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Adapting the Board to New Paradigms: The Example of Web3

  • July 2022

Editor’s Note: At Egon Zehnder, we have had the privilege to partner with our clients to build world-class boards for almost 60 years. Since 2016, we have brought this expertise to Blockchain, Crypto, and Digital Asset companies, or today generally referred to as Web3 companies, to help them attract the best talent to the boardroom. Along the way, we have gathered insights on what founders and CEOs have found most helpful and what matters most to build a supportive group of directors who can navigate through the complexity of a nascent space and truly enhance the performance and governance of the business. 

The world of blockchain and crypto has been perceived in the past as the Wild West, unconstrained by regulation and scaling at an incredible speed. This early phase is gradually coming to an end, superseded by a second phase that is more institutional, sometimes regulated, and includes not only Web3 companies but also traditional institutions, who are figuring out how to play in this space. 

An intense competition for talent has started, as all players are looking to attract leaders who can cut through complexity, build a vision and scale in tech-led environments. But for Web3 businesses, finding executive talent is just half of the battle. Building a board of directors who have the experience, capabilities, and mindsets to operate in new, rapidly changing and sometimes decentralized environments is a major challenge for CEOs and founders alike. These companies need board members with a good understanding of the Web3 space and with a solid background in governance, finance, digital transformation, or regulations. Moreover, expertise in scaling a fast-growing business is highly desirable. Through our work with those companies, we have observed that, when it comes to choosing non-executive directors, there is more to consider than experience and expertise. Three key elements play a critical role in making the right appointments: flexibility, independence, and integration. 

A flexible mindset

The best board members exhibit certain core capabilities—the abilities to be continuous learners and to translate concepts from one space to a completely new one. Web3 companies and products are new, so directors need to be able to rely on experience but be open to challenge themselves to chart a new path. “If you go from traditional finance into the world of future finance, you need to enjoy being out of your comfort zone,” says one Web3 leader.

Some Web3 players have swayed too far toward the traditional sector-specific skillsets. This comes at the expense of the understanding of the business, culture, and frankly speed.

– CEO of a Web3 company

Given the volatility in the market and the speed at which successful Web3 companies have grown, the leadership needs to constantly redefine their needs and priorities. 

A founder of a digital asset company says: “The digital asset adoption has reached a new level. Our business has experienced tremendous growth in just this past year, which even in our most optimistic scenario we hadn’t foreseen. I realize that in the current stage of our company, our board needs to shift its focus from the early start-up days where we had to set up an initial basic organizational structure towards how to scale the company in a rapidly growing global business.”

Independence matters

Having independent directors on your board is one of the hallmarks of good governance. Board members who do not have a personal stake in what happens and can see things objectively are an important sounding board for emerging companies. However, most Web3 company boards don’t have independent directors. Their founders or CEOs tend to favor directors with “skin in the game.”

In addition, boards also sometimes over-index on blockchain capabilities, with nearly every member of the board serving on another digital asset board or in an executive capacity. However, this thinking is taking a turn as the market is maturing. One founder and CEO of a digital asset company told us: “I needed my supervisory board to transition as we considered going public. I needed someone with the expertise to chair an audit committee or to chair a remuneration committee. I realized I not only needed the crypto native people but also those who understand how to steer a public company. I was too subjective with my own network and needed to bring in outside thinking and diversity.”  We have observed that, in the best functioning boards, each board member role is clearly defined, specifying the capabilities and experience needed that creates a set of directors with diverse and complementary thinking styles and decision-making.

Independence is especially important when it comes to the board chair. Ideally, the chair is not the founder or an investor. The chair should be an independent member of the board who is skilled in advocating and balancing an array of different stakeholders. A master of complexity with a low ego, s/he will often play a mentoring role to the CEO. Therefore, it is also helpful if this person has been part of a growth journey as an executive, so they understand the pressures and demands of scaling a company. 

Learning together in the boardroom

Board members do not need to have all the answers. “Today, I cannot expect all board members to have the complete skillset we are looking for,” says a founder of a digital asset company. “It is our responsibility to ensure that they can follow the market. We needed to define a dedicated plan for them to stay close to the latest trends and developments in blockchain and related technologies.” It is not only about appointing a person to the board but also supporting them and making sure that they further develop in their capacity as directors of a Web3 company.

With customer-friendly and interoperable infrastructure still being built and a regulatory landscape that is constantly evolving, there is a high level of ambiguity that is inherent to this industry. Therefore, successful board members must be comfortable with more unknowns than they may have seen in former roles. The Web3 board benefits from learning across generations, industries, and journeys. Finding the right mix of directors who can translate ideas across experiences, offer independent perspectives and encourage innovation that will enable Web3 companies to expand, allowing a consumer-driven, fast-paced market to flourish. 

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