Matthew Parker is CEO of Babble, an LDC-backed provider of cloud communications solutions to the SME market. He was formerly CEO at Lumesse, a HgCapital business and more recently, CEO at Path Intelligence. Matthew was also Chair of Petrotechnics, a BGF-backed business.
Has a board meeting ever “changed the game” for a business you’ve worked in?
The people running the business are not the only attendees in the meeting, which means the board meeting is also a forum for the transfer of knowledge, trying to create an atmosphere where there are no stupid questions. So, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an “a-ha” or epiphanic moment in a board meeting and I’m not sure I ever will — these are more likely to happen as part of the general running of the business.
But have I been in board meetings where there’s been a big change in the business afterwards? Absolutely, and that’s mainly because of the conversation I’ve had with some incredibly smart people sat around the table.
What’s the impact of clear information on the board meeting?
I want board information to focus on the important things, rather than everything that’s going on in the business. At Babble, we’ve stopped producing some sections of our monthly papers because, at times, it was like trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot — including too much in the pack and feeling as if we were just repeating ourselves.
CEOs tend to live and breathe their business, and the chances of a NED turning up and having a similar level of information, knowledge, and understanding is unrealistic. When you get the board in a room you should pick the key topics you really want input on and discuss these in detail.
Is the time and effort put into board meetings worth it?
There have been times as CEO when, if you had asked me this question, I would have said no! But today, we look forward to our board meetings — as a result of some things we’ve learnt from Board Intelligence and things we’ve taught ourselves.
In our last few Babble board meetings, we’ve spent time discussing the things that add value, and the three hours just vanished. That’s because the board is interested in asking questions about impact — the “so what?”
Does one party tend to get more value out of them than another?
The aspiration has to be that the executive team attends board meetings because they get something from it. As management, we start to form our thinking and then go to the board to test it: we spend time talking to our non-executives about whether we’re thinking in the right way, versus simply saying things like “here’s our sales pipeline.”
The reason a NED is in the board room is to add value. But in order for them to do so, the CEO has to be willing to put themselves in a position where they’re vulnerable — which can’t happen as long as board meetings are seen as a necessary evil rather than a value creator.
Overall, do PE houses tend to improve or hinder portfolio company board effectiveness?
I don’t think anyone sets out with the intention to purposefully hinder board meetings. Most people turn up to most meetings minded to help. But agendas and egos often get in the way.
From my experience, it’s the executives who can end up creating issues rather than investors. The meetings are about a business they’re living and breathing, they’re aware of both the good things and the bad things, and human nature means it’s much easier to talk about the good stuff. It comes back to vulnerability and being open with both the good and bad.
What advice would you give a CEO about to take on their first PE role?
Choose your investors carefully. You have to find people you’re comfortable spending time with when it’s not going well.
The first 3–4 meetings will be fine, but, at some point, you’re going to deliver a disappointing quarter and you need to be able to talk about it openly. PE firms have personalities, so find the one you can have a bad conversation with.