The Triumvirate Test for Quick Board Diagnosis
A few years ago, I was struggling with one of my boards regarding effectiveness. I felt the board dynamic was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I discussed it with a mentor and he gave me a great piece of advice that I have applied to most of my boards and evaluations since.
The Triumvirate Test boils down complex board dynamics to three critical members and relationships: the CEO, the chair, and the investor director (or senior independent director, depending on the board structure). The test is whether those three people are effectively communicating, balanced in power, empowering each other, respecting each other, etc. By focusing on those key people and relationships, it’s easier to boil down board complexity and identify underlying issues. Is one of those three people hoarding information or being overly controlling? Perhaps more subtle, (and therefore harder to identify, in my experience,) is one of those key people not bought into the role of another? I’ve seen chairs who don’t fully believe in and empower the CEO (problematic) but I’ve also seen even more complex dynamics where a CEO or investor director (yes, I’ve been guilty of this!!) isn’t fully behind the chairman – thereby making the chair’s job unusually difficult. In diagnosing these problems, I’m sometimes distracted by wider board dynamics – perhaps other investors, perhaps challenging independent directors or often broader business dynamics – and therefore have found that this simple test effectively indicates core issues.
As a helpful first step in diagnosis, this “test” can be followed by either remedies to fix the core triumvirate (ranging from improved dynamics and empowerment to a necessary replacement) or by the assessment and faith that the core triumvirate is working effectively and therefore a refocus on broader issues, either with other board members or broader business dynamics. (See our upcoming article on “Common Board Problems and Health Check.”)
Many thanks to my experienced mentor for the steer - following his own dozens of startup boards, I think he’d seen a few patterns! After all, the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey in ancient Rome brought the three effectively together and lasted for 7 years (until Crassus’s death) – a significant period when ruling an empire and/or in the life of a startup.