Running More Effective Board Meetings at Startups

Posted on Feb 12, 2010 | 35 comments


bored meetingLike many of you I’ve sat through my fair share of Board Meetings over the past decade.  For the most part I’d call them Bored Meetings.

The first 7 years I was running them and the past 3 years I’ve been attending them.  Most board meetings aren’t as effective as they could be.  Everyone has their own opinion on board meetings so you’ll get conflicting advice.  Here’s my non-conventional guide to improving them.

In my first few years of running board meetings I found them frustrating.  I felt that my team and I spent too much time preparing for them and that they were mostly “update” meetings to remind investors what we did and what we were working on.  I got very little value from them despite having very smart and talented people around the table.  I’m sure many of you feel that way.

The reason the meetings felt like update meetings is because we spent hours walking through our board deck sequentially.  We started with our financial statements.  We then walked through our sales pipeline and discussed major campaigns.  We then talked about our product roadmap.  Then competition.  I think our investors walked away with a very good understanding of our businesses and always complimented us for being their most thorough and prepared board.  But I felt like it wasted too much of OUR time.

So I changed things up and became much happier with my results.  Here are some notes on what I did differently and what I’ve learned since then.

1.       Set two strategic topics per board meeting and start with them – I bet most of you feel that you have pretty talented people around the table but you get stuck talking about the minutiae of your business.  You didn’t intend it to happen that way.  You put some update slides on things like key hires or biz dev deals being negotiated and you didn’t plan to talk about them.  But they were in a slide and people asked you questions so it ended up chewing up 30 minutes.

I recommend that the the first two slides in your deck be the two most important strategic topics your management team is grappling with. Make sure to send the deck in advance and have enough details about the issue for the board members to be able think about it before hand.  If you’re expecting board members to react on the fly you won’t get the best out of them.

Tell the board that you’re going with this new structure because you really want to be sure that while you have all these talented people assembled you want to maximize the impact that they can have in helping you set your strategy.  Take 30 minutes or so for each issue.  If you make this one change in your board meetings you are more likely to get value out of them rather than being just an update meeting.

But wait?  How can we discuss strategic issues if we haven’t gone through all of company update?  Easy.  People can read.  Send your deck in advance and require people to read it.  If you’ve done a good job they generally know the key issues before they’ve arrived.

2.       Facilitate – Board meetings often end up being a debate between the CEO and the non-exec board member who likes to hear himself speak the most.  You probably have lots of great ideas around the table and could have great conversations but the same people speak over and over again.

The best way to stop this as a CEO is: a) don’t let yourself be the “chalk and talk” type who wants to drive through all your key points at the board meeting and b) whenever you bring up a topic for discussion (as in the strategic topics above) make sure to call on everybody.  When the “talker” keeps jumping in politely say, “That’s great.  I appreciate your input.” and then write down what they said on a white board (so they feel listened to) but then go around the room and call on everybody and ask, “so what do you think?”

Sounds obvious, I know.  But 70% of board meetings I’ve attended in my days have been a tea party between the CEO and the “talker(s)”.

3.       Have a standard pack. Use time series and use graphs – Produce the standard of what you want to report to the board in terms of business performance and produce the same thing every time.  Each board pack should have the history of performance over the past year, a comparison of performance relative to plan and your forecasts going forward.

You’ll obviously have some data in a spreadsheet format (copied into PowerPoint) for things like your Income Statement, Balance Sheet and Cashflow Statements.  But make sure that you do as much of your performance measurements in a graphical format.  Most people are visual thinkers and being able to see things like revenue, total sales pipeline, conversion rates, error rates or whatever the measure, putting it in a time series graph helps people to quickly digest business performance.

4.       Send board pack 3 days in advance - this is one of my biggest tips.  Most people in really early stage companies send out board packs the day before the meeting or if you’re luck 2 days before.  Don’t let that be you.  Send it three days in advance. Why?  You’re goal is to have all of the board members be super productive.  Many times board members read the pack the morning of your meeting.  They haven’t thought in advance about the business and don’t come primed with valuable questions or input.

If you consistently send your deck 3 days prior to the meeting you have the right to ask board members to have read the deck at least 24 hours prior to the board meeting.  Tell them that this is important to you because it gives you a chance to call key board members before the meeting and because it gives them time to understand the current state of the business before the board meeting.

