I would like to share with the tech community the best experiment I tried in 2019. I asked the founders and CEOs of the start-ups that I’m on the board of for structured feedback on my performance as a board member. This sounds so incredibly obvious and simple, but what I have learned through more than a decade in venture is that it almost never happens, especially not in any structured way.
This lack of feedback for VCs is ironic since board members often impose 360 degree feedback, eNPS scores, and executive coaches on their founders. Board members do hold unique governance and fiduciary responsibilities, and are relied upon to provide strategic input and coaching. But ever since I became a partner at Javelin and started sitting on company boards, I could never get comfortable with why feedback seems to mainly flow in one direction. Why aren’t VCs and boards held to this same standard?
Personally, I also found myself hungry for feedback. Was I doing a good job? Was there something more I should be doing or something I should not be doing? How was I being perceived by the founders and the management team? I knew that directly asking for structured feedback would be the most effective tool in helping me understand what my strengths and weaknesses were as a board member.
I created a very quick and simple 10 question Survey Monkey survey that I circulated to my founders. I was slightly nervous about how it would be received. However, the response was astonishing and extremely positive! Most of my founders were incredulous and pleasantly surprised as they had never experienced this before with their investors or board members. The act of asking for feedback alone, generated a ton of goodwill, acceptance, and praise.
I wanted to share the specific questions I asked in hopes of getting more feedback from the broader ecosystem and potentially sparking the same type of conversations and interactions for other boards. Below is a template that is easy to share if the community finds this useful. Will take 5–10 minutes to enter these into Survey Monkey and generate a shareable link. I would also welcome any suggestions on questions to add onto this list.
- How would you rate me on the dimension of Strategic Guidance as a board director? On a 5 point scale.
- How would you rate me on the dimension of Tangible Help (recruiting, fundraising, BD/Sales, etc) as a board director? On a 5 point scale.
- How can I tangibly help you more?
- How would you rate the quality of feedback and advice given by me? (On a 5 point scale)
- How would you rate my interpersonal skills? (On a 5 point scale)
- How would you rate my communication skills on the following dimensions: frequency, clarity, consistency, tone, and ability to listen (5 — excellent, 1 — needs major improvement)?
- What are some areas of improvement/feedback for me as a board member?
- What are some of my key strengths as a board member?
- What is your general feedback on my board meeting participation?
- How likely or unlikely are you to recommend me to another entrepreneur as a board member? (On a 5 point scale)
By asking where I can be better as a board member, I received eye-opening feedback on communication and interaction style. In some cases, I could have helped an entrepreneur get to a point of clarity on a key hire quicker. In another case, I was asking too many specific questions, which I thought were harmless, but they were un-intentionally setting off a chain of useless workflow at a company because when a board member asks a question everyone drops what they are doing to answer it, even if it isn’t all that important.
I also ended up receiving very actionable and direct guidance from founders on specific initiatives I can help them with such as: beefing up my network (i.e. more relationships with growth stage investors), increasing my operational best practices playbook, or hosting more networking events between operational leaders.
Last, along the communication dimension, I learned my greatest strength is an ability to listen and my weakest attribute is clarity, so that gives me something very specific to work on going forward. Being more clear in my communications is a professional goal of mine for 2020! Very valuable takeaway (among many) I would not have had without this survey.
Below I’ve listed three direct benefits of seeking out feedback in a formal way.
- Safe Space For Founders: The feedback survey gave founders a safe space for constructive feedback. Instead of keeping everything bottled up inside, this was an outlet for them to reinforce what was working and correct issues that had been on their minds for a while. It also signaled that I was genuinely open to feedback and direct dialogue both ways, which improves the overall board dynamic. I take immense pride in the fact that founders don’t hesitate to come to me with bad news and seek out my advice in those tough situations. I believe the fact that I am willing to take criticism and “bad news” about myself makes them even more comfortable that I will be a strong thought partner through challenging times.
- Continuous Improvement: I received actionable, concrete feedback on how I can be a better board member. The feedback varied from how I can communicate and ask founders better questions, unintended consequences of too many board member suggestions, to the board room interpersonal dynamic, to tangible intros and strategic initiatives I can help with. I plan to do this survey on an annual basis to hold myself accountable and monitor my progress.
- Better references: Most competitive funding rounds are won and lost by VCs on their references from previous entrepreneurs they have worked with and boards they have sat on. Are you value-add, value-neutral, or value-subtracting as a board member? How are you in rough times when not everything is up and to the right? Are you a genuinely good person and someone an entrepreneur can trust and want to spend 7–10 years working closely with? Many investors think they are great and delude themselves into thinking that their own founders love them, but they never really took the time to find out objectively. I have been surprised to be in several situations where some of our companies were lucky enough to command multiple term sheets, where it came down to references from entrepreneurs these VCs have worked with. Some of those primary references turned out to be negative. That was a real wake up call for me. This showed how many VCs are oblivious as to how they are perceived by their own entrepreneurs. I was determined not to fall into that bucket.
