Venture is an apprenticeship business. Becoming an accomplished venture investor requires learning from another accomplished investor willing to give you their time. This along with everyday experience, or laps around the track as one of my great mentors commonly said, is what it takes to find success in this business.
Observing a board early in your career is one of the best ways to get experience, and it certainly is a big step towards the next level of your career.
So, what is it like to observe a board for the first time?
Well, the first one is actually pretty exciting. Getting a seat at the table takes time. Once there, you get to see how the meeting is run, analyze the questions being asked, and hear the answers in the heat of the moment.
Initially, it is likely you will feel a little behind. Catching up on past board meetings and the goals of the company may take some time. Asking questions, whether during the meeting or after, is important to get to a point where you feel comfortable. As an observer, you don’t vote and have limitations but should still feel empowered to participate and offer your thoughts where appropriate. This may vary depending on the makeup of the board, but the existing board will (or at least should) welcome you and appreciate your input.
How do you get a seat at the table?
Like I said, getting a seat at the table takes time. There are things you can do to expedite the process. The most obvious method is simply telling a partner at your firm. Let a partner at your firm know you’d like to become an observer so they are aware you have interest in doing so. My first opportunity to sit in on a board meeting was due to one partner at my firm needing someone to take meeting minutes.
Also, ask your team what you need to do prior to observing a board. Being in a position to add value to the board is important, so try working with a portfolio company consistently if you want to observe their board. If you are able to learn the business and show your team and the entrepreneur you can provide value to the board, you will be much more likely to get a seat.
Based on my time being an observer, there is a lot that goes into a successful and effective board meeting but with two key focus areas for a young VC.
(1) Pay attention to the soft skills and subtle reactions of the board.
What questions were asked, why, and what was the response in the moment? This will tell you a lot about the board. This goes more towards “soft skills” and learning how to react during a meeting. I was lucky to observe a board during a time of transitioning leadership which offered great experience in how the board managed substantial change. A number of difficult decisions had to be made and it was very helpful to soak up the information and actions of everyone in the meeting.
(2) Have a patient outlook on the meetings and devise your own strategies, even if you don’t get to vocalize them at the meetings.
These board meetings are usually bigger picture discussions with long-term goals. Take a few weeks to digest the information and look into how questions were answered in the moment. How would those answers have changed over time? What actions were taken after the fact?
It also helps to come up with your own strategies in a no-risk environment. Even if you don’t get to discuss your ideas at the meetings, it is great practice. Record your own thoughts and evaluate them over time to see if you were right or way off base. Hopefully you will get the opportunity to review the board meetings with a partner or more senior member of the team. One of my mentors analogized these opportunities as “real case studies” compared to something you would get in the classroom for an MBA. Talk through scenarios with the team to get the most out of the position.
At the end of the day, it’s a great learning experience preparing you for your first board seat.
Ultimately, board observing as a junior VC is one method to taking the next step in your career. If you have an opportunity to observe a board, take it. At the very least let the partners at your firm know you’d like to observe. Be patient, listen, learn, and soak up as much of the experience as possible.