I’ve had the opportunity to be the oddball on boards of directors in industries that were well outside my core skill set. Despite my initial disorientation, I was warmly embraced by the members and trustees for bringing in a fresh new way of viewing their businesses. My experiences on these boards inspired me to study executives who have been tasked with constructing boards, so I could better understand the diversity they bring to the process of corporate governance.
Look for the microbrewer
My first subject was with the leader of major auto manufacturer’s autonomous vehicle division. We discussed the normal suspects one might include on such a board — technical luminaries, private sector dignitaries, venture capitalist community representatives and the like.
What I didn’t expect was the advice he offered me next about unconventional skills. He would never have a board that did not include the founder of a startup microbrewery, he said.
You’re probably saying this does not compute for the autonomous vehicle board of one of the world’s largest auto manufacturers. But bear with me; his reasons make sense.
Sure, the culture of grassroots brewers couldn’t be more different from that of the auto industry. But he found that the nuances of marketing beers and hard ciders could easily be applied to getting consumers to embrace disruptive transportation technologies (or any new consumer product, for that matter).
The artisan beer market has become so competitive that it depends on very subtle differences in the wide variety of hops and yeast being used. Being able to clearly communicate those subtleties is the difference between success and failure in the rapidly growing beer-fanatic market.
On that point, the best artisan brewers are masters of the cool factor. They typically have small or nonexistent advertising budgets, so much of the buzz needs to be created via hip tastings, event sponsorships that align with their target customers and eye-shocking labels. Anyone who has walked into a major beer and liquor store knows how paralyzing it can be to decide which of the hundreds of psychedelic labels and crazy names should be purchased for the party. A successful artisan brewer knows how to stand out in a very crowded beer aisle.
Bring on the skeptic
I know firsthand that the second unconventional member to have on a board is one with a healthy dose of skepticism. I have years of experience working with media and marketing data, and it’s that expertise that has honed my critical eye. The perspective I’ve gained proved pivotal when I had the opportunity to sit on two boards in the healthcare and surgical field, where my background couldn’t have been more different from that of my board peers.
But the reason I was brought in was because, as in many governance groups, the board’s decision making had become so calcified with previous-generation thinking, the only way to innovate was to bring in a professional skeptic and disruptor, aka me. The reason I found myself in this position is that regardless of the industry, every company is technically a media company because of its need for compelling content, data and analytics so as to create engagement in a competitive marketplace. In my case, even the most renowned surgeons or healthcare technologists were unable to understand or address these key content and data issues at the governance level.
Call in the competition
My former chairman (and mentor) at IDG was a luminary in the media and research world. He ran what many of us called a painfully decentralized company, where every business unit manager was an entrepreneur of his or her own business. He operated with a Darwinian mentality, since many of the business units competed directly with each other, and not necessarily at a friendly level because there was limited differentiation among their products.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, my chairman always appointed a member of a competing division to our board. Needless to say, this made many of the board presentations somewhat uncomfortable. But given the transparency required in these meetings, it resulted in a very interesting dynamic of establishing a unique market position so as to minimize the perception of internal competition. More important, it unearthed areas of cooperation that would not have occurred in isolation at the board meetings.
These are just a few of the unconventional yet valuable board members I’ve come to know. Think of others — such as human resources and IT leadership that could also more effectively learn the business by being part of the governance council. Board appointments should not be made only for governance purposes but rather, they should be designed to share the firsthand inner workings of a business with the internal service organizations tasked with providing excellent service to these businesses.