Published on Oct 19, 2021
Over the past few months, my thoughts on why #boardsuccess is company success and 4 mistakes to avoid for an effective startup board have inspired many startup founders to discuss board management with me. Today, I’m going to touch on one of the most frequently asked questions: how to prepare for board meeting decks?
While it may seem reasonable to have a deck for your board meeting, because don’t all important meetings have decks? My answer to them is: you’re asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is how do I make my board communication more efficient and effective?
If you’re puzzled here, take a step back and ask yourself why board meetings need to rely on decks and why board communications have to take place during meetings (hint: they don’t and they shouldn’t).
In the pre-COVID world when everyone physically worked together, people believed the synchronous in-person meeting was the best way to communicate. But almost all meetings follow the same format: monotonous, one-sided updates where one person speaks and most people listen, accompanied by lengthy decks. People come into the meeting unprepared and uninformed, learning everything on the spot, and thus unable to have productive discussions.
As the whole world is evolving into a globally distributed work culture, business activities are becoming increasingly decentralized and communications can’t just be about synchronous meetings following rigid decks anymore. We have to reimagine how we do things in a way that’s native to the new distributed paradigm.
Now you see my point: The optimal form of board communication is actually not during the board meetings but everything in between those meetings. And even just for the board meetings, the optimal form should not be dictated by a deck.
In the new distributed work world, I believe there are 3 key characteristics of effective and efficient board communications:
Interactive and engaging
Short and frequent
Timely (ask for help when you need it)
In traditional board meetings, the vast majority of the time is spent on one-sided updates, e.g. financial performance, operating metrics, team growth, product roadmap, etc. All of your board members—some of the most resourceful and insightful people in your network—end up wasting valuable time listening to all these announcements together in a live meeting.
The synchronous meeting time you have with them is precious, so seize the moment to engage them in a live discussion and let them share more from their valuable experiences, instead of you reading bullet points from your board deck.
In the distributed world, most of these updates can move to asynchronous communications outside of meetings. On Surfboard, you can share anything—key financial metrics, team updates, customer feedback, or news in your sector/space—that you think your board members and investors need to know. Even better, you’re giving them a channel to provide feedback asynchronously so you can continue building momentum outside of board meetings.
This not only makes the communication much more interactive than before, but also makes it more engaging because your board members now actually hear (read) you and have the context, instead of mechanically nodding to these updates during a meeting without any time to process the info.
Many people believe a board deck makes the conversation more structured and thus more efficient than piece-meal updates. However, that isn’t actually the case. In fact, you spent hours and hours of time every quarter trying to compile and shuffle everything into a dull presentation, and it happens so infrequently that you often forget about things that took place throughout the quarter.
When I make this point during conversations with founders, many of them ask if sending asynchronous updates creates extra work. In reality, sending weekly or monthly updates actually saves you time downstream. Waiting until the end of the quarter to compile all of your thoughts into a lengthy board deck will burn more time than short, frequent updates ever could.
Most importantly, sharing these short and frequent updates is how you build trust and reputation with your board members and investors. You are establishing yourself as a thoughtful, reflective, and disciplined entrepreneur. This trust can be very helpful when you later find yourself in challenging times and really need the support from your board members and investors.
Your startup moves fast. So your requests for help should be answered fast. Don’t let the old pace of board meetings and investor updates be the blocker of your company’s growth.
There’s a tendency for founders not to ask for help from board members and investors, or embed asks at the end of a long update. Founders often believe you can only ask for help when you send updates but, in fact, you are entitled to ask for help whenever you need it. Asks deserve more attention and thus should be decoupled from updates.
Founders also tend to ask for help in private 1:1 messages. But actually, asking for help publicly within your board and investor network is a good way to hold people accountable, and the visibility is a good push for everyone to jump in and help. People want to be the most knowledgeable and helpful ones around the table, so leverage the peer pressure here and give your board members and investors a reason to engage.
As a founder, you need to adopt more asynchronous communications outside of quarterly board meetings. You should share updates in more interactive and engaging formats and make them short and frequent. Also, don’t forget to ask for help when you need it and separate asks from updates. Then, your actual meeting time can be better used for interactive discussions with your board members, who are incredible resources to help achieve your company’s success.