5. Don’t allow computers, iPhones or Blackberries - I know that they’re going to tell you that they like to take notes while you’re speaking or to look at your deck online in real time.  Politely don’t let them.  I know of no board members who can’t resist the temptation to just quickly check if that important email came in (let alone the headlines or their latest Tweets).  I used to say, “I’d greatly prefer that nobody uses computers or Blackberries during the meeting.  I’ve got a stack of notebooks and pens if anybody needs.”  People complain a bit.  People like to complain.  Let them.  If you want to have a really productive meeting you need 100% of people’s attention.  And you  know how VCs love their Blackberries!  One work around – you could promise everybody a 10 minute break after the first 90 minutes so they can make any urgent calls.

6.       Have in the afternoon.  Reserve three hours – Many people like to have board meetings in the morning.  Investors fly in the night before and have a dinner.  I prefer board meetings from 2-5pm.  Why so specific?  First, I like to have the morning to plan any last minute things so I’m ready to facilitate properly.  I like to have 3 hours.  Most people prefer 2.  They prefer two because most board meetings are boring.  If you run a tight ship you’ll hold their interests.  If you have really controversial issues to be agreed you can easily ask for some time with key board members before the meeting.  Harder to do that when you have an 8am start.

I don’t find that 2 hours is really long enough to get people engaged is strategic discussions.  You end up talking a lot about some issues and then running out of time for others.  A 2-5 meeting allows people from out of town plenty of time to get to the meeting that day.  And the final reason I like 2-5 is point 7 below.

7.  Plan dinners afterward, keep it social – Many boards (especially those with out of town members) will hold dinners the night before the board meeting and then have the actual meeting in the morning.  I’ve been to many of these.  The problem is that you end up discussing all of the key points at the dinner and the dinner essentially becomes the de facto board meeting.  When you meet the next morning it’s a repeat of what was discussed the night before.  And talk about boring;

If you have a 2-5pm board meeting then you can have a 6pm dinner afterward that ends at 8:30.  I suggest you try your best to keep the dinner social rather than an extension of the board meeting.  It is really important to build deep relationships with your board members and they with each other.  The more everybody knows, likes and respects each other the easier it is to deal with issues in difficult times (and there will be difficult times).  I like to tell people to plan board dinners every other board meeting.  If a VC is on 7 boards it becomes impossible to always have board dinners.

8.  Write up notes immediately afterward and distribute – People go to so many board meetings and are so busy these days that they seldom remember what was discussed / agreed.  This is coupled with the fact that lawyers now routinely advise you not to put any of the substantive discussion points in the legal meeting minutes.  So you should produce the set of notes that are unofficial but cover the real valuable stuff you talked about.  I find it’s helpful in consolidating your knowledge and memory of what was discussed and provides a great reminder for all board members.

9.  Monthly in years 1-2, every 6 weeks in years 2-4, bi-monthly or quarterly thereafter - Many entrepreneurs prefer not to have monthly board meetings because they see it as too much overhead.   But in the first year of your business it is invaluable.  Things change so quickly and investors also don’t understand your business well enough in the beginning.  Too much changes in two months in a pure startup and you want investors and board members there to guide you through many strategic decisions.  It is also a great discipline for you to regularly reflect on what your issues are, what your performance is and what you want to change going forward.  The more experienced you are the less frequently you can have the meetings.

10. Don’t accept dialers - There are always going to be times where somebody needs to dial in to a board meeting rather than attend in person.  Every now and again this is fine.  But don’t allow it to happen frequently.  If a board member always feels the need to dial in I would talk to them about whether there is another suitable member to join the board.  The person dialing in is never properly engaged in the meeting.  It’s too hard to be.  Or worse yet, all the people who are in attendance end up catering to the needs of the person who’s on the phone.

AND IMPORTANTLY:

11. Nothing MAJOR  is ever decided at the board meeting – What?  Isn’t that what board meetings are for?  No.  I’m not talking about garden variety issues but rather the super important issues: should we sell, should we merge, should we fire a co-founder, should we raise money, can I increase my salary, etc.

