As a startup founder, one of your most important tasks toward long-term success is building a supportive board of directors.
However, a supportive board doesn’t just cheer you on — it operates as a brain trust.
Ed Catmull, former CEO of Pixar, delves into this concept in his book Creativity, Inc.:
One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.Source: FastCompany
An effective startup board feels a lot like Pixar’s braintrust – many different people, from many different backgrounds, with divergent opinions, who candidly and respectfully wrestle with tough questions. A meritocracy of ideas.
This means frequent disagreement and differing perspectives shared – even if the board votes unanimously after debate.
In this approach, the CEO ultimately serves as an orchestrator – soliciting different opinions and asking for perspectives from those who haven’t weighed in.
This leadership approach allows a CEO to identify his or her blindspots, encourage better decision making, and bring candid and respectful debate front and center at board discussions.
It also cuts down on behind-the-scenes phone calls, a “he said / she said” dynamic, and strengthens trust and alignment – because views and disagreements are aired in the open, and ultimately resolved openly.
A board that operates as a braintrust encourages debate and respectful dissent, proactively asks for ways to improve, operates on the principles of “disagree but commit”, all while cultivating psychological safety a la Google (read more).
It doesn’t always feel good, but if approached respectfully — with the mentality of a ‘hierarchy of good ideas’ rather than a ‘hierarchy of authority’ — it will create better long-term outcomes for your company.