Published on Nov 16, 2023
Changing your mindset around board management can go a long way in actually improving the way you work with your board. Just ask Phil Libin—investor, board member, founder, and CEO.
As the co-founder and CEO of All Turtles and mmhmm (and before that, co-founder and CEO of Evernote), Phil has spent a lot of time figuring out how to successfully build and scale a business. And as a current investor and board member of many startups, Phil’s no stranger to the other side of the equation either.
We sat down with Phil to figure out what sets successful companies (and founders and boards) apart. Turns out, it all starts with changing your mindset.
Here are 5 lessons we learned from our conversation with Phil:
Founders tend to think they work for their investors. But in reality, your investors are here to help you. They want your company to be successful—just like you do—and ideally that means offering more than just financial support. So instead of worrying about what your investors want to see from you, start asking yourself what you want to see from them.
When it come so to working with a board, your psychology matters. And all too often, founders go into those relationships with a deficit mindset. If you think of building a board as giving up board seats, you’re going to end up with crappy board members.
Instead, you have to see it as recruiting board members. Which is to say, find people who you genuinely want to work with and invite them to join you. If they say yes, you know you both believe in what you’re trying to achieve. And yes, the same goes for investors. Even if your agreement includes a board seat for your VC, you always have the option of requesting who you want to join you.
Anytime you’re considering working with someone, you have to ask yourself three questions:
How useful is this person?
How much do I trust them?
How much can I rely on them?
Usefulness is the most pragmatic. Does this person know enough to be advantageous? Do they tend to give you good advice? Do they have the bandwidth they’ll need in order to show up and engage in the ways you need them to?
Trust, in this context, means you know someone is always going to act in your best interest. If you can’t trust someone, it’s best not to work with them (seriously, if you figure out you don’t trust someone before you take their money, just walk away). And there’s no such thing as trusting someone a little—trust is binary, you either have it or you don’t.
Reliability often gets conflated with trust, but it’s actually a bit different. When you ask yourself if someone is reliable, you’re really asking if you can count on them to actually do what they say they’re going to do.
People put too much emphasis on board meetings, but it’s actually pretty unlikely that anything will happen during a meeting that’s genuinely useful to you.
Let’s say you go to the doctor once a year. Would you look up how to have a good doctor appointment? Probably not. Because as it turns out, optimizing your health doesn’t have all that much to do with a single visit to the doctor. But if you focused on taking care of your health every other day of the year, you’d have a better chance of your appointment going well.
Working with your board is no different. Quarterly meetings probably aren’t going to change the game. Collaborating with your board on an ongoing basis—doing useful work with useful, trustworthy, reliable people—that’s what’s going to have the biggest impact.
Your board and investors can be an immensely valuable source of information and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask questions when you have them. A lot of founders make the mistake of acting like they know everything, but your board members aren’t evaluating you on what you know—they’re evaluating you on what you want to know.
You get credit for wanting to learn about something important and you’re going to be impressive to people when they see you working to figure out interesting things. The key is putting the effort in to ask good questions, which isn’t trivial. You have to come into things with a learner’s mindset and put real thought into what you want to know and what you’re going to do to figure it out.