If Your Board Were “The Avengers”

Your next board of advisors will make your company — or at least help it be an entertaining disaster.
Your next board of advisors will make your company — or at least help it be an entertaining disaster.

Eric Schultz, HubCast Chairman and a Venture Partner at Ascent, clearly has been studying his superhero movies closely. Here Eric shares his thoughts on the similarities between Board of Directors dynamics and The Avengers. Read more of Eric’s work on the Ascent blog and on his personal blog, The Occasional CEO.

For the half-dozen of you global citizens who missed their latest movie, “The Avengers” are a group of quirky superheroes who come together on a regular basis to save the world.

If you are a CEO, you’ll recognize this as nothing less than a board of directors. All of which got me to thinking… what if your directors were “The Avengers”. . .??

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Let’s begin by admitting that every board needs a Hulk. He doesn’t say much, relying on simple, practical tactics, like sheer brute force. Here’s an example. One day we presented a new, improved sales model to our board. It took about 15 minutes, there were lots of questions about organization, metrics, value statements and compensation structure. The Hulk didn’t say anything until the very end of the discussion when we were about to move on. Then he peered over the chocolate chip muffin he was clearly enjoying and asked, “Do you have enough sales people to pull this off?” I looked at the COO. Oops. We were probably cutting it a little tight. So, we asked for two more headcount, which was approved immediately. 

That’s the kind of thing the Hulk does for you on a board – cuts through the fancy rhetoric and gets to the heart of the matter.

Every board needs a Captain America, too, the steady conscience of the company. When you say, “We want to dominate this market” he shakes his head and says, “You mean, of course, you want to lead in this market segment.” When you’re so angry with a competitor you want to begin dumpster-diving in their headquarters parking lot, he pulls you back to safe ground. He fights you on the inclination to disregard non-competes, and toes the line to the point of occasionally making you seasick. But when there’s a difficult personnel decision, or an important legal call, or a hard competitive judgment, everyone looks to the Captain. And he always lingers at the end of the meeting to thank you and your team for working hard in the last quarter (even when you missed budget) – and for the excellent chocolate chip muffins.

Iron Man. No board is really complete without its billionaire playboy genius. Look to him for big sky thinking. Meet with him often for coffee and jet fuel. Listen hard when he says crazy stuff, like “you might try giving the product away” or “we should be raising $25 million, not $10 million.” Oh, and make sure he chairs your Compensation Committee; you always want the chair of your Comp Committee to be living life two or three decimal points to the left of wherever you and your team are living life.

Black Widow is about both talent and diversity. Even though it’s 2013, there are still too many boards limited to big green guys and billionaire playboys. I looked up Black Widow on Wikipedia and it says she is a world class athlete, gymnast, acrobat, aerialist, expert martial artist, marksman and weapons expert. She is also an accomplished ballerina. From this description we can only assume she was an undergraduate at Princeton, has an MBA from Stanford, and is the only person on your board who will stare down the Hulk when he gets excited. She is also an expert in hand-to-hand, house-to-house, tactical combat, which is where most business is really won. Do you know how comforting it is to have someone on your board who can pirouette while throwing a chopblock? Go for two Black Widows. And never forget the importance of diversity.

On the other hand, Hawkeye doesn’t get on my board. He knows all about arrows. In fact, he knows everything there is to know about arrows. And that’s all he knows, and that’s all he can talk about. This is the board member you brought on because he had a “good network in the industry.” He introduced you to his three important contacts, and now his network is your network. Hawkeye doesn’t do strategy. He doesn’t do tactics. He’s not a clear thinker. He tells the same three stories at every board meeting, and they’re always about arrows. 

Maybe Hawkeye can stay as an Observer, but only if he stops chatting up your receptionist and bugging Black Widow for a date.

Never confuse Hawkeye with Thor, however. They may both pull up to the building in flashy sports cars. They may each have only one weapon--but Thor’s weapon shakes the board table. And he’s a demigod, which means he’s probably launched three or four successful companies and has a very broad set of experiences. Everyone shuts up when Thor talks. He’s a clear thinker, knows you have to fail sometimes to succeed, and is supportive as heck of management. He’s always sending you to lunch to meet with someone interesting from one of his other investments. He has great tickets to the Red Sox. Plus, Thor’s brother is also a demigod, which means he is undoubtedly a VC with additional good connections for both fundraising and talent. Having a director who has been successful in a variety of industries, one who can bring down the hammer when required, is a powerful weapon for a CEO.

So, that’s my “Avengers” board. A clear thinker, a straight-shooter, a big sky person, a street fighter and an experienced demigod. They tell you the truth, keep you honest, protect the investment, and network the company into new opportunities. Occasionally they save the world.

And then, of course, at the close of each board meeting they turn to you and ask, “What have you done for me this quarter?”