How to Control Your Board Discussion and Avoid Chaos

Posted on Dec 10, 2013 | 10 comments


Recently I wrote the first post in a series on board meetings, entitled, “Why You’re Not Getting the Most out of Your Board,” which focused on the need to prepare properly, set good objectives and discuss mostly strategic topics.

Even if you follow this game plan meticulously your board meeting can be taken off course by well-intentioned board members who lead you down a rat hole.

Here’s how it happens …

1. Topic Creep

You start out your board meeting and a well-meaning board member who read your deck noticed a detail she didn’t understand on page 18, “Bob, I noticed that your margins in Canada declined from 48% to 46% while your margin in Mexico is up by 4%. Can you please explain the discrepancy?”

I call this “topic creep” and it is killing your board meeting. It might be useful for Sally to know the answer to this but it isn’t the most valuable use of the time you spend together as a board.

Often this is the first thing that comes up at your board meeting because while you’re sitting around waiting for the meeting to begin some random questions are flying. The question is legitimate and might even be important but unless it’s on your core agenda and immediate focus for discussion it might become a big distraction.

In my experience 90% of CEOs would just answer this question on the spot. And what seems like a harmless question with a quick answer it leads into a 15-minute discussion.

It also sets the wrong tone for the meeting as you suddenly are starting on your back foot and trying to defend your performance in part of the business rather than leading the meeting. Plus, if you haven’t prepared to talk about Canada vs. Mexico you might come across as unprepared and the board will pick up on this.

How to deal with “topic creep?”

Simple. Say, “great question” and jot down the question and promise to come back to it later in the meeting if you have time and certainly after the meeting if you run out of time.

In fact, I highly recommend having somebody other than the CEO taking down the key questions that are “parked” so that the CEO can stay focused on running the meeting.

Remember, your goal in a board meeting is to maximize the amount of discussion time you have with the smart people you’ve assembled and get their reactions to the key strategic issues you’re debating internally. You’re looking to get their experiences from other companies and to challenge your thinking.

If your goal is to debate A and you spend all of your time on B because somebody else brought it up – you’ve failed.

2. Does Anybody Have any Questions?

If it isn’t obvious already, this is an invitation to topic creep. It’s like saying, “Please, I don’t have a plan for our limited time today, what do you recommend we speak about?”

You can always leave time on the agenda for later in the meeting for “open questions” or the like so that people feel like they get to express themselves.

Also, if you read my previous post you’ll know that I believe 1:1 calls with each board member before a meeting will help limit the amount of random questions you get and will also help you surface any real concerns somebody may have and that may be worthy of going on the agenda. The strategic topics you discuss at a board meeting should be a healthy combination of what’s on your mind and what you’re trying to solve as well as what big concerns board members may have about your business.

It’s surprising how often I heard people start with “does anybody have any question” and it is seriously a 0% hit rate of a successful opening to a meeting in all of the times I’ve seen it.

3. Can I Just Show You One Thing That Doesn’t Work in Your Product?

Of all the things I’m personally most guilty of it’s this one. For companies that have products I can use on a regular basis I often save up a mental queue of all the things I think could be improved in the product. I often ping the teams as I spot issues but as the board meeting approaches invariably I think, “well, I’ll just mention it next week.”

I would put the product feedback into the same bucket as the open questions about the business. It’s best handled by putting it toward the end of the meeting and/or agreeing to answer these questions right after the board meeting.

4. I’d Like to Intro You To …

My greatest pet peeve on boards is when you have “over introducers.” These are people who continually feel the need to connect their portfolio companies with people they think would be interesting.

I resist this whenever possible. Of course there are some sensible introductions that are valuable. But it should always be at the company’s discretion unless you’re asking as a favor, in which case, ask as a favor.

Too many VCs I’ve worked with just send out a ton of intro’s because, “I think you’d enjoy meeting each other” and no management team is going to easily turn down that email request out of respect for their board member. But it ends up wasting a hell of a lot of time of key executives.

I bring this up because I’ve seen an insane amount of time wasted at board meetings by people spending time talking about all of the introductions they want to make. And often times it’s to other portfolio companies where there’s some self interest.

