How to Take the Power Position on Your Board

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under communications leadership psychology

Alex Hormozi

According to Alex Hormozi, "Power is the ability to influence people or events. We can learn influence. Which means we can learn power." If you find yourself constantly selling to the board, here's what to do.

Jemma, the CEO of a rapidly growing tech startup, found her board meetings frustrating.

“I feel like I’m constantly selling my ideas to the board. It’s exhausting, and I’m not really getting much value from the board members.”

“Who owns the company’s strategy? Is it you or the board?” I asked.

After a pause, she replied. “I don’t actually know.”

This situation is all too common: The CEO doesn’t feel empowered to make decisions and instead finds themselves constantly seeking approval from the board.

So how can you rebalance a power dynamic, even when you perceive the other as having power over you?

Sellers vs Buyers

Selling has two different meanings. In its most common meaning, it involves a role in an economic transaction – the buyer has money to buy something, and the seller has something to sell.

However, selling is also a mindset: an attitude or belief that drives a set of behaviours.

To understand the difference between selling as an economic role and selling as a mindset, consider a recent college graduate trying to get into Stanford's MBA program. The graduate may be bringing $150,000 to the table to spend on their tuition. However, it's the applicant who finds themselves selling their profile to Stanford.

You can characterise the Seller's and Buyer's Mindsets like this:

  • Seller's Mindset: "I need to sell"
  • Buyer's Mindset: "I'll buy only if I want to"

The applicant has the money, but Stanford has the power to accept or reject their application if the applicant doesn't meet their standards. In this case, Stanford has the Buyer's Mindset.

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Mindset and Behaviours

Shifting your mindset can be a powerful shortcut to behavioural change. As an example, let's consider behaviours that follow from a Seller's Mindset ("I need to sell"):

  • Focus: Sellers focus on the Buyer's criteria and use those criteria to judge their offer.
  • Questions: Sellers answer the Buyer's questions to convince them that their criteria are met.
  • Justification: Sellers often feel the need to justify themselves when they don't need to.
  • Options: Sellers prefer a closed negotiation where the Buyer is not considering other options.
  • Decision: Sellers look to the Buyer to make the final decision.

Can you see how each of these behaviours places control of the situation into the hands of the Buyer?

Now, let's look at behaviours that follow from a Buyer's Mindset ("I'll buy if I want to"):

  • Focus: Buyers create their own criteria to define what they will and won't accept.
  • Questions: Buyers ask questions to assess whether a Seller meets their criteria.
  • Justification: Buyers rarely feel the need to justify their requirements.
  • Options: Buyers remain open to options both inside and outside the negotiation.
  • Decision: Buyers act as though the decision is ultimately theirs.

 In Jemma's case, she was constantly looking to the board for validation, justifying her opinions, and looking to the board to make a decision. Inadvertently, Jemma was approaching the board with a Seller's Mindset.

Adopting a Buyer's Mindset

How can Jemma reassert herself in board meetings and empower herself to own the company's strategy while still leveraging the experience and knowledge of the board?

Jemma needs to adopt a Buyer's Mindset and set high standards for what she will and won't accept.

Becoming a Buyer means trying to assess, not impress.

Here are the three steps you must take to lean into a Buyer's Mindset:

  1. Set criteria for what 'good' looks like.
  2. Ask questions to assess the offer.
  3. Say 'no' if the offer doesn't meet your criteria.

In the Seller’s Mindset, you look to the buyer for criteria, questions and decisions. In the Buyer’s Mindset, you take them for yourself.

Let’s go through each step.

Step 1: Set criteria

Buyers set their own criteria to define what 'good' looks like.

"I'll buy only if X, Y and Z are true."

When it comes to board meetings, there are three areas where you should clearly define your criteria ahead of the meeting:

  • Value: What can the board do to provide you and the company with value?
  • Behaviours: What behaviours are permissible in and out of the meeting?
  • Requests: What must be true in order for you to take on a request?

In most cases, it's a good idea to share your buying criteria with the Seller. For example, I recommend including a slide at the beginning of your presentation to the board that outlines what 'good' behaviours look like to you.

Similarly, when leading a discussion on an important topic, tell the board what would be most valuable to you – and then ask for it.

Setting clear criteria for what you want helps you set high standards.

High standards earn you power because they inspire others to live up to them.

As a Buyer, I recommend asking yourself two questions to ensure that you set robust and specific criteria:

  • What does the best-case scenario look like?
  • What does the worst-case scenario look like?

Don't assume that bad is the opposite of good. Exploring worst-case scenarios often brings obstacles to the surface that you likely wouldn't consider when just looking at the best-case scenarios. This process can lead to more robust criteria.

Great Buyers always do their research.

It's not enough to design your criteria based on your own experiences. Ask other founders and advisors to help you calibrate what 'good' looks like.

In the case of board meetings, it can be helpful to know what other CEOs expect from their own boards. In my experience exploring this, I've come up with eight ways that boards can bring and add value to a CEO:

  1. Offering opposing perspectives
  2. Sharing real-life experiences
  3. Making useful introductions
  4. Sharing useful data
  5. Checking for blindspots
  6. Acting quickly on bureaucratic matters
  7. Providing supportive accountability
  8. Asking good questions

The clearer the criteria, the easier it becomes to ask for what you want, and assess whether you're getting it.

Step 2: Ask questions

Whoever asks the questions puts themselves in a dominant position. Questions are so powerful that they can feel like mind control: the human mind can't help but answer them.

As a Buyer, your questions should help you assess whether your criteria are being met.

