There’s only one executive who should ever say, “the board brought me in,” and that is the chief executive officer (CEO). Yet, you’d be surprised how often you hear other executives — chief revenue officers (CROs), chief marketing officers (CMOs), chief product officers (CPOs), and most often chief financial officers (CFOs) — say, “the board brought me in.”
It usually comes up in an interview, with a candidate running through their background.
“Well, I was at XYZ-Co, and things were going great, but at PDQ-Co they needed some help, so the board brought me in to help get things back on track.”
A+ on storytelling, but (usually a) C- on reality attachment. “And where,” methinks, “was the CEO during all this board bringing in and such?”
(And if things really were going so well at XYZ-Co, tell me why’d you jump ship to do a fixer-upper at PDQ-Co again?)
I always view “the board brought me in” language as a telltale. Of what, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s usually one of these things:
- Self-aggrandizement. Sometimes, it’s just the candidate trying to sound larger-than-life and they think it sounds good to say, “the board brought me in.” In this case, the candidate’s judgement and credibility come into question.
- Innocent miscommunication. Perhaps the candidate knew an existing board member and was referred into the position by them. OK, I suppose technically they could think, “the board brought me in,” but didn’t the CEO interview them and make the final call? Did the board really bring them in — as in, against the CEO’s wishes? Maybe it’s just old-fashioned communications confusion. Maybe.
- Genuine confusion. Or, perhaps the candidate is under the illusion that they somehow work for the board and not the CEO. This can happen with CFOs in particular because, unlike all other CXOs, there is something of a special relationship between the board and the CFO. But in tech startups, in my humble opinion, the CFO works for the CEO, period — not for the board. They may have a special relationship with the board, they may meet with the board without the CEO being present (e.g., audit committees). But they work for the CEO. If you feel differently, great. If you feel like I do — best to use this as a telltale of a potentially huge problem downstream.
- A placeholder CEO. There is always some chance the CEO is somehow a placeholder (e.g., a founder who’s lost all but positional power in the organization and acting in some lame duck capacity). In this case, the CXO in question might just be saying the truth — perhaps the board really did bring them in. But then the candidate’s going to need to explain why they jumped into such a mess .
I’m sure there are other possibilities as well. But the main point of this post is to say that your ears should perk up every time you hear a CXO  candidate say, “the board brought me in.” Mine do.
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 And I suspect the most common answer will be, “and they were planning to make me CEO in X months once they worked on the transition.” In which case, I’d want to understand why the candidate is so trusting (or naïve), what written assurances were given, and why they would take a CXO job with a dubious call option on CEO as opposed to taking a straight-up CEO job. (To which the best, but still somewhat unfortunate, answer is — it was the only available path I had at the time.)
 For all values of X != E.
Dave, I love your blog posts and I learn a lot from them. But you know what I like even more? Your footnotes. Pithy, informative, and hilarious.
Keep it up!
Thanks and thanks for reading them!