American Idol in the Boardroom

It’s taken me a few seasons and heavy lobbying from my wife, but I confess to finally becoming a convert when it comes to American Idol.  The show is simply mesmerizing when you blend the individual personalities and talents of the contestants with the judges.  In particular, I find that the three judges work incredibly well together to provide an entertaining banter throughout the show – Randy, Paula and, of course, Simon.  As much as I enjoy the performances, I enjoy listening to the judges’ feedback on the performances even more.

As I was watching the top 12 contestants get winnowed down to 10 last night while catching up on email – many of which contained board packages and sundry portfolio updates – my mind drifted and I began to wonder:  if the contestants were entrepreneurs and the American Idol judges were VCs, which judge would the entrepreneurs want in the boardroom with them?

Let’s examine the three candidates.

Randy is the Domain Expert.  His experience in the recording arts field is palpable when he speaks and presumably he is very well connected.  He displays great empathy with the contestants and often gives very constructive feedback that is relevant, albeit a bit narrow.  He doesn’t focus on the overall strategy, typically, but rather picks out one or two small items to comment on.  Similarly, many entrepreneurs seek out VCs to sit on their boards who are deep domain experts and can provide them with vertical expertise relevant to their particular business.  But many entrepreneurs find the Domain Experts repetitive and overly formulaic over time ("I’m a hammer," confessed one to me the other day, "and everything I see looks like a nail to me").  At the extreme, these domain experts simply don’t help the entrepreneur see the big picture in the value creation process.

Then there’s Paula, the Cheerleader.  No matter how bad the contestant did, they can count on an encouraging word from gentle Paula.  Certain VCs display similar personas in the board room.  Missed the quarter?  Lost a key recruit?  "You’re doing great," says the Cheerleader VC, "Atta[boy/girl] – just keep at it.  This is hard stuff and we love you."  I remember one of my board members used to systematically call me or email me with a "Nice job!" message at the end of every board meeting.  At first, I relished it.  After ten board meetings of the same formula, I realized I was the recipient of the auto-encouragement-message.  When you’re feeling down and going through one of the inevitable troughs in the entrepreneurial cycle, you need that Cheerleader board member to pick you up.  But they lose credibility quickly because you’re never really sure if they’re telling you what they think, or just telling you what they think you want to hear.

Finally, there’s Simon.  The thing you love and hate about Simon is that he tells it like it is.  He is the Truth Teller.  In the board room, sometimes the feedback is tough and hard to hear ("That really stunk – your sales presentation shows that you still have no idea how to articulate your value proposition").  But when the Truth Teller gives you that rare bit of positive feedback, it’s all the more precious, because you know the Truth Teller doesn’t sugar-coat ("Last quarter was awful, but this quarter you finally got your act together and executed flawlessly.  Well done.").

These archetypes – the Domain Expert, the Cheerleader and the Truth Teller – each have their pros and cons, but when I was an entrepreneur, I preferred the Simon-like Truth Teller.  It’s the dead-on feedback from the Truth Teller that pushes a board and a company forward.  Even when it’s painful to hear.  You can’t solve tough problems in start-ups (and what problems aren’t tough when trying to create a multi-million dollar business from scratch?) until you face up to them and articulate and explore them fully.  The Truth Teller doesn’t let human nature’s conflict avoidance tendency kick in, but rather pushes you to see the flaws and address them.

Which American Idol judge would you prefer to have on your board?

7 thoughts on “American Idol in the Boardroom

  1. While Simon is great when you’re SEARCHING for constructive advice, however I wouldn’t him to be the manager of my employees.
    A lot of people are very sensitive to criticism, and if you criticize too much, you’ll end up offending the individual rather than get them to do want you want them to do. And when people get offended, they don’t do their jobs properly and you will suffer turn-around.
    Something to thing about.

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  2. Give me a Simon on the Board any day.
    The Truth can hurt, but you need the Truth to Succeed.
    Simon needs to remind the Contestants that the Show is looking for a Super Star(s) and the Contestants need to show that quality.

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  3. I enjoyed this funny post. I have also had to watch this show because of children. I hated it, then enjoyed, and now I don’t have to watch it anymore. It is very repetitive. Interestingly, American Idol contestants do very badly in selling records compared to other major performers who do not go on the show – so Simon is basically right – they are all bad – and not because they can’t sing – but because they can’t write material or perform well. Actual artists don’t need this show, and don’t want it’s constraints – kind of like why take VC money 🙂 ?
    In terms of the board – of course, I want real feedback – but more gently and constructively than Simon – not just you stink – but here are some real suggestions to help.
    Of course, I think the biggest issue is that we go to VC’s for money most importantly, so the best kind of director is the one who writes large checks. But, in second place is honest, constructive feedback.
    Also, I wanted to point out that your projections seem too optimistic in your March 7 post. Since I just starting reading this blog, I added a late comment back there which was:
    ___________________________________
    Jeff,
    Your posts are great!! I am sure a terrific guide. And I appreciate the optimism of the graduating classes. One point. Kelsey Advertising reports on Always On today that the total Global Advertising market for 2007 was about $605 billion. They expect the total global market at $707 billion in 2012, and the internet to be 21% of it or about $149 billion. The link is http://alwayson.goingon.com/permalink/post/25115
    The “shift of nearly $1 trillion of global advertising to the web” seems a bit overly optimistic.
    _____________________________
    Perhaps the very substantial slowing in the growth of google ad clicks and its 40% stock price drop is an indication that market growth rates and expectations are falling.

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  4. I myself have been forced to watch American Idol and I must say it is growing on me as well. The fact that it is recorded and we only watch the “good parts” has a lot to do with why I agree to watch it at times.
    VCs have to be Simone. At the end of the partnership both groups want to walk out with a hefty wallet, sugarcoating doesn’t help.
    Take a look at my website, BostonNightLife.TV, don’t sugarcoat anything. I need VC money to make this grow…

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