Board Meetings are not Status Meetings
Board meetings are working sessions, not status meetings. Here’s how to get the most of yours.
Most startup board meetings are enormous wastes of time. Founders treat their boards like a tribunal who passes judgment on their business, so the board meeting becomes a glorified status meeting where they try to convince the board that things are going well. I know, I was one of those founders once.
Board meetings are not status meetings. Board meetings are working sessions, and they should be used to discuss and debate the biggest strategic topics facing the business. Operating decisions are made by the CEO and team, but the board can be an invaluable tool in navigating the hardest of those decisions.
How do you ensure your board meetings are working sessions? You get all of the status out of the way ahead of time. Here’s a simple plan to do just that:
Send monthly email updates to the board that cover all key metrics, key events and risks to the business. These updates don’t need to be very long, but they should ensure any significant changes to the business are communicated quickly and that board members can track progress over time.
Prepare in-depth, written updates on the business overall and each function ahead of the board meeting and send them to the board members 4-5 days in advance. I prefer written documents, but whatever format you use it can be an enormous amount of material! A typical update from sales, marketing, product, etc. might be 4-5 pages and across 10 functions you are looking at 40-50 pages. However, that is the level of depth necessary to make sure nothing is being missed.
Call your board members ahead of the meeting to answer any specific questions or identify any concerns that require discussion. You never want to be surprised in the board meeting, so these discussions ensure you have everything in the open.
This sounds like a lot of preparation, and it is, but it serves two purposes. Not only does it ensure your board is current, it gives you a powerful management tool. Requiring your team to prepare detailed, written updates once a quarter gives you a clear insight into how your leaders are thinking and planning, and if they have missed anything important. Requiring your team to contribute to a monthly email update gives you a natural, comprehensive business review every month. These tools enhance your management by ensuring you have clear insight into the entire business on a regular schedule.
The day of the meeting…
Board members should have reviewed everything ahead of the meeting, so they are already up to speed. Hence, there is no need to focus on status! You can instead focus the meeting on 2-3 significant strategic questions that require discussion and deliberation. Common topics include where to change prices, whether to raise funding, hiring new executives and changes to the burn rate. Your board members likely have a wealth of experience on strategic topics from all of the boards they have served on in the past, and this is your opportunity to tap into that knowledge.
It can be useful to start the meeting with a 10-15 minute review of key metrics, just to make sure everyone is present at the meeting and has their head in the moment. However, the remaining 3-4 hours are designed to get clarity on these strategic questions and recommend a course of action. No decisions are typically made, but the guidance is enough for you to use.
You should also assign action items to board members if appropriate, as they do work for the company after all. Very few CEOs do assign work to their board members and it is a lost opportunity to have very smart people cover important issues for you. Common examples of action items are doing market research (what do companies like ours do in this case?), finding introductions to potential hires and identifying potential investors.
While this sounds like it makes more work for your board members, your board will appreciate it. No one enjoys 3 hour long status meetings! Board members want to help you succeed, so give them a chance to do just that.
If you want to read more about running effective board meetings, I recommend the excellent book “Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors”.
The Humor Point