Entrepreneur

What boards of directors can learn from the Supreme Court

(Editor’s note: Brad Feld is an early stage investor and co-founder of Foundry Group. This post originally appeared on his blog.)

I had an incredible experience this week.  My friend Phil Weiser, who is now the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the US Department of Justice, Antitrust Division (I prefer to call him America’s Top Cop on Agriculture) invited me, my partner Jason Mendelson, and my wife Amy Batchelor to attend the Supreme Court Oral Arguments for 

For those that know about my fervent anti-patent bias with regards to software, Bilski is an important case.  Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, it could open the door for both the invalidation of business method patents as well as begin a serious discussion about the validity of software patents.  One can hope.  So, this wasn’t a random Supreme Court visit, but rather one that is highly relevant to something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about.

At exactly 1pm, the Justices entered, sat and immediately called the Petitioner (J. Michael Jakes).  Jakes got about thirty seconds into his oral argument when Justice Scalia jumped in with a question.  A short answer by Jakes was followed by a question by Breyer.  Another short answer and then a question by Ginsburg.  Then Breyer. Then Sotomayor.

Within five minutes I was stunned at the high level of understanding the Justices had in this particular case, the insightfulness of their questions, and their level of participation.

Breyer, Roberts, Scalia, and Sotomayor continued to question the petitioner for the next five minutes.  Their tone was aggressive – bordering on hostile – but never quite crossing the line.

The Petitioner abruptly finished (reserving the balance of his time) and the Respondent (Malcolm L. Stewart) began.  It was a similar drill and it continued for about 30 minutes – followed by a four-minute rebuttal from the Petitioner.

The experience continued to bounce around in the back of my mind the next day.  I was at a board meeting for a company that I’ve been on the board of for almost a decade – and it turned out to be the most productive meeting we’ve had in a long time.

I’ve written about The Best Board Meetings in the past.  One element of those is a prepared mind. This is the powerful lesson I learned from the Supreme Court.

I saw 11 very smart people at the Court participate in a very complex discussion that they were extremely prepared for.  In one hour they covered an amazing amount of ground, due to the work they did in advance of the meeting.

In many board meetings, the material shows up at the meeting. Sometimes, it arrives in advance, but the board members haven’t read it. And all too often the board material is either not detailed enough or is too detailed.  Basically, either the board members don’t have sufficient material to have a prepared mind in advance of the meeting, or they don’t take the time to do the work to be prepared.

So unlike the Supreme Court session, where you can dive into substance immediately, the board members and management spend a long portion of the meeting “getting up to speed”.  It’s a total waste of time for everyone in the room.

In my meeting, everyone was prepared.  The material was comprehensive, but not overly so.  It came in advance of the meeting (only 24 hours, but still enough time for everyone to read it).  And, rather than go through the material page by page, we picked a handful of key themes and discussed them… for several hours… in detail, but at a level that resulted in clarity for the board members and management.

The other key lesson I learned at the Supreme Court is the value of paying attention. I’ve written about this also in VC Behavior in Board Meetings. I continue to fall victim to the blackberry-checking syndrome.  Phones, computers, and PDAs aren’t allowed in the Supreme Court – so I paid attention.  And, as a result, I really followed what was going on and processed almost all of the information.

In the board meeting, I found myself drifting a little and pulling out my iPhone.  It detracted from the meeting, but most importantly it caused me to likely miss a few things I shouldn’t have missed.

Concentration is a hard thing to achieve – but it’s the best way to make an informed, rational decision. You never know what detail will matter.


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