My Time As An Employee Board Member (The Weirdest Skip-Level)By Alyson | Last modified on March 1, 2023
In January 2022, Honeycomb kicked off a one year experiment to have an employee sit as a voting board member on the board of directors. I became that board member in July 2022. As the experiment comes to a close, I want to share some of my reflections.
What is a board?
A board of directors is a group of people who jointly supervise the activities of an organization. Corporations—and many other types of organizations—have a board of directors. For a venture-backed startup like Honeycomb, the board usually consists of the founders and representatives from venture capital firms that have led or participated in significant funding rounds.
Honeycomb’s board consists of Charity Majors (our CTO), Christine Yen (our CEO), three representatives from venture capital firms, an independent board member, and myself, the employee board member. Each member of the board brings their own unique blend of skills, strengths, and perspective to the table. To a certain extent, yes, they are there to represent their own interest—but the point of a board is not to lobby for their own interests, it is to come together and share knowledge and make decisions to guide Honeycomb and help us succeed. My role is to bring perspective and knowledge of Honeycomb employees—not to lobby for employee interests, but to represent employees in making decisions about what is best for the company.
For a typical board meeting, the executive staff spends a few weeks preparing a board deck. When I was being oriented to the role of board member, Christine shared with me that the approach to these slide decks is to provide a starting point for discussion, rather than have the presentation be like a school book report where the e-staff members just read from the slides.
This deck is sent to the board members a few days before the meeting to give them a chance to review and prepare any questions they might have. The deck typically outlines the meeting agenda, recaps various company health indicators for the previous quarter, and includes one primary topic of interest. Typically, this means elaborating on a facet of the strategy, or diving more deeply into a particular area of the company. The executive team is present for this portion of the meeting, and then they leave.
Following this is the administrative session. During this portion of the meeting, the board votes on administrative issues (yes, we all say ‘aye’ or ‘nay’) such as certifying the minutes of the previous meeting, compensation changes, stock grants, etc. This portion of the meeting is only attended by voting board members and legal counsel.
After this, there is a closed session where sensitive topics are discussed. These are completely confidential to the voting board members and legal counsel. Topics might include sensitive areas that the CTO or CEO are looking for advice on.
How does it work?
Back in 2022, Honeycomb kicked off an experiment of having an employee member sit on the board of directors as a full voting member. We ran an election internally where any non-executive employee or contractor (at the time of the election, our Canadian Honeybees were full-time contractors) in good standing who had been employed at Honeycomb for at least two years could run for the position. The nominated employees wrote a short piece as to why they wanted the role, and we then voted. I was nominated, along with a few of my peers, and Paul Osman won this first election.
The term of the board member was for one year. Paul, however, left Honeycomb before his term was completed. He was tasked with naming his replacement, subject to board approval, and selected me to step in for the rest of his term.
As employee board member, I have the rights and responsibilities of any other independent board member. I am included in all board-wide communications, attend board meetings and calls, and have an independent vote. I am present for the closed board sessions and have the responsibility to keep the information I hear confidential. Additionally, I share the board deck with the company at our monthly all-hands meeting. I also always share what my key takeaways are. For example: what was the feeling in the room? What content did the other board members dig in on? What do I think is most salient to my fellow employees? Lastly, I remind people throughout the quarter that I’m available if they have any questions.
Why did we do this experiment?
The main reason we have an employee board member is to show our support of employee representation. We believe in transparency and diversity and hold on to those fundamental beliefs—even when things are hard. We believe this makes us better.
As an added benefit, having this level of transparency helps attract incredibly talented people to work with us. Indeed, various candidates have brought it up. This isn’t exactly a common thing to do (in fact, as far as we know, we’re the only venture-backed US company to have ever run this experiment), so most candidates say things along the lines of “I’ve never heard of a company doing this—this is really impressive.”
How did it go?
I’ve attended three board meetings as of writing this and honestly, I’m only just finding my footing. I wish I could have the experience of serving the whole term, rather than serving the remainder of Paul’s term. Having said that, I already have seen so many benefits.
As part of the engineering organization, I’m fairly removed from the day-to-day parts of marketing and sales. But, as a board member, I’ve gotten to hear about how those parts of Honeycomb are strategizing, and that has allowed me to make more connections to the work I’m doing with my team. Because I have that extra context, I’m able to connect the dots for other people at Honeycomb as well. I can explain to people and teams why their work matters, what the backstory is, and how it relates to other parts of the company.
I’m able to be a trusted voice, independent of the executive team. I bring a more boots-on-the-ground way of explaining things to people than the version that comes through managers and directors. It builds confidence throughout the entire org to hear my perspective and representation of the strategy and narrative that executive staff is communicating.
Another aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed is the conversations I have with the e-staff outside of the board meetings. Walking back with Christine, chatting in the office with Jeff, giving feedback on company-wide communications; this is where I have the most impact. In reality, I rarely speak in the board meetings themselves, and when I do it’s to share supporting information from my perspective in the company. But being a sounding board outside of those meetings has been really interesting.
The board agreed to continue having an employee board member for another three years. I was named employee board member in July, and we’ve learned that it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. It would be awfully nice to get to use some of the experience that I’ve gained over the last six months and remain a board member for another year. However, others might also like a shot.
We’ve assembled an internal committee that’s trying to figure out how long the term should be, how to hold elections, and how to have fair representation from all parts of the company. It turns out that many people don’t know what I do as a board member, so I have some work to do around how I talk to my peers about the role. I want the next set of folks who put their names forward for election to really understand what it is they’re putting themselves up for. I also want voters to understand what’s at risk (the board holds the power to eject the employee board member and if that happens, the experiment is over. We don’t get an employee board member anymore) and the role and influence they have.
A deeper understanding
Looking back at the past year, I’m really thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in the election, and then later on be named Paul’s replacement. This is unlike any other role I’ve had, and as I’ve put it to my manager, it’s the weirdest skip-level (a meeting with your manager’s manager—i.e., when you skip a level in the org chart).
I understand sales cycles (and acronyms... so many acronyms) and marketing strategy better. When else would I be involved in conversations about c-level staffing, funding of venture-backed companies, and hearing the questions that are asked about our strategy? It’s been a fascinating journey, and I’d recommend this experience to anyone.
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