The rise of startups and accelerators in cities across Canada has presented new pathways for entrepreneurs to join boards. Being a board member is no longer relegated to traditional setups, where senior leaders give counsel to banks, universities, and not-for-profits.
As leaders have a greater opportunity to lend their skills and vision, how do you ensure you’re engaged with a board that’s aligned with your values and goals? The partnership is as much about what you want to gain. Here’s how three board members made their decisions and what questions to ask yourself:
Jacqueline Leung, founder, Pressed News
Member since: January 2019
Meeting frequency: Monthly
When we get together there’s a lot of discussion about the product Notable is working on. We help them decide: is this a good project? Is this something that millennials actually want? We’re a collective of about 20 people from different industries across the GTA, who represent the people that Notable talks to on its website. We help them be that voice. I bring the entrepreneur voice. There are a lot of people on the board who aren’t entrepreneurs. Some have built their own careers and some people are influencers.
The biggest thing for me was timing and fit. I was involved with the Notable Awards last year and I won the Notable Woman of the Year. A couple of months later they reached out and asked if I would be on the board. The time requirement was right for us. In terms of fit, I’ve followed Notable for many years and to be part of the company was exciting for me.
Another question I asked, “who else is going to be on the board?” I wanted to ensure there were people I respected, looked up to, and could learn from.
A big part of what I got out of the board was the other members. The first day we met, Notable did speed networking where we got together for 50 minutes. It was valuable. From there we were able to make great connections for our network and businesses. I’ve already built a partnership with one of the girls - we’re running an event together with Pressed.
I feel like boards are old school. There’s not a lot of flexibility in how they choose people as members or how they get rid of them. If someone isn’t performing well or someone isn’t contributing in a positive way, it’s difficult to get them off the board, because there’s votes and timing for votes and a certain amount of people who have to vote. I’d like to see a more flexible way to identify how people have been performing and contributing to the culture.
There’s this idea that being on a board is prestigious and everyone wants to be on a board for some reason to put it on their resume. I’ve heard people say they want to be on a board, because they want to put it on their LinkedIn. That’s annoying. I would never put my time into something I didn’t believe in. That goes back to me saying that there are people on boards who don’t perform well, because they aren’t there for the right reasons.
Kevin O’Brien, President & GM, WW Canada (formerly Weight Watchers)
Boards: Ryerson DMZ, Ivey Advisory Board
Member since: DMZ: 3 years, Ivey: 10+ years
Meeting frequency: DMZ: on demand; Ivey: bi-annual
With the DMZ, we have a few board meetings a year where we’ll review plans, seek input from the advisory council. It’s not a true board. We don’t need to approve anything. There are a number of things they’ll look to do throughout during the year and part of what you do is make yourself and your network available to help them advance their goals. That’s typically either the DMZ themselves wanting to be in touch with people or advance initiatives or it could be with one of their startups. You can get as involved with startups as you choose to. That’s part of what interests me, is to be able to work with that startup community. The DMZ is nine people.
The Ivey Advisory Board is about 45 to 50 people. We meet twice a year and go through a detailed review of what’s happening at the school and provide counsel to the Dean. The board plays a role as a brand protector. The board is populated by people who are Ivey grad and who have achieved relatively senior leadership roles or commercial success in their careers. We try to make sure we’re provocative in some of the things the school should be thinking about. Most recently there was task forces around Ivey’s embracement and evolution as it relates to tech and the use of tech and educational delivery.
The most successful people I know, are the most involved people I know. They sit on the most boards. They’re involved in the most not-for-profits. They take leadership roles in the honorary chair of the Ride To Conquer Cancer. Or they’ll chair a campaign at a hospital. These are people who are busy but they make it happen because they know it’s important.
Don’t stick with the same people you work with every day. You also want to challenge yourself and put yourself out there to get exposed to new things. If you’re only staying in your swim lane, then you’re not going to do that in the same way. This will pull you into different issues and topics, with a different cross section of people. It’s useful to keep your mind open, which leads to creativity and innovation.
