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?