Six Calls from Aicha
This CEO is a master at interacting with her board. Here’s how she does it.
My phone started ringing. It was a Saturday night in May around 10pm and I was hanging out with my daughter, watching a movie. She hit pause and said, “Let me guess, it’s Aicha.”
Admittedly, it was a safe guess, given most of my calls in May were from Aicha.
Aicha Evans is the CEO of Zoox, a company on whose board I served and one to whom we wrote a $2.5 million seed check in December of 2014. Zoox’s audacious goal was to build a fully-autonomous, ground-up vehicle as a service. What was a gleam in the founders’ eyes in 2014 had become a tour de force of technology by early 2020, with test vehicles capable of driving autonomously through downtown San Francisco, and a designed-from-scratch robotaxi to pioneer the future of ride-hailing with passengers front-of-mind. The company was 1,000 people strong and we had recruited Aicha in early 2019 to take the company to the next level.
What became clear in early 2020 was that Zoox needed a strong, strategic partner, one who shared our vision and was willing to invest the capital needed to bring this vision to reality. Ultimately, it became clear that Amazon was that right partner, and Zoox was acquired by Amazon a few months ago.
I’m very excited for Zoox’s future now as a part of Amazon. That said, the Zoox acquisition is also bittersweet for me, because it ends my work as a board member there.
I was reflecting with my partners yesterday about this board in particular, because of how much I enjoyed working with (and learning from) Aicha. Though this was Aicha’s first CEO job, I’d put her at the top of my list of CEOs for understanding how to work with a board.
While board meetings are important, I believe the 1–1 conversations CEOs have with their board members are where the most outcome-changing work gets done. Aicha proved to be the master of such conversations — usually impromptu phone calls, admittedly at all hours of the day and night!
Here are six archetype “Aicha calls” and why I think they are so effective:
“Explain this to me.” Aicha is a very experienced executive, having been chief strategy officer of Intel and previously leading a team of 8,000 people reporting to her — way more than Zoox’s ranks today. She’s also an experienced board member, currently serving on the board of SAP. Yet, she had never been the CEO of a venture-backed startup before Zoox and had never reported to a board as her ‘boss’. There are nuances about the role as well as complexities around having a base of private equity stakeholders that were new to her. Aicha was not afraid to admit what she didn’t know and to seek immediate help to educate herself.
“I have bad news.” Some CEOs hide bad news, hoping it will go away or be made less relevant by the time they have to tell their boards. The best CEOs tell their boards right away when there is bad news. Especially in rapidly evolving negotiations, as fund-raises or M&A transactions often are, the board needs to be kept up to speed with any development, negative or positive, so that we can be ready to act based on the most current information. I knew that as soon as Aicha knew some important development, whether good or bad, the board would know too.
“Tell me what I’m doing wrong.” With every CEO job, there are good turns and bad turns. I remember one day we got an unexpected bad turn, something Aicha admitted she hadn’t been expecting. Instead of trying to justify it, she asked me to give her my unvarnished perspective about what she could have done differently to change that outcome. It takes a lot of personal courage to ask that of one of the people who decides whether you keep your job or not — but it also allows you to learn from someone who has both the inside knowledge of a board member and the perspective (hopefully) gained by having experienced many other situations across other companies that can help inform different paths forward. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn, but only if you lean into the messy part of looking honestly at what went wrong and how you might have done things differently. Aicha is fierce and fearless in doing so.
“Help me think through this problem/opportunity.” Some CEOs see their VC board members as gatekeepers, people to report to and otherwise keep out of the way as much as possible. The best CEOs see their VC board members as “free help” — people who are up to speed and very committed to your company, who are dedicated and obligated to helping you, and who you don’t even have to pay! I knew that when Aicha started a call with this sentence, I should make myself comfortable, because it was likely to be a long talk — but honestly these were also my favorite calls because I could apply my own learnings, skills and perspective to helping to solve something that would move the ball forward for Zoox. To me, that’s the most rewarding thing about being a board member.
“I need you to do something for me.” Aicha understood that sometimes a message needed to come from someone other than her. Or, perhaps she needed to find a way to someone with whom she herself did not have a relationship. She was not afraid to call me — or any other board member — and assign us work. While boards are organized first for corporate governance purposes, board members can (and should!) also be helpers, and she understood how to ask for that help and provide the support needed for us to give that help in the most efficient way.
And last but not least…
“I need to vent.” (And sometimes it was about me!) For all the perceived “glory” that comes with being a CEO, there is also a sense of isolation. You have a tremendous amount of pressure on you and cannot always confide in your executive leadership due to the need for confidentiality of negotiations or other reasons. You must keep all that is going on ‘inside the sausage factory’ confidential and so your besties are also not a great place for you to go to vent. Even your spouse may get exhausted talking to you! I appreciated that Aicha felt safe enough with me to vent, and I felt it was something small but important I could do, even at 10pm on a Saturday night. And, by the way, sometimes she was venting about me! We had had a particularly heated discussion during a board meeting where she and I were on different sides of an issue. She called me afterwards and said, “I’m mad at you, not about the decision as much as about the process. So, I need to tell you why this bothered me — but then we’ll be fine.” And not only were we indeed fine afterwards, but I also learned some things I could have done differently that benefitted not only my next Zoox board meeting, but will benefit all the boards I serve on in the future.
It was an incredibly rewarding experience to work with Aicha, as well as with Zoox’s phenomenally talented co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, and of course with the rest of the Zoox board and leadership team — a stellar group of people. And I do hope Aicha still calls me once in a while :)