Sunday, August 22, 2010

'The Thing That Keeps Me Up at Night'

On Aug. 16 two accounting firms, Eisner LLP and Amper, Politziner & Mattia LLP, announced that they are combining. The new firm, EisnerAmper, will create what Crain's New York called "a regional powerhouse": the 10th largest auditor of SEC-registered firms in the U.S. and the 14th largest overall in the nation.

Both firms have contributed their expertise in writing on governance and financial issues for Directors & Boards, so we certainly wish them well in their joining forces and extending their reach and capabilities to benefit present and future clients.

I am particularly grateful to a past Eisner partner, Bruce Strzelczyk (pictured). Bruce founded and co-chaired its technology/Internet/new media division. In 2002 he invited me to sit in on a workshop he organized for an audience of venture-backed company executives that was tackling how to run an effective board meeting. He assembled a marvelously talented panel to talk through the issues, and afterward he and I worked together to adapt that panel discussion into a superb article for Directors & Boards, titled "Ground Rules for Great Board Meetings."

Here is how Bruce set up the context for the gathering, which attracted an overflow crowd in a conference room at New York's Palace Hotel:

"Let me start off by telling you how this panel discussion was organized. I was at a board meeting with one of our portfolio companies. At the end of the meeting one of the VCs got up and said, 'This meeting was horrible. Let's fire the CEO.' All hands went up, and he was gone. It was an experience I will never forget. Nor will he!

"An incorrectly run board meeting can be a painful experience. It takes up more time for management, more time for the VCs, more time for everybody. For a company that is having problems, especially if it involves CEO performance, a badly run meeting is often the straw that breaks the camel's back. Or, when done well and everybody's expectations are met, it is much more efficient and much more effective."

And then we were off . . . on a discussion that ran a couple of hours, and resulted in 11 pages of solid tips and tactics in Directors & Boards.

Bruce mostly served as the panel moderator, but he did chime in with the occasional gem of wisdom of his own. I will always remember him for telling the crowd this:

""The best board meeting that I have ever attended was conducted by the CEO of one of our clients. He starts out the meeting this way: 'This is the thing that keeps me up at night . . . this is what I'm thinking about . . . and this is what I want you to help me on.' He gets a great response to that. He's now on his third company — the previous two were each sold profitably. My experience is that a board meeting's style, format, and matters covered are all reflections of what a good CEO is thinking about and concerned about."

A sad coda: Bruce died in 2005, way too early in life for someone who, again citing Crain's New York, was selected as one of the "100 leaders who will shape New York's technology industry." Thankfully he helped shape for Eisner clients and Directors & Boards readers some superb thought leadership on running an effective board meeting — one that won't cause a board to fire the CEO!