Private Company Director

There’s No Wrong Way to Leverage Your Board’s Contacts

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Just watch for conflicts of interest, and don’t meddle in the process.

Lynn Clarke

For any members of management who think asking their board members if they can leverage their contacts is akin to asking someone to the prom – awkward, nerve-racking and fraught with suspense – Lynn Clarke, member of the boards of The Vollrath Company, A. Duie Pyle and Basic American Foods, says you are overthinking it.

“That’s something that a good board member should just naturally do. We shouldn’t even have to be asked to help. We should just say, ‘Here it is. Here are the five people you need to talk to.’”

Glenn Wilson, board chairman for Communities First Foundation and advisory board member for Flagstar Bank, concurs, asking the question, “If people don’t want to give out their contacts, why are they on boards?” But he also takes the exercise a step further: Why not have management establish a contacts matrix for their directors that they can pull from as a specific need arises?
 
As an example, Wilson relays his experience on a board that needed a contact in agriculture. Management didn’t know that Wilson could put them in touch directly with someone at John Deere Corporation. 
 

Glenn Wilson

“If you have 10 board members and you ask them, ‘What type of people do you know in these different industries?’ you find out very quickly where the board can help you,” says Wilson. “Or you’ll identify your gaps and discover that some people are in the same industries or they know all of the same people. You really don’t know the reach and influence of your board until you see it on paper and begin to dig into it.”

What’s the best way to ask a director for a contact? To Clarke, who has been a CEO of several companies and has therefore been on both sides of the exchange, the only way to run afoul of one of your board members is to make it a rush job.

“I don’t know that there is a wrong way other than maybe saying, ‘I need an answer in 12 minutes,’ versus respecting a schedule,” says Clarke. “My job is to help. I’m always complimented and excited when a CEO or another board member calls me and says, ‘Hey I could use your help with this.’”
 
While Wilson agrees that there is no wrong way to approach a board member for a contact (“That’s why they asked you to sit at the table”), he acknowledges that board members should be wary of potential conflicts of interest. He notes that most companies have conflict-of-interest policies that require board candidates to list possible conflicts. However, things can be forgotten or accidentally omitted. If such a situation comes back around, according to Wilson, “Let the conflict be known and then stay away from it. If there’s something there, you don’t want to be unethical.”
 
Clarke is clear that she makes no promises of success when providing a member of management with one of her contacts. But what about checking in on how the possible connection is going? Both Clarke and Wilson designate a check-in on a connection’s success as a nonstarter, with Wilson summing it up succinctly.

“I already have enough work to do. Why do I need to run the company as well? As a CEO, that’s what you’re there to do.”

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