All super important issues should be lobbied and agreed before board meetings.  You should know what each individuals view is and make sure you can count on their vote.  The most important decisions are generally agreed before key meetings.  This is true with boards or any important meeting.  I always like to tell people, “if there’s an important discussion at today’s meeting and you’re not ‘in on’ what the decision is you’re the sucker in the room.”  Don’t let that be you.

  • daytulu

    Mark, I fully agree on the afternoon time frame for the meetings. In addition to other advantages you listed, in theory, you can get more rest the day before and make changes in the morning. What about the location of board meetings? Any value in reserving a board room at a hotel or any other off-site location?

  • http://giangbiscan.com Giang Biscan

    This is a great list of very actionable items for handling any, not just board, meeting. Thanks, Mark.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good question. I hate to see people pay unnecessarily for hotels. Usually you can book a conference room at your law firm for free. Always best to get out of the office if possible. Change the environment.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Giang. Yes, you're right – pretty much true for many meetings.

  • http://twitter.com/johnnyfontana John Fontana

    Mark,
    Very helpful post. I'll have to save it and review it before my first board meeting. I especially liked point 7 about planning dinner afterwards. Seems obvious but I doubt many do it. This way the you can pull the “talkers” aside and discuss one-on-one if necessary instead of burning through time and boring people during the meeting.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The truth is that any time you need anybody in the world to do you a favor or help you in a difficult time it is far easier when you have a strong relationship. Strong relationships are formed over social events – not in meetings. All hours put into building strong relationships pay huge dividends.

  • adbomaha

    Fantastic stuff. The 3-days-before rule and circulating post-meeting notes is blindingly obvious, but nobody does it. Everyone wants one more piece of information to go in the board deck, which rarely matters. As always, discipline is your friend.

    Also, too many times management treats the board as just their boss. It's true that they are the boss, but they also are the smartest available people who really understand the company. If you don't take advantage of that, you're crazy.

    Will be using this.

  • daytulu

    Mark, I fully agree on the afternoon time frame for the meetings. In addition to other advantages you listed, in theory, you can get more rest the day before and make changes in the morning. What about the location of board meetings? Any value in reserving a board room at a hotel or any other off-site location?

  • http://asable.com/ Giang Biscan

    This is a great list of very actionable items for handling any, not just board, meeting. Thanks, Mark.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good question. I hate to see people pay unnecessarily for hotels. Usually you can book a conference room at your law firm for free. Always best to get out of the office if possible. Change the environment.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Giang. Yes, you're right – pretty much true for many meetings.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyFontana John Fontana

    Mark,
    Very helpful post. I'll have to save it and review it before my first board meeting. I especially liked point 7 about planning dinner afterwards. Seems obvious but I doubt many do it. This way the you can pull the “talkers” aside and discuss one-on-one if necessary instead of burning through time and boring people during the meeting.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The truth is that any time you need anybody in the world to do you a favor or help you in a difficult time it is far easier when you have a strong relationship. Strong relationships are formed over social events – not in meetings. All hours put into building strong relationships pay huge dividends.

  • adbomaha

    Fantastic stuff. The 3-days-before rule and circulating post-meeting notes is blindingly obvious, but nobody does it. Everyone wants one more piece of information to go in the board deck, which rarely matters. As always, discipline is your friend.

    Also, too many times management treats the board as just their boss. It's true that they are the boss, but they also are the smartest available people who really understand the company. If you don't take advantage of that, you're crazy.

    Will be using this.

  • http://www.blackbeltguide.com/ Marc Winitz

    Hi Mark, I only comment on this blog when I have something of value to add or ask (as in this case). I'd love to see you take this a step further and actually give your view on the most effective ways to run non BoD meetings. Yes, some of the tips here apply but a lot don't. A lot of the day to day grind in running a business involves a lot of meetings and most people do the same things (and a lot of meetings suck). Would love to see a post on the mechanics of this if you think there is value (e.g. differences in running sales meetings, versus product & engineering, etc…your big meeting/rat hole post did a great job on customer facing stuff). I would think a lot of entrepreneurs would find value in making the everyday grind type more effective given the sheer number that occur that are non BoD.

  • http://www.johngannonblog.com/ John Gannon

    Not really a meeting organization tip but one that will keep your meeting from being derailed quicker than you can say 'boo.'

