Startup Governance

The recent debacle involving LaunchVic and 500 Startups comes at a time when startups and entrepreneurs are facing increased public scrutiny over their ethical behaviour. Having a great idea, building an innovative or disruptive business, and attracting investors is not carte blanche to disregard corporate governance and social responsibility obligations. So how do we instil a better “moral compass” among startups and their founders?

The TV sitcom, “Silicon Valley”, is drawn from experience of the software industry, but it also reveals much that ails the startup economy. As funny as it is, the series also highlights some painful truths. Scenes where founders “trade” equity in their non-existent companies are just one aspect of how startups can develop an over-inflated sense of their own worth. These interactions also reveal how startups can reward inappropriate behaviour – if sweat equity is the only way founders can “pay” their team, it can lead to distorted thinking and impaired judgement, because the incentive to go along with poor decision-making is greater than the threat of any immediate sanction.

A key challenge for any startup is knowing when to seek external advice – not just legal, tax or accounting services, but an independent viewpoint. Many startups don’t bother (or need) to establish a board of directors – and if they do, they normally consist of only the founders and key shareholders. The role of independent, non-executive directors is probably under-valued by startups. But even an advisory board (including mentors who may already be guiding the business) would allow for some more formal and impartial debate.

Another challenge for startups is that in needing to attract funding, they can find themselves swimming with the sharks, so doing due diligence on potential investors is a critical task in building a sustainable cap table that will benefit the longer term aims of the business.

Equally, if startup founders are motivated to “do their own thing”, because they are driven by purpose or a higher cause, or they simply want to make a difference, they can risk having to compromise their values in order to engage with bigger, more-established companies. So they may end up emulating the very behaviours they sought to change or challenge. Neither startups nor big corporations have a monopoly on unethical behaviour, but if founders stray from their original founding principles, they will soon alienate their stakeholders.

Finally, nurturing the “conscience” of a startup is not something that should be left to the founder(s) alone. The vision has to be shared with, and owned by everyone involved, especially as the business scales. Everything should be measured or tested against this criteria – “does it stay true to or enhance our reason for being here?” Without a clear sense of what is important to a startup, it will also struggle to convey its core value proposition.

Next week: Digital Richmond


What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne

“I’m old, not obsolete”

In the recent “Terminator” sequel, Arnold Schwarzenegger coins a new catchphrase: “I’m old, but I’m not obsolete”. He may not be the latest android, but he has learned to adapt, he is still relevant and his purpose remains consistent. A bit like older workers, then: not ready to be consigned to the scrap-heap, consistent and reliable, and even capable of being upgraded (as Arnie is towards the end of the film).

Terminator Genisys

Remaining relevant is tough, even for a Terminator….  (Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures)

A great deal of the discussion on employee engagement, business productivity, workplace flexibility and career transition talks about what we do with older employees, particularly those in their 50’s, who often struggle to find comparable work when they are retrenched or “restructured”.

Many 50-somethings can vouch for the fact that making a career transition into another full-time role can be extremely difficult. In my own case, I left my last corporate position just after I turned 50, and I soon realised it would be virtually impossible to find the exact same or similar permanent role elsewhere. So I embarked on a portfolio of interests (non-executive board positions, consulting work, contract roles and entrepreneurship) in order to remain “economically active”.

Over the past four years, in order to remain active, retrain and build my professional networks, I have:

  • completed the AICD Company Director course
  • served on a number of advisory and pop-up boards
  • launched this weekly blog, and written for 3rd party sites
  • coached business owners and entrepreneurs
  • competed in a FinTech hackathon and a MedTech startup competition
  • consulted in the education, public, NFP, publishing, manufacturing, technology and professional services sectors
  • joined numerous MeetUp and networking groups
  • participated in the Lightning Conference on Victoria’s StartUp Future
  • developed a new app for employee performance management,
  • trained as a presenter on community radio, and
  • become a participant and adviser at the Slow School of Business.

As part of my plan to become familiar with new technology, I have also built a side-project to record and release my own music via Bandcamp and Soundcloud, incorporating many iOS apps for which I am a beta-tester.

Not all of this activity is remunerated, yet the people I work with all tell me how much they value my unique input and original insight, and so I keep on doing it. Given the need/expectation to work longer, and the continued tinkering with tax, super and income rules and policies, I’m not sure many of us can ever think about full-time “retirement” (whatever that now means).

I’m aware that there are some ad hoc initiatives to engage older workers as mentors for new entrants to the workplace. While such projects are well-meaning, and may have some desirable benefits, they are not yet financially sustainable, and don’t address the core issue that the expectation of full-time, permanent, lifelong employment is no longer realistic, and we will all have to adapt to these new circumstances.

