Published on Dec 20, 2021
Early-stage founders tend to avoid board meetings altogether. You might have even read that board meetings can be a distraction to how you should shape and control your startup. But the truth is, this only happens when board meetings are done wrong. When done right, board meetings can help you unlock a ton of value for your company.
How you communicate with your board and the relationships you build with your board members have a significant impact on your success as a CEO. In fact, whether you keep your position as CEO is largely depended on your performance during your next 4-6 board meetings; these meetings are your opportunity to demonstrate how you’re handling your role and how capable you are of guiding the company to success.
So you can absolutely go to your board meetings and just wing it, or you can actually start to train your board-management muscles and set yourself up for success from day one.
Board meetings are notoriously high-effort, high-stress, and low-utility. As I have described in my previous posts (#boardsuccess is company success, 4 mistakes to avoid for an effective startup board, and it's time to rethink board meeting decks), founders tend to spend most of their meeting time reading through a prepared deck of updates. Frankly, this is a huge waste of time.
It’s much more efficient to share routine updates asynchronously between meetings and save your meeting time for strategic, productive discussions. Unfortunately for most startups, what could be their most important strategic resource is still largely untapped.
We are still in the early innings of seeing how the new distributed work paradigm will shape workplace culture. As stated in a recent Harvard Business Review article:
…instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to improve how we work, most organizations simply took their offices online, along with the bad habits that permeated them. Instead of back-to-back meetings, people got back-to-back Zoom calls. Instead of physical interruptions, they got more interruptions via Slack or Teams.
A profound realization triggered by distributed work is that the synchronous time we have together is precious. We should make the best of it by focusing on truly interactive discussions, and use asynchronous time to share one-sided updates that increase visibility and alignment.
In the pre-distributed era, board meetings were tended to be dominated by the loudest voices in the room. As Foundry Group’s Brad Feld points out, loud voices can drown out quieter voices and this dynamic can get out of hand. Some board members focus on showing how smart they are or lock horns around seemingly trivial issues. On top of that, not all board members come to the meeting with the same context and therefore can’t have insightful opinions on every issue. In the end, the ones who suffer most from this dynamic are the companies themselves.
Distributed work is forcing us to see how vital it is to embrace asynchronous communication. It isn’t just a way to respond to times of crisis, it’s an opportunity to allow all voices to be heard (after all, the quiet voices can sometimes be the most insightful).
Running a productive board meeting doesn’t have to take a huge amount of effort. By following a few best practices, you can unlock a lot of value from your meetings.
Running a board meeting is, ironically, more about what you do outside of the meeting rather than in the meeting. While this is a topic we could discuss at length, here are a few key points:
It is imperative to communicate with your board via short, frequent, and ongoing updates. This allows you to free up valuable meeting time to discuss strategic topics.
Derive your meeting agenda from the most important topics you want to discuss, not just from combining all the update materials.
Share your agenda with board members before the meeting and ask for top-of-mind issues on their side to add to the list.
Once the meeting topic list is ready, you can build out the talking points and supporting content. Use a combination of text, charts, and videos, but focus on the content and not the visual design.
Bringing your team into board meetings is a good way to both incentivize your team and demonstrate your leadership, but it can be unscalable under meeting time constraints and nerve-wracking for those who are not used to speaking in front of the board. Instead, you can have your team record video updates (we use mmhmm) to share with your board before the meeting.
There should be no new information at the board meeting. Share everything ahead of the meeting and don’t wait until the night before, so your board members can come prepared to engage in lively discussions and problem-solving.
Since you have been providing ongoing updates to board members, you should spend no more than 1/3 of the meeting time going through highlights and lowlights, and reviewing financials and key metrics. The best board meetings take 2/3 of the time to dive deep into 1–2 hairy problems where your board members can be helpful.
Cut the one-sided update short so you can “flip” the meeting dynamic—instead of you talking most of the time, you should allocate more time to actively involve your board members.
Don’t forget that your board members have usually seen many companies succeed and fail and have been through many cycles, so you should carve out more time to wisely utilize the expertise in the room. This is much better than wasting their (and your) time by reading out bullet points.
The enormous mistake made by most startup boards is to take up an entire meeting reporting out to your board. Many founders actually spend time reading bullet points from PowerPoint or Keynote to the directors. Huh? Here you have an incredible resource at your disposal and you choose to use the time reading bullet points to them?
Similarly, Pete Flint, former CEO and founder of Trulia and GP at NFX, also touched on this phenomenon in his recent blog:
CEOs spending 90% of their time giving updates or running victory laps and then raising the strategic issues right at the end, when there is no time to really engage. This is not high leverage for anyone. Instead, “flip” the board meeting. Your role as CEO is not to inform and report, but to engage and gather perspective and move the company forward in the right direction.
Whether you’re experiencing pains in your board meetings now, or you are just about to kick off your first board meeting, this new way of managing your board can certainly guide you towards a better way to shape your future meetings.
Discussions don’t end at the moment you finish the meeting. Remember to summarize the key takeaways and action items from the meeting, and share them with your board members to keep track.
To keep up the pace with the evolving needs of your company, share timely updates with your board and continue the momentum outside of meetings.
In other words, the “after” of this meeting is the “before” of the next meeting. In addition to sharing short and timely updates, you should also start to add topics for discussions to your next board meeting agenda.
This may sound like extra work, but you’ll find that it can fit in naturally with your current management workflow, and you can repurpose many internal work that are already done for sharing with your board.
This is the flywheel of successful board management, and #BoardSuccess will lead to company success!