I get more value from getting involved in things that are a bit out of sphere of my day-to- day, but that I’m still interested in and passionate about. It builds your network, it stretches you more, challenges you more and gives fresher perspectives.
What doesn’t work well is when people join boards that they’re not interested in because of the topic. There has to be some connection - personal interest, professional opportunity, and fit with the work you’re doing. On Tarragon for example, it meant that my wife and I would go to Tarragon Theatre - that’s something we would have done anyway. It fit with my board involvement and my personal life. The more of those things you can bring together in the same one, the more effective you’ll be a board member and the less it’s going to feel like an extra thing.
There’s an opportunity for boards to structure themselves to a hybrid perspective and diversity of perspective. Boards have come a long way on gender diversity and socio-economic and visual minorities. I still think there’s more room for diversity of perspective.
I grew up in a family business and more of an entrepreneurial environment and that can become an insular world at times. It makes it difficult to develop a support network that’s broader. A board is one of the ways you can build a support community that you need and continue to challenge yourself with personal and professional involvement. The more you work on a board is the better you are working with a board. If entrepreneurs have a board, then that’s valuable experience.
Stephen Lake, co-founder, NORTH
Member since: 2013
Meeting frequency: Quarterly
Communitech is a critical resource for driving Canadian innovation and supporting the technology sector within Waterloo. They’ve been a huge help to us and joining their board almost six years ago was an opportunity for me to support their mission of helping our local tech community thrive. In my role, I help shape the strategy of where we should best focus our efforts to support our community.
I’m passionate about helping Canada become a great place to build and scale innovative companies. If my experience can be useful to help improve the ecosystem or shape policy to improve our ability to build those companies here, then I’m interested in helping. I’ve always been a huge supporter of Waterloo’s tech community, which is why I’ve kept my company headquarters here, and it’s nice to be aligned with a group of talented people that support the same mission.
Spending time on a board provides another level of perspective. As a co-founder and CEO, my work is inevitably focused on the day-to-day of my own business. As a board member, you’re able to step back and look at the ecosystem more cohesively. You think about how and where one might make long-term improvements or investments.
One thing I worked on with alongside Communitech was the development of the Global Skills visa program, which made it easier for high-growth Canadian companies to bring skilled workers into the country faster and more reliably. As a board member with Communitech, I had a larger platform and a wider audience for these efforts, which eventually led to the roll-out of the new program. We’ve made incredible use of this program at North.
One challenge I’ve seen in some public-sector boards, in particular Canadian universities, are boards that are too large. Often in these cases it can become difficult to inflect change, and the organization may tend towards a risk-averse strategic path that is less innovative and less potentially impactful than it otherwise could be.
Victoria Lennox, co-founder, Startup Canada
Boards: Rideau Hall Foundation and the Government of Canada Talent Cloud Advisory
Member since: 2018
Meeting frequency: As needed
I joined the Innovation Advisory Council to provide insights and advice on the Governor General Innovation Awards and another innovative programming of the foundation. I decided to participate because of the opportunity to make an impact on the national and global stage through the Foundation. I brought with me 15 years of experience as a social entrepreneur driving national and globally programming for entrepreneurs, and innovators, including Canada’s premier Awards program for entrepreneurs through Startup Canada.
Questions I ask myself as a board member: Do I believe in the organization and the team behind it? Does the organization and its mission align with my values and purpose? Can I bring the necessary perspective to contribute to strengthening the organization and program? Will my presence and contribution matter and make a difference? I’ve had the opportunity to connect with a diverse Council of leaders to learn and share perspectives.
Organizations that decide to recruit a board must understand why they are doing it. They must invest time to ensure they provide advisors and board members with the opportunity to contribute and see the impact of their contributions. There’s no value in having an advisor or board director for namesake only. If you’re going to recruit a board, be sure to engage them by equipping them with the information and opportunities to make an impact.