On the few occasions I have considered full-time roles, I am staggered that so many prospective employers seem incapable of thinking outside the box: on the one hand, they say they want diversity and fresh thinking; but on the other, they resort to the habit of appointing square pegs for square holes.

There is a real sense among many of my peers that their age counts against them, because either employers don’t believe they can learn new technology or processes, or that their previous seniority means they are only interested in roles where they can wait out their retirement, or simply “direct traffic”, rather than getting their hands dirty. Which is both insulting and demoralising. I recall one early discussion where the recruitment consultant said, “despite what the ad says, the business just wants a safe pair of hands – someone who has done the exact same role in a similar organisation for the past 20 years”. How does that support diversity, in particular, cognitive diversity?

So, my question to employers, hiring managers, industry bodies and policy-makers is: when will you truly embrace the challenge of (and opportunity for) change in your hiring and employment practices, and how do older age workers fit into your thinking (if at all)?

Next week: Startups, VC’s and Entrepreneurs

How to work with #Boards

At some point in your career, you will find yourself working with Boards. In particular, if you are appointed to a CEO role, or if you are part of an executive team, there is an expectation or requirement that you will attend regular Board meetings, and you will need to develop the necessary skills and expertise to navigate the process.


Board meetings don’t have to be as daunting as this… (The SPECTRE hierarchy as portrayed in “Thunderball”)

The following comments were crowdsourced from a group of senior executives and non-executive directors who were asked to share their views on how someone in a senior management role should prepare prior to presenting at a Board meeting – in particular, where there may have been a change of Chairman, a new CEO or new appointments to the Board. It’s designed to be part “how to” guide, part coaching tool, and part insight drawn from actual experience – and in some cases, the comments answer the question “what I wish I’d known before I stepped into the Board meeting…”.

The comments have been divided into three sections:

  1. Governance
  2. Relationship between the Chairman and CEO
  3. Presenting to Boards

1. Governance

How are Board meetings run?

1) From experience, working with a Board really depends on how the Chairman likes to run things. The Chairman is usually assisted by the Company Secretary (or a Secretariat), or other legal officer of the organisation, who may also form part of the senior management team.

2) The Secretary is responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly for the Board members. In addition to supporting the Chairman, the Secretary schedules the Board meeting, circulates the relevant notices and papers in advance, prepares the meeting agenda, and records the minutes. (In some organisations the CEO will be as involved in preparing for a Board meeting as the Secretary.) The Secretary will also assist the Chairman in ensuring the meeting is conducted in an orderly fashion, and in accordance with the company constitution and any other rules governing meetings.

3) If you have been asked to attend a Board meeting to report on an important project or to present a new initiative, it should be noted in the agenda. Depending upon protocol, you may only be invited into the room at the designated point in the agenda. You may find that you don’t have a vote at the meeting (and in general, your voice should only be heard when your contribution is actively invited!) and you may be asked to leave again before a formal vote is taken.

4) A good Chairman will invite comments from all attendees at the Board meeting, especially where external or specific expertise is being sought. Although other Board members will want to ask questions of senior managers and anyone else presenting, it will depend on etiquette, and they may need to direct these questions via the Chairman.

Board Induction

5) The CEO and the executive team can help the Chairman in the induction of new Board members, something that the Secretary should be able to facilitate. For new Directors, it may not be easy to understand the organisation, or what is expected of them, or what their contribution should be.

6) The transition will be harder for Board members coming from the private sector into the government sector, or vice versa. A Board Induction Manual is an invaluable tool for a new Board member to familiarise themselves with the organisation. The CEO should also ask their managers to stand in the Directors’ shoes for a minute to work out what the new Board member may need (and not assume they already have everything they require.)

7) If a relationship can be built through the induction process, then it should be easier to understand where new Board members are coming from, identify their key areas of knowledge or expertise, know what their risk appetite is and anticipate where their interests will lie.

Board Renewal – managing change

8) Most Board members are elected or appointed for fixed terms, ensuring that there is a renewal process. In some cases, there will be a full spill, and the formation of a totally new Board.

9) One of the understandable traps that the CEO and management team may fall into is assuming they have to maintain the status quo – which may or may not meet the needs and expectations of the new Chairman and a new or significantly changed Board.

10) In those circumstances, the CEO and Chairman should sit down in advance and set out their respective expectations/needs/preferences, including an early feedback process soon after the first few meetings to get things off to a firm footing and to avoid any festering dissatisfaction.

2. The relationship between Chairman and CEO

Boards vs Management

11) The pivotal connection between a Board and the Management team is the relationship between the Chairman and CEO. There has to be a level of trust, rapport and mutual respect, otherwise the organisation risks being dysfunctional.