    GET THE NUMBERS RIGHT

    Even if there is a minor, explainable mistake in the numbers you present, it will a) cause everyone to question ALL of the numbers they are being shown and b) lead to spending 20-30 minutes discussing the mistake in question, eating into valuable time c) see point a, where more questions inevitably get spawned due to the lack of confidence created by the original mistake

    I saw this in a couple of board meetings where I was attending as an junior VC observer and it seemed to be a great way to kill a good chunk of the meeting.

  • http://twitter.com/michaeljung michaeljung

    @adbomaha “Also, too many times management treats the board as just their boss. It's true that they are the boss, but they also are the smartest available people who really understand the company.”

    Don't agree with that;
    1. You (the founder/co-founder/ceo/president/chair) are the one who is the one who understands your company in-and-out.
    1.2 The boardroom should ideally consists of people who can contribute to the companies success. Ie experience in industry, were part of a similar company, experience in growing a company, expansion, understand a certain market (China). You want to draw from expertise/insight, best-practice, and connections. To say, the boardroom should consists of 'smartest available people' is an over-generalization.

    Jason Calacanis might be a smart and great guy, good CEO and leader for Mahalo, and has vertical expertise and connections because of his publishing stint. But what can he contribute to a medical-device startup except his Twitter followers? You see that now and then when he complains that he didn't got into a seedround/angelround of So-Great-Company-X.

    2. You should see the boardroom not as 'boss', it's your Dad who is older than you and you appreciate giving you advice how ask out a girl, or shows you how to shave. After X-year, you (maybe) made it and visit your Dad (parents) from time to time and still ask for advice, or they will tell you because they see you struggle. Parents see, notice when their kids have problems. Parents want always the best for their kids.

    And when I read blog-X about Startup-X that it failed because of things like execution, leadership, product design, technology, than I first think about the of what people consisted the board and why they sat there in the first place (and probably doing very little to advert catastrophe). #omission-of-duties

    And “[boardroom members] really understand the company” … no;
    3. Each single boardroom member doesn't understand the company/startup in its entirety as much as the people who work 24/7, 365 days at their company/startup. That is a claim I and you can't fact check, but I will refer to point 1.2.

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  • http://www.blackbeltguide.com/ Marc Winitz

    Hi Mark, I only comment on this blog when I have something of value to add or ask (as in this case). I'd love to see you take this a step further and actually give your view on the most effective ways to run non BoD meetings. Yes, some of the tips here apply but a lot don't. A lot of the day to day grind in running a business involves a lot of meetings and most people do the same things (and a lot of meetings suck). Would love to see a post on the mechanics of this if you think there is value (e.g. differences in running sales meetings, versus product & engineering, etc…your big meeting/rat hole post did a great job on customer facing stuff). I would think a lot of entrepreneurs would find value in making the everyday grind type more effective given the sheer number that occur that are non BoD.

  • http://www.johngannonblog.com/ John Gannon

    Not really a meeting organization tip but one that will keep your meeting from being derailed quicker than you can say 'boo.'

    GET THE NUMBERS RIGHT

    Even if there is a minor, explainable mistake in the numbers you present, it will a) cause everyone to question ALL of the numbers they are being shown and b) lead to spending 20-30 minutes discussing the mistake in question, eating into valuable time c) see point a, where more questions inevitably get spawned due to the lack of confidence created by the original mistake

    I saw this in a couple of board meetings where I was attending as an junior VC observer and it seemed to be a great way to kill a good chunk of the meeting.

  • http://www.twitter.com/michaeljung Michael Jung

    @adbomaha “Also, too many times management treats the board as just their boss. It's true that they are the boss, but they also are the smartest available people who really understand the company.”

    Don't agree with that;
    1. You (the founder/co-founder/ceo/president/chair) are the one who is the one who understands your company in-and-out.
    1.2 The boardroom should ideally consists of people who can contribute to the companies success. Ie experience in industry, were part of a similar company, experience in growing a company, expansion, understand a certain market (China). You want to draw from expertise/insight, best-practice, and connections. To say, the boardroom should consists of 'smartest available people' is an over-generalization.

    Jason Calacanis might be a smart and great guy, good CEO and leader for Mahalo, and has vertical expertise and connections because of his publishing stint. But what can he contribute to a medical-device startup except his Twitter followers? You see that now and then when he complains that he didn't got into a seedround/angelround of So-Great-Company-X.