Say, for example, that a common expectation founders have of their board members is that they must read the pre-read. A question you can ask to assess this would be simply:

"Did each of you make time to read the pre-read ahead of the meeting?"

Another expectation might be to acknowledge the positives and negatives of every idea. For example, imagine that you receive an opinion from a board member about an alternative strategy. Seller behaviour would be to defend their strategy, but Buyer behaviour would be to ask questions to understand if the strategy is a strong one:

"I'm curious: What makes you suggest this?"

"What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of this idea?"

"Who is able to play devil's advocate and explore alternative viewpoints?"

Notice how asking questions based on your criteria flips the script and gets the board to justify their behaviours and opinions.

Indeed, by asking questions that assess, you also increase the level of awareness all parties have about the issue. This is just like what a good coach can do. Relevant questions promote careful thinking, which can often uncover new insights and ideas.

Step 3: Say 'no' if you don't want to buy

In a negotiation, power always goes to the party who can say 'no'. It can feel uncomfortable to say 'no' to a position of authority. However, if you're unwilling to ever say no, the chance of dysfunctional dynamics is very high.

So how can you say 'no' in a respectful way?

The general approach for saying 'no' is to state the criteria that prevent you from saying 'yes'. This provides a clear reason while remaining open to finding an alternative that does meet your criteria.

I've noticed that some people find it easier to say 'no' than others. If you tend to be agreeable to your own detriment, it's helpful to come up with some 'canned responses' that you can use when the situation requires a diplomatic but clear 'no'.

Here are some examples of responses I've designed with clients to push back in board meetings.

"Based on the data I have available, I'm not comfortable that this is the right path."

"In a perfect world, we'd do both options, but given our limited time, I'd prefer to choose one path and put our entire effort behind making it work."

"Right now, I don't want to deprioritise X and Y to focus on this."

Applications of the Buyer's Mindset

This mindset has many use-cases beyond board meetings. It can help you become less defensive and more assertive in a range of situations. Here are some examples:

1) Selling Your Product

The Buyer's Mindset can help you turn potential Buyers into Sellers. First, set criteria regarding who your ideal customer is. Second, ask questions to assess the potential customer to see if they fit the criteria:

"I have a few questions to assess if and how I/we can help you. If for whatever reason we can't, I'll let you know politely and point you in the right direction."

2) Dealing with an Underperforming Leader

Sometimes, leaders will sell themselves on an under-performer by saying, "Well, I've worked with them for a long time, and they're a good person." But you don't want to be the Seller – you want to be the Buyer.

First, revisit the original job description (or update it if the role has changed). Next, ask questions to assess whether the leader is able to meet the criteria.

The Buyer's Mindset is particularly useful when you need to hire someone senior above a leader. While the Seller's Mindset is overly concerned about what they'll think and justifying the decision, the Buyer's Mindset is comfortable stating what they want:

"The company needs a senior capable of doing [criteria]. This might be an opportunity to hire someone externally. I want to run this past you to get your input."

If you decide the person isn't capable of meeting the criteria for the role, it's your responsibility to find a leader who can.

3) Fundraising

Every founder knows the value of creating 'FOMO' in a negotiation. Imagine a CEO who has a lot of interest in the round. Are they more likely to act like a Buyer and focus on impressing or like a Seller and focus on assessing? Of course, it's the latter.

First, set detailed criteria regarding what you expect from your ideal investor in terms of value-add, behaviours, and investment terms. Next, ask questions to help you assess whether they meet these criteria. Select your criteria wisely, and always be willing to say 'no' to an investor that doesn't meet them.

4) Coaching your team

The Buyer's Mindset includes setting standards and asking questions. However, if you approach the conversation with a coaching mindset (curiosity and empowerment), you can become a high-performance coach.

First, set standards about what you expect of the coachee. Examples might include being honest about their progress, keeping their word, and reaching out when they get stuck. If you're their manager, you can also set criteria for what good performance looks like. Then, ask questions that raise awareness and responsibility around what's important.

If standards slip, don't accept it. Instead, pour curiosity onto the issues to help the coachee figure out the root cause and take actions to fix it.

5) Strengthening your team's plans

The Buyer's Mindset can help your team set more robust plans for the quarter. Before the planning process, set criteria to determine what an effective plan is supposed to achieve and share this with the team.

Then, when your team presents their plans, ask questions to assess whether the plan is likely to achieve the desired outcome. If not, you have a choice to make – either ask your team to iterate the plan or make changes to your criteria in light of new facts.

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With Power Comes Responsibility

The Buyer's Mindset can help you elevate yourself into a power position. Taking the time to set criteria that embody your high standards can inspire others to meet your criteria.

However, the Buyer's Mindset comes with a risk that every leader in power can identify with: What if you encourage people to offer what you want, even when they can't deliver it?

It's not enough to just be a Buyer. You need to be a good Buyer.

Here are five qualities that will help you make better Buyer decisions. I believe they apply to anyone in a position of power:

  1. Intentionality: Good Buyers have an inspiring vision to back up their criteria.
  2. Truth-seeking: Good Buyers ask questions and listen to seek truth, not to be right
  3. Honesty: Good Buyers are clear and honest about their knowledge, expectations, and decisions.
  4. Vulnerability: Good Buyers show humility and recognise they aren't perfect.
  5. Respect: Good Buyers show respect to others, even those who can't meet their criteria.

Respect is where I'll leave you.

When you encounter differences of opinion, it's easy to think the other side is evil or stupid. Instead, choose a more generous interpretation and show respect for their humanity.

Always be the Buyer. But never be an asshole.

Related reading

 Originally published Mar 13, 2024

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