12) A common view is that Boards are expected to be “eyes on, hands off” – that is, they are there to view what is going on, but not to get involved with operational matters which are the responsibility of Management.

13) Equally, the Board is responsible for setting and directing the overall strategy, and holding the CEO and executive team accountable for achieving the agreed objectives.

Who can help you?

14) The CEO has a key role in facilitating the interaction between the Board and senior managers. If you don’t have direct access to the CEO in advance, then find out if your own manager or another member of the senior executive team can help forge an introduction. While the term “patronage” might seem outdated, your attendance at and participation in the Board meeting will usually depend on someone advocating on your behalf, or lobbying for you to be there in person.

15) If managers are attending a Board meeting to present or speak on a particular topic, then this should be noted in the agenda or notice of meeting. The CEO will also need to work with managers to ensure they are prepared and “worded up” on what they will be presenting. Getting the balance right between reporting facts, offering opinions, making a recommendation or seeking a decision is important, especially on a packed agenda!

16) As mentioned above, the role of Secretary is also very important in getting people prepared to engage with the Board – not just deciding the agenda but also briefing presenters on what to expect, and ensuring papers are not too long, cover the issues and have clear recommendations for a decision.

17) The Secretary also wields considerable influence as they get to minute the decision (which is not always as clear as it should be). Managers who are not Board members should receive a copy of the relevant minutes of any meeting they have attended.

Lobbying and briefings in advance

18) For some big issues you may be asked to present on, briefing and lobbying often happens outside of the Board meeting. You shouldn’t assume that a Board will make a good decision when all they get is a Board paper and a few days’ notice – especially around complex issues. Offering advance briefings to Board members (especially new directors) can help them get up to speed on major issues.

19) Even though your item is on the agenda, you should assume that the meeting will not have sufficient time to allow a full presentation or discussion of the issues. Hence the importance of advance briefings, especially where you are seeking a decision based on your recommendation.

3. Presenting to the Board

Why are you there?

20) Maybe you’ve been asked to make a presentation on a new strategic initiative, or to provide an update on a major project. Or perhaps it’s part of a regular program where managers and team leaders get to interact with the Board members. Whatever the case, you should establish in advance why you have been invited to attend, as this will frame the context for your contribution to the meeting.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

21) As with any presentation or public speaking, be comfortable with your material and try to know your audience in advance. Find out who will be attending, and if possible, identify if they have previously expressed any views on the topic under discussion. Equally, Board members should be provided with a brief bio of new managers presenting at the meeting, especially if it’s their first time to attend.

22) If you have also had an opportunity to provide Board members with an advance briefing, the preparation will help you to focus on the important and critical information, so you can establish the level of knowledge in the room and make sure the discussion does not waste valuable time going over the known facts or revisiting agreed positions.

23) While your expertise will be sought, more importantly, if you are seeking a decision of the Board, it is essential to be clear about the decision relates to, and you should offer a specific recommendation or preferred course of action.

Protocols and Etiquette

24) As mentioned above, Board meetings will be conducted in accordance with the constitution or other rules of the organisation. Meetings will also follow the Chairman’s preferences, with the support of the Company Secretary.

25) There are some basic “Do’s and Don’ts” you should consider, especially if you are attending or presenting for the first time:

  • Board members are not your friend – they have a governance role to perform
  • The CEO owns the relationship with the Board, and must know and in most cases approve all interactions between Board members and managers (as a manager, you should notify the CEO of any unsolicited approaches you receive from Directors, or in exceptional circumstances, you should notify the Chairman)
  • In the meeting, the Chairman of the Board (or Sub-committee meeting) is usually addressed as Mr Chairman or Madam Chair (but check with the CEO or Company Secretary in advance!)
  • Boards require a structured agenda, well-thought out papers, clear recommendations, proper minutes and agreed actions or decisions (make sure you are clear about what you are asking for)
  • Board meetings are formal affairs, and while social banter is fine before and after the meeting, keep it business-like during the meeting itself

26) The Australian Institute of Company Directors, the Governance Institute of Australia, other professional bodies as well as NFP organisations (e.g., Leadership Victoria) often run courses and publish articles on these topics.

Learning experience

27) Whether you are General Manager reporting to a Committee of Management or a team leader presenting to senior executives, these comments should provide are some useful ground rules for how to prepare, what to expect, and how to conduct yourself at those meetings. In any event, the experience should be seen as a learning opportunity, and a chance to gain some professional exposure – but it’s not a license to show-off or grandstand!


This article incorporates comments from my former colleagues Fabienne Michaux, Marianne Matin, Louise Griffiths and Carol Benson, who were each contributing in a personal capacity.

Next week: Digital Adaptors