    2. You should see the boardroom not as 'boss', it's your Dad who is older than you and you appreciate giving you advice how ask out a girl, or shows you how to shave. After X-year, you (maybe) made it and visit your Dad (parents) from time to time and still ask for advice, or they will tell you because they see you struggle. Parents see, notice when their kids have problems. Parents want always the best for their kids.

    And when I read blog-X about Startup-X that it failed because of things like execution, leadership, product design, technology, than I first think about the of what people consisted the board and why they sat there in the first place (and probably doing very little to advert catastrophe). #omission-of-duties

    And “[boardroom members] really understand the company” … no;
    3. Each single boardroom member doesn't understand the company/startup in its entirety as much as the people who work 24/7, 365 days at their company/startup. That is a claim I and you can't fact check, but I will refer to point 1.2.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I know that the post was mostly directed at BOD meetings and not all applies. My golden rule for meetings is … don't. I hate meetings. 95% of them are a waste of time. But I will give some thoughts to a future post on the topic. I'm probably not the best guy to ask. I'm the master of the 1-on-1 meeting but the only other meetings I enjoy are ones where I'm leading ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Man, so true. Nothing is worse than a meeting where the team doesn't know its numbers or has them wrong. This happened recently at a meeting I attended. Confidence erodes quickly.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I know that the post was mostly directed at BOD meetings and not all applies. My golden rule for meetings is … don't. I hate meetings. 95% of them are a waste of time. But I will give some thoughts to a future post on the topic. I'm probably not the best guy to ask. I'm the master of the 1-on-1 meeting but the only other meetings I enjoy are ones where I'm leading ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Man, so true. Nothing is worse than a meeting where the team doesn't know its numbers or has them wrong. This happened recently at a meeting I attended. Confidence erodes quickly.

  • http://influads.com/ damiansen

    Within the logic of the standard pack: Regarding Sales,marketing and other operations that are handled day-to-day, should you NOT PREPARE a board presentation at all?

    I mean, should you have on your daily operations a setup that tracks actionable metrics that can run the discussion, and therefore focus on preparing a meeting the strategic issues like hiring key personnel,…?

    About the dinner I have an intriguing question, at least for a newbie like me: Who pays? I guess the answer is the startup/company, but if so why? Should investors take some of costs associated with board meetings?

  • http://twitter.com/shaig Shai Goldman

    Mark, I'm leading a leadership seminar and will incorporate some of these items into the course work. Thank you, very helpful tips and reminders. Shai
    (info on the seminar – http://www.jvalley.org/pages/leadership-series )

  • http://www.businessquests.com businessquests

    Oh so true! Not only for start-ups. I am going to take a couple of those ideas to Boards of more mature companies.

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  • http://influads.com/ damiansen

    Within the logic of the standard pack: Regarding Sales,marketing and other operations that are handled day-to-day, should you NOT PREPARE a board presentation at all?

    I mean, should you have on your daily operations a setup that tracks actionable metrics that can run the discussion, and therefore focus on preparing a meeting the strategic issues like hiring key personnel,…?

    About the dinner I have an intriguing question, at least for a newbie like me: Who pays? I guess the answer is the startup/company, but if so why? Should investors take some of costs associated with board meetings?

  • http://twitter.com/shaig Shai Goldman

    Mark, I'm leading a leadership seminar and will incorporate some of these items into the course work. Thank you, very helpful tips and reminders. Shai
    (info on the seminar – http://www.jvalley.org/pages/leadership-series )

  • http://www.businessquests.com businessquests

    Oh so true! Not only for start-ups. I am going to take a couple of those ideas to Boards of more mature companies.

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  • http://twitter.com/theminingman Jamie Ross

    Really great post Mark – easy to read, great advice, and actionable straight away. Much appreciated!!

  • http://www.miningman.com Jamie Ross (Mining Man)

    Really great post Mark – easy to read, great advice, and actionable straight away. Much appreciated!!

  • mat the cat

    Do you recommend having the whole executive team present, or just the CEO with the rest of the team present?

  • mat the cat

    Do you recommend having the whole executive team present, or just the CEO with the rest of the team present?

  • mat the cat

    Do you recommend having the whole executive team present, or just the CEO with the rest of the team present?

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