When You’re In Demand: Seth Goldman’s Rules for Board Membership

One of the challenges of being a board member is that if you’re good at it, more companies want you to be their board member, too. And when you’re running your own enterprise at the same time, it doesn’t take long to realize that you’ve got to limit yourself.

Seth Goldman is one of those directors who’s in demand these days in his sector, the burgeoning better-for-you food-and-beverage business. The entire CPG market seems to be in play these days, as startups scrap with traditional and established players for share of stomach that continues to shift toward more nutritious fare among consumers worldwide.

Goldman succeeded handsomely in that scrum as he built Honest Tea, a startup provider of organic teas and other beverages, from nothing in 1998 to a brand so robust that Coca-Cola eventually bought it in two stages by 2011. He has stayed on as “TeaEO” of Honest Tea and a board member while also helping his new partners at Coke with their strategy for diversifying into more healthful beverage lines and reduce the company’s dependence on its iconic carbonated soft drinks.

“If management is genuinely seeking consultation, you have to be available and responsive.” – Seth Goldman

In the process, Goldman’s reputation and network brought him into contact with other entrepreneurs in the same arena who valued his success and wisdom. So now he’s also an investor and board member of both Ripple Foods, a maker of plant-based milks, and Beyond Meat, which is substituting plant protein for animal meat in “burgers” and other analog products.

Both privately held companies are based in California and value the perspective that Goldman – a native of Wellesley, Mass. who graduated from Harvard, taught English in Russia and China, was an Americorps volunteer and served as an aide to national-level Democratic politicians – brings to their board rooms. (Goldman also is on the board of Bethesda Green, a local not-for-profit that he founded in Maryland.)

“I’ve been invited to be on more boards that I can be on,” Goldman told Corporate Board Member. “But I consciously agreed with Coke that I wasn’t going to be joining tons of other boards.”

Among Goldman’s personal rules for his board involvements:

Be disciplined. “It’s a blessing to have the ability to discipline” myself when it comes to helping out other companies and tapping into the opportunities they represent, he said. “If I start diluting my efforts I can’t engage or be present for any of them.” That means having to tell other suitors “that I wish you well, particularly if you’re a mission-driven company, but I have to be focused on what I’m doing.”

Respond quickly. “To be relevant, you have to be engaged as decisions are made” by management and directors, he said. At Ripple, for example, its early-growth phase demands that board members concur monthly. “If management is genuinely seeking consultation, you have to be available and responsive. If you can’t, you shouldn’t have taken on that responsibility.”

Discourage celebrity-seeking. Goldman said that he learned early on, as he was building Honest Tea’s board, not to become bedazzled by the prospect of getting big names to join. He advises colleagues at his new companies to be wary of the practice too. “[Honest Tea] had some marquee board members, but we ended up spending more time trying to schedule time to talk with them and chasing their feedback than it was worth,” he said. “It wasn’t helpful to management.”