in the same manner. It later helps figuring in out what the motivations of those objections could be and if there is an external influence that is channelizing the discussion, etc.
In my humble experience, VCs typically have a chat on the board-meeting outcome before they enter the room and hence the moves they make inside the room are choreographed.
Pay attention to song requests!
OK – so you are the DJ, but you have to listen to the requests of the floor. One of the biggest failings I see in fellow entrepreneurs and myself is the inability to LISTEN to investors and interpret the point they are making. Sometimes, we (entrepreneurs) get so swept by the passion and emotion of the business that we blank out to anything that doesn’t sound like the tune we like.
A couple of years ago, after raising our series A from Clearstone Venture Partners for games2win, Sumant Mandal (from the Santa Monica office) and Rahul Khanna (from Mumbai) were present for our first board meeting. At that time, we had just started rolling out our larger MMOG game formats. I remember pitching ‘concurrent’ users to the board and Sumant kept asking me the relevance of that metric to the business we were trying to build.
Mentally I kept saying ‘Sumant – that’s what the world measures MMOG performance with’. Almost 2 years later, I realized how meaningless that metric was for a market like India in which concurrency was hardly available. I should have just listened to Sumant carefully rather than spend my time measuring something that was redundant!
Control the Dance Floor
Typically, discussions tend to flow into several directions and it’s common to see the meeting spill over beyond the time slot planned. Your investors may not wait forever. This harms the entrepreneur team who was supposed to expose all the items of the agenda across investors.
It’s a good practice to run a quick run of the PPT (at least I do) and then rewind to slides that either you want to focus on or any of your other external board members may want to discuss further. This allows the not so involved board members to at least get a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the company and not be an ignoramus when they speak about your Company to the outside world.
Get your dance troupe in
Once every alternate board meeting, I usually invite the core team members to come inside the board room and present their slides (integrated into the master presentation) to the board members.
This expands the perspective of how the Company is being managed and is also very encouraging to the team to actually come up and present to a full-blown board, comprising of powerful VCs and other members of your board.
If there is a scuffle, play bouncer!
Rarely but not never, a nice brawl will break out in the boardroom. (This is an excerpt from my recent blog The Toughest Decision of my Life "….Just a month earlier I had come back from Shanghai and attended the most bizarre board meeting ever in my memory. The meeting started at 9 am and by 9:30 am, there was war in the boardroom. 2 Germans (Helmut Struss and Oliver Kolbe from Siemens), 1 Indian (Gopala Krishnan (GK) – the CEO) and 2 Chinese (Peter Hua and an Observer from Softbank) were all screaming at each other simultaneously in German, Chinese and in Hindi (me telling GK to control himself). The issue was typical start-up stuff – scaling up, finances, hiring, firing, etc, etc, and while I let them go at each other (Softbank shouted at GK for pointing fingers at them– a very ‘disrespectful’ act in China)’
In such events, you MUST take control. Disagreements are a good sign – and usually result in a positive outcome. But you must control it before the argument becomes PERSONAL and then turns into a vindictive styled riot.
Everyone in that room is there to create value and hence need to be listened to. In my case above, Siemens and Softbank actually rescued the company from destruction in China!
Ask to teach the steps you don’t know!
Finally, you may be Mr. Know All, but there are lots of moves that are still unknown to you. In my board meetings, what I really appreciate about Rahul & Sumant of Clearstone is their insistence to ask me how they can help my business scale further. Be it introductions, best practice guidelines and definitely recommendations to other VCs – there are always things you want. Be bold enough to stand on that floor and ask the DJ to teach you a move or two!
alok, i have gone through this post so many times but the eye-contact diagram always and still intrigues me :)
since this was written a long time back, do you have any other tips to share with us?!
The nearby washroom is also where the investor might want to check it out as a sample.