The Founder Whisperers

18th November 2019
Chairperson - The Founder Whisperers
By Tom Matthews

Being a founder is far from easy. You have put blood, sweat and tears into building your business, probably over many, many years. You have suffered setbacks and disappointment along the way. You’ve likely had moments when you came close to giving up.

But, it’s also an extremely exciting adventure. You are one of only a handful of people that have taken the leap to build your own business and become master of your own destiny.

At Pemba, we understand that for founders it can be lonely at the top. There is often no one to go to for advice or support.

When we back a business seeking to achieve ambitious growth, one of the first things we do is introduce a Chairperson to the board. Why? Because the right person with the right experience and skills, can complement the founder, enhance the development of the management team and materially improve decision-making and the investment outcome.

I thought I’d take the time to ask some of the founders I work with “[in their opinion] what makes a great chairperson?”. Many of the responses I got started by covering “what a good chairperson is not”.  The unanimous view was a good Chair is not someone who just turns up once a month to chair a board meeting and over-burden the business with too much regulation, governance and red tape.

Rather a good chairperson has the following common characteristics:
  1. Experience relevant to the specific journey the founder is on. Have they done it before? Is their expertise in the same or a related industry? Have they successfully navigated similar challenges the founder is currently facing? Growing a company from $50m to $200m is very different from having taken one from $200m to $500m
  2. The best chairs listen intently – they have a rare talent of being able to synthesise multiple viewpoints from around the boardroom table, succinctly summarise these back and help the founder come to the right way forward themselves.
  3. The right level of EQ. Founders, by their very nature, typically do not respond well to being told what to do. Good chairmen don’t direct but rather facilitate, guide and share their experiences to help founders make better decisions.
  4. Commitment – great Chairs make regular time outside of board meetings to spend with the founder and their management teams. They help out during key events along the journey, such as an acquisition or major tender, and share their experiences and advice.  Their commitment can also extend to a financial commitment. At Pemba, we like our chairpersons to invest in the company alongside us, the founder and management team. They become part of the journey
  5. A good Chair needs to strike the right balance of challenge and mentorship
  6. The Chair should help the founder maintain a clear picture of where the business needs to be heading in order to achieve its strategy. One of the biggest benefits a Chair can bring is helping the founder correctly prioritise the key initiatives to deliver the growth plan and turn the strategic vision into a reality.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with some great Chairpersons over the years in both the UK and Australia.

At Pemba, we’re always on the look-out for talented people and great companies. Please get in touch if you’d like a conversation about what we might be able to do together.

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