I can’t say I’m a zero offender in this category either. But I really try hard to be disciplined about not turning board meetings into intro discussions to prove how connected I am.

Summary

Board meetings should be about maximize the amount of time you have with your key directors to debate the issues that are most critical to your business and getting input & buy-in to your key decisions.

If you haven’t read my previous post on how to prepare for board meetings and how to set the agenda see my last post.

Even the most well-meaning board members will be undisciplined about time management and discussing what’s on their mind rather than what’s most important to you.

It’s your job not to let this happen.

Acknowledge the great question. Have a scribe write it down. Commit to come back to it later in the meeting or soon after the meeting. And move on to what you came to your board meeting to discuss.

 Photo credit Flickr.

  • http://www.spindows.com/ Clay Hebert

    Another great post, Mark.

    If it’s possible to sum up in one sentence… (not to sound like Ghandi…..or Yogi Berra)…

    “Only do things in board meetings that can only be done in board meetings.”

    Everything else…explaining Canada vs. Mexico margin discrepancies, addressing open questions, highlighting bugs or raising feature suggestions and making introductions can all be done (just as effectively) via email.

    Strategically discussing and working through difficult issues and decisions is better with everyone actively participating.

  • Amilcar

    Practical and very useful post Mark. I do recommend that if Executives “Park” questions and discussion points, that they actually follow up with those because often Executives use the “Parking” method to actually avoid ever addressing the question or discussion point.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    I can tell I am going to love this series.

    With regard to topic creep/rat hole questions. I have a rule. I get the board packet out 72hrs in advance. Any questions that require a “dig down answer” are asked 24hrs in advance, and the response is provided at the end of the day before the board meeting. Same for feedback. Do it at the board meeting instantly parked.

    Because that might be a very important question and it merits discussion, but what is not productive is having people scramble for an answer. Trying to park can be tough if it really merits strategic discussion unless you’ve given the person the chance to ask it beforehand.

    For intro’s, I’m fine with hearing a quick I’d like you to introduce you to X who knows Y and I will personally set that up after the meeting including being the scheduling secretary (not important for you to schedule? not important for me to meet). Please don’t ask do you know X? Make me say no, and then go in a long winded discussion of how great they are why I should know them, how well you know them etc. Because I will retort with my own random shit like: Do you know the Sugar Family Funeral Home is located in Fulton, NY?

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    Can board meetings be done via skype/gotomeeting? If not, you should do a post about it. I know Brad Feld is not traveling much these days, presumedly he attends them virtually.

  • LaVonne Reimer

    Great series! Your greatest pet peeve is the one that makes me most crazy, offers for intros. Might be because you’ve been on this side of the table! In many respects it is the most valuable contribution a board member/investor can make but in the middle of the board meeting there’s no good way to explore relative value, best approach and more. Not that this has to be a long discussion, just that it’s rare an intro is “just” an intro as you note.

  • Joseph Fasone

    Well said, @clayhebert:disqus. Excellent post, Mark. It’s always hard to stay on-track without seeming too abrasive, but I’d think the ability to focus and concisely close out an agenda will earn more points with the board.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes. For sure. I could see that happening. That’s why I propose having a scribe so that it’s not lost

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Totally agree. Key to avoiding the basics is having the pack out early

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I am going to write about that exact topic

  • David McNeil

    Your readers might have missed the point of the “harmless” question. Assuming you presented the “deck” to the board, the question is “does this guy understand what he is presenting? and more importantly, how does he understand and how does he articulate the challenges of the business?” I can guarantee you the board member couldn’t care less about margins in Mexico. She’s judging the CEO. Which is precisely on topic.

    If it is asked at the top of the meeting, I 100% agree that’s inappropriate. But I’d make it a priority to answer it during the meeting at the right time or you’re going to look evasive.

    “Remember, your goal in a board meeting is to maximize the amount of
    discussion time you have with the smart people you’ve assembled and get
    their reactions to the key strategic issues you’re debating internally.
    You’re looking to get their experiences from other companies and to
    challenge your thinking.”

    “you’ve assembled” assumes a lot. anyway it’s a nice dream