For every Elon and Sara, there are way more Adams and Elizabeths

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I don’t do it often, but I’ve occasionally commented in the WSJ, WaPo, and elsewhere about particular companies and CEOs. I typically decline to speak on the record when I don’t know the CEOs personally, since I reckon my perspective has limited (read: not much) value.

But I do discuss these CEOs and companies regularly with officers and directors to drive home a recurring theme: Be careful about taking operating and governance cues from Elon (Tesla) and Sara (Spanx), because… you’re probably not them.

There are some otherworldly gifted entrepreneurs who can scale businesses from garages to the moon with virtually no oversight. We know how rare it is, because this tiny club of impresarios are globally known by their first names: Elon, Sara, Jeff, Mark, etc.

Let’s all be brutally frank. For them, objective oversight would have simply gotten in the way. So, they largely dispensed with it. And you know what? Good for them, and their shareholders.

But let’s also be equally candid that for every Elon, Sara, and Jeff, there are thousands more Adams and Elizabeths. And every smart investor knows it.

When you think about WeWork and Theranos, you get right to the things that great boards can often rectify for shareholders before it’s too late: capital allocation and integrity. Get one of those things wrong and your company is in trouble but get both of those things wrong and failure is likely.

We don’t know whether WeWork and Theranos would have had different trajectories with expert, fiercely objective oversight. But I would put my money on – probably.

In the words of a basketball coach I overheard once on a playground in NYC: “I know Michael Jordan sticks his tongue out while playing. But you’re not Michael Jordan. You just look like an idiot.”

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ADAM J. EPSTEIN

A globally recognized small-cap expert, Mr. Epstein has advised, governed, and invested in hundreds of small-cap companies. His capital markets and corporate governance acumen are products of a singular perspective – a former corporate attorney, operating executive, institutional investor, and, now, board advisor. As Bloomberg Businessweek commented regarding Mr. Epstein’s category-defining corporate governance book, “attention, directors of small-cap companies. Help is on the way.” 

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