Entrepreneurs, Get a Real Board, Already

Bill Merchantz, founder of Lakeview Technology, has done pretty well. His first company went public after he exited and his second sold to a big PE fund. But he told me he had one regret in forming a company – he wished he’d had a formal board of directors early on.

An active board filled with diverse skillsets can save an entrepreneur from himself.

Successful entrepreneurs forming a company have to master the paradox of being both stubborn and thick-skinned while simultaneously listening and being open to change. The best vehicle for that sounding board is a board, so why don’t more entrepreneurs create a brain trust?

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After two years of unrelenting decline and $6M in losses, the owners of Styrotek, a packaging manufacturer for table grapes decided they needed to bring in outside help to turn things around.

Styrotek was founded in 1973 by a group of grape growers who came together to produce boxes for their farming operations in the central valley of California. While manufacturing was not originally in the company DNA, the business got to the point of creating a consistent product and quickly grew along with the grape industry.

That was until 2014 when things started to go sideways. “The company was somewhat in disarray,” Chris Caratan, one of the owner’s of Styrotek said. “Our management team at the time was not working up to par and there were some surprises in year-end numbers.”

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Interim executives, or interims, have recently become an important tool that organizations can use to effectively address a variety of pressing needs. Having said that, many companies are either unaware that interims are even available or appropriate for their current situation. The most common understanding of the role of an interim is to fill an immediate need in the executive team caused by a sudden voluntary or involuntary departure. In this case, a seasoned executive can step right in and allow the company to progress unabated. While much of what an interim does is similar to consulting, successful execution is critical and unique to the role of interims. This blog presents seven case studies to help companies better understand other instances where interims can help. There are certainly more examples, but these are representative. While seven represents everything from the apocalypse to luck in gambling, we’ll stick with seven.

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There is no question that the executive search process is long. When a C-level executive bolts or an organization is going through a transformation – acquisition, product launch, market expansion, etc. – the right leadership needs to be in place, and needs to be in place now.

Vision Share, a consortium of eye banks, experienced this firsthand. Their mission, ensuring corneas be sent worldwide for transplant by eye surgeons, was hampered by organizational problems. The board of directors knew a new CEO was needed, but “the permanent search was estimated to be 6-9 months and came with a guarantee of a year’s employment,” Cindy Reed, Board Member at Vision Share said. “We really felt like we needed more than that.”

The board went to the Association of Interim Executives’ Rapid Executive Deployment Program to bring in Gregg Steinberg as Interim CEO to stabilize the organization, achieve immediate growth goals, and prepare them to hire the permanent CEO.

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Overview
On March 30, 2015, I began my tenure as an interim manager (Interim Chief Operating Officer) at ChildServ, a social services agency that had recently celebrated its 120th anniversary serving at-risk children and families in the Chicagoland area. While I was new to the role, I had the benefit of not being new to the organization. In fact, I had served on the Board of Trustees of ChildServ for the prior 15 months, resigning only after my Board colleagues had voted to have me take on the difficult task of driving badly needed change from within.

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Interim executives benefit companies dramatically: high-level expertise drops in quickly to do the tough jobs — powerfully and without bias or politicking — to help a company improve. Soon after, they ride off into the sunset to the next assignment. Think of an interim executive as a modern-day John Wayne without the cowboy hat.

Mark Sullivan, founder of Lineage Capital Investment, knows how it works. His private equity firm recently dropped an interim CFO into a manufacturing business amid a turnaround. Monetary villains — so to speak — threatened the corporate ranch and outside help was essential to clean out the threat.

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