In conclusion, there is tremendous value from investor board members proactively seeking structured feedback from the entrepreneurs that they back.
The legacy dynamic of feedback primarily flowing from board member to entrepreneur is unfair, outdated, and suppresses the positive value that a board member can have for a company. One of the biggest psychological challenges of being a founder is learning to take feedback from everyone: your customers, your team, your current investors, your prospective investors, etc. If founders can take this feedback every day, VCs should be able to take it at least once/year.
I highly encourage all board members and investors to proactively ask similar questions to their founders, especially since founders might not feel comfortable speaking their mind due to legacy board power dynamics.
It should be a new standard for boards and entrepreneurs to give and receive bidirectional feedback.
You will be surprised by the type of insights you will gain about yourself, which will affirm the positive activities you are doing to help the entrepreneur and their business, give you fresh ideas of how to expand your value-add, and curb potentially negative behavior that you are likely oblivious to. Trust me, the management team of your start-up is most certainly well aware of the behavior, so better to get out in front of it. You will become a better board member, a better partner, and improve your reputation in the process. It’s a no-brainer, win-win activity, and all it takes is the ability to develop some thick skin, exhibit some vulnerability, and hear unvarnished feedback.
Liked what you read? Click 👏 to help others find this article. Would love to hear your thoughts. Find me on Twitter (@Alex_Gurevich) or comment down below.
Actual Founder Feedback
In the spirit of full transparency, here are some direct founder responses on how I can be better as a board member so readers can see the full color of the feedback:
“Main feedback is to continue to focus on listening, being patient, and helping address the problem the CEO / exec team are trying to solve. Understand that whatever urgency you are feeling from a certain situation, the CEO is probably feeling it 10x more and thinking about it 24/7, so the more patience and steadiness you can demonstrate to help us navigate, the better.”
“There were one or two instances where it was somewhat unclear as to what exact financial info was wanted, and our Head of Finance had to overwork in order to deliver. That could be our fault as much as Alex’s. And the problem has not recurred recently. But perhaps with less experienced teams, make sure to specify what is and isn’t needed, because our tendency will be to over-deliver, even if it costs us efficiency.”
“Areas to improve: I have one big piece of feedback: zooming out and getting out of the weeds. The flip side of you helping out so much is that sometimes you go too far into the weeds which has two big unintended consequences: 1. Your desire to help creates more work than I think you anticipate. For example, if you give feedback or ask a question on something small (e.g. web site design or a particular marketing campaign) — I want to get your answers, but that means I have to pass your question/feedback down the chain. The impact is every manager between that junior employee who made the call and me now digs in because they want to make sure they impress or don’t look bad in front of a board member. So your one minor question or feedback can actually take up hours of the company’s time — which I don’t think you actually intend. 2. The risk of giving feedback that is very specific is you don’t have all the context — which can end up then costing additional time. For example, if I let you know a problem we are having with an internal process and you give detailed feedback about how to fix (e.g. tracking progress on the major initiatives) — it’s not especially effective because you aren’t super deep in so then we have to take the time to walk through it. I think at times this causes you to get frustrated because you feel I’m not taking your advice.”
By asking about my strengths (Question 8), I confirmed the areas where I was already strong and should double down. Some examples for me were: acting like a true partner, showing that I cared about the start-up almost as much as the founders, being ever-present and available, maintaining positivity and calmness even through challenging conversations, and being a good listener.
Some examples of founder responses in regards to my strengths:
“Alex is always positive and listens and provides meaningful and helpful feedback. Alex told us this when we were pitching — and it remains to be true — that he’s the guy who wants the 3am phone calls. This is so true and Alex has really delivered on this. Alex is available to hop on the phone or text literally any time. An answer or feedback is almost always less than an hour from when we reach out. I don’t know how he juggles this, but it really does feel like Alex is ever-present — like he’s a co-leader of the company.”
“Alex emphasizes concrete and quantifiable evidence driving decisions, but maintains an understanding of the “soft”/human side of our business. He is consistently demanding, pushing us to push ourselves, but he always feels positive and fundamentally supportive.”
“One of best relationship builders I know. Direct, friendly, fun. Really look forward to spending time with you. 2) Reliable / hustles for us 3) Great at making intros/connections 4) Good at asking questions, pushing but in respectful way.”
“Will do anything. You are the definition of a value added investor. You help more than almost any other investor I know. You help close deals (e.g. Christina), recruit investors, close candidates and even organize company events (e.g. TED). You’re extremely responsive, aren’t afraid of the work and willing to jump right in. I love this. I think it not only helps the company in big ways, but it helps increase trust between you and the executive team because they know you aren’t afraid to jump in to help and fight alongside them. It makes you a partner vs just an investor. Huge strength.”