Caren Merrick, veteran board member, angel investor and entrepreneur, discusses the importance of emotional intelligence or "EQ" on boardroom dynamics.
Q: Based on your experiences as a board member and a former CEO, how would you complete this sentence: "For a board to be effective . . ."
A: For a board to be effective, its members must demonstrate emotional intelligence. I don't see much written about the impact of emotional intelligence or EQ on board dynamics, yet it's an issue that someone raises almost every time I speak about boards. A general lack of EQ seriously handicaps a board's ability to problem-solve and make informed decisions.
When a board is recruiting a new member, emotional intelligence and relationship building skills are as important to vet as subject matter expertise and experience. Some of the biggest board blowups I've observed had to do with a board member who was more ego-driven to be a star contributor, or didn't know or respect the difference between their role and the CEO's role, or dug in and refused to budge on a particular issue.
A measured approach to navigating highly-charged situations is another often overlooked and undervalued ingredient of an effective board. When disagreements are handled poorly, boards can build factions and become very political.
Q: How has EQ impacted the boards you are sitting on now?
A: I am fortunate at this point in my career to be sitting on some of the most effective boards I've ever been associated with. The boards I'm serving on now have excellent EQ: We don't always agree on everything, but when we do disagree we are mindfully very constructive in our approach to resolving issues.
One board I sit on in particular, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which oversees the $800m business operations of Washington Dulles International Airport and Washington Reagan National Airport in addition to the $6b Dulles Corridor Metrorail and other entities.
This board presents a unique challenge to the CEO Jack Potter, because his board members are all appointees. I've learned a great deal watching Jack cultivate a productive boardroom dynamic between a group of individuals he had no say in appointing, who were each put in place to represent distinct constituencies.
When there are disagreements—and there often are—Jack's approach is deliberative, measured, and involves all of the stakeholders. He's patient, asks a lot of questions and implements a rigorous process to analyze the pros and cons in order to uncover what's really at stake. He's also encouraged board members to think more regionally in their approach to governing the Authority. Since Jack became CEO and began implementing this approach, the MWAA board is functioning at a higher level than before and, I believe not coincidentally, our bond ratings have gone up.
Q: A board can be comprised of successful executives who represent a perfect balance of the right professional skillsets, yet still be dysfunctional. True?
A: Absolutely true. As an angel investor, I'm hyper aware of the high number of startups that ultimately fail, and one of the biggest reasons for that failure rate is investors having a different agenda for a company than its founders.
As an entrepreneur, I'm somewhat biased. In an ideal world, founders could build their public company boards from scratch with people who are wise, aligned, generous and completely independent. In reality, it's difficult to launch a company without using outside capital, so newly-public boards are often faced with the possibility of competing stakeholder agendas. It's very important to get transparency and clarity around those agendas right at the beginning, so the board can build consensus. Otherwise, there is a high risk of factions developing among board members aligned with existing investors versus those aligned with the CEO.
Alignment doesn't mean the board won't disagree—there should always be healthy debate in the boardroom—but alignment does significantly increase the odds of reaching constructive solutions and sustainable growth. This is important, because CEOs find it challenging to rotate investors off a board when major disagreements become a stumbling block.
Entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly savvy to the investor/founder alignment issue, and mindful of it when shopping for capital. I recently met a woman who walked away from venture funding because her investor changed the terms at the last minute. She decided, rather than bring on an investor board member who had their own agenda, she would patiently pursue other sources of funding.
Q: Are there any other factors, in addition to stakeholder alignment and EQ, which contributed to your own company's successful transition from a basement startup to a publicly-traded enterprise?
A: I learned from my own experience that the personal networks of board members are an indispensable resource in scaling a new company, particularly when it reaches an accelerated growth phase. A company requires different skillsets from the board at different stages of its lifecycle: During the early phase, a company is consumed with early wins and surviving; once it gains momentum, it needs board members with experience in scaling an enterprise from $20 million to $200 million, for example. Seasoned executives know the patterns involved in rapid growth, can spot challenges ahead, and help a company block and tackle.
When we took webMethods public, our entire board—angel investors, venture capitalists, founders, and management—were all focused on growth. We deliberately composed a board that was skewed toward functional expertise in growth, and had extensive personal networks we could leverage to make introductions to potential customers, influencers, partners, and key critical employees.
There are a lot of technology startups here in the D.C. region, because so many people here work for government agencies on various projects requiring a high level of technical expertise: DOE, Homeland Security, and EPA, just to name a few. When local tech innovators leverage their technical expertise and experience to start companies, one of the smartest things I consistently see them do is tap former agency heads to join their boards. Not only does the company get that person's technical and government expertise, but it gains access to their network and benefits by association from their professional credibility.
Q: If you knew then what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently when launching your own company?
A: Now that I'm a sitting board member, I realize in my past leadership roles, I should have taken much better advantage of my board members' expertise and the wisdom of their experiences. CEOs—myself included—move so fast defending so many fronts that they don't give themselves the time to check in with directors to discuss challenges or opportunities. Sadly, they leave a lot of valuable insight on the table.
Q: What is the greatest challenge boards face right now?
A: I think the greatest challenge most boards face is trying to stay ahead of what is going on in their markets and industries, and trying to imagine what the future looks like in light of major shifts in local and global economies. Obviously cybersecurity is a huge concern. My boards are requiring more and more of my time to stay current on market and industry dynamics to identify opportunities for the company to create value and avoid crippling risks.
Diversity in the boardroom is crucial for companies to successfully navigate the rapid pace of change happening now: not just gender and ethnicity, which are important, but also diversity of perspective, skillsets, age, and professional disciplines. Boards can no longer afford to be composed solely of former CEOs and CFOs, because they need functional expertise in customer relationship management, digital marketing, cybersecurity, ERP systems, and social media marketing (which is a huge new frontier for boards to understand and tackle).
I learn something new every time I meet with my boards: we have people who have led private equity ventures, enterprise resource planning, supply chain ventures, enterprise marketing, and technology. The questions and insights that come from the diverse perspectives seated around the table at these meetings are impressive and very educational.
Caren Merrick is the CEO of Caren Merrick & Co. Previously, she was founder and CEO of Pocket Mentor, a mobile application and digital publishing company that provides leadership development and career advancement. Caren currently serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, WashingtonFirst Bankshares, Inc. (Nasdaq: WFBI), and The Gladstone Companies (Nasdaq: GAIN, GLAD, GOOD, LAND). She is also a co-founder and former Executive Vice President of webMethods, Inc., a business-to-business enterprise software solution, which went public on Nasdaq before being acquired.
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