Startup CEOs: It’s time to begin optimizing your board meetings

If you’re the CEO of an early-stage, venture-backed company, does this sound familiar?

You and your team have been working furiously to get the deck done for your upcoming board meeting. You’ve finally gotten the product roadmap section from your CTO. The VP of Sales updated the latest figures. You have a few strategic questions for the board, and those are put in the last slide. The HR section isn’t going to get done, so you’ll cut that out this quarter, and talk around it if it comes up. The Marketing section is not quite perfect yet; you don’t have updated MQLs, but with the clock ticking, you review the deck one last time; then, figuring it is good enough, you send it to your board. You send it 24 hours before the board meeting.

During the 3-hour board meeting the next afternoon, you take the board through the deck. You walk everyone sequentially through each section and each slide. There are the usual questions and comments, and some strategic debate. Things go longer than expected, however. Your board members have flights later that day and need to get moving. You offer some summary commentary toward the very end of the 3- hours meeting, while everyone runs off to wherever their busy lives are taking them next.

You feel a big sense of relief with another board meeting behind you. You wonder about how the board was feeling. They seemed to ask some good questions and were generally supportive. You start thinking about how the next board meeting could be improved when you’re pulled into a customer call. Suddenly, you’re back in the weeds of running your business, and those less-urgent ideas get pushed to the back of your mind. You make a note to connect with one or two board members to get their feedback. You promise yourself you’ll dedicate more time next quarter. In reality, you do neither of these things.

This scenario seems innocuous. It did when I was a CEO, and I’ll admit that occasionally I had board meetings like that.

But it’s not innocuous; it’s really a colossal failure for the CEO (and for your board members).

As someone with a lot of board experience as a CEO, a management team member, and as a venture investor, this scenario rings true more often than I would like to admit. The problem? You’ve missed a huge opportunity to leverage your board.

It could be so much better. As they say in cheesy movie trailers…“Imagine a world where…”

Imagine a world where…you had reached out to each board member individually in the weeks running up to the board meeting to discuss the latest in your business and share thoughts on the upcoming board meeting. You would hear their questions, discuss some of your ideas, and ultimately craft an initial outline of the key topics you—and they—would like to discuss.

Oh, and by the way, this has the HUGE side benefit of your board members feeling like you are on top of it as CEO. They’ll be thinking you are “so proactive, so strategic and gosh, what a good listener!”. They will also feel like your trusted, valued mentor and confidant: all good things for a CEO.

Imagine a world where…you and your team get the deck finalized and to the board at least 48 hours before the board meeting… This gives the board ample time to read the entire deck, think deeply about it, and prepare with questions and comments. Your board members all have significant interest in your success. You can trust that they will read the materials in their entirety beforehand so they are prepared.

Imagine a world where…you spent very little time in the board meeting going through your board
deck. They all read it (and if they didn’t, you need to ask if they are the right board member). Since most of it is a boilerplate update and not strategic, in the meeting you provide a brief summary of each section, and ask for questions and comments from the board. For some sections, there are no questions and that section isn’t covered at all in the meeting. Rather than 2.5 hours of review in a 3-hour meeting, you now take only 30 minutes on the updates.

Imagine a world where…you spend most of the meeting on strategic issues. With the basics of the update out of the way, you engage the board in the relevant strategic issues. Since you discussed this with each of them prior to the meeting (remember the calls you had with each of them?), they’ve come prepared for the discussion. You spend 2+ hours in a highly engaged, focused conversation on the key topics that are critical for your business at that point of its evolution.

Imagine a world where…you get direct feedback from the board as part of the meeting. Following good governance, each board meeting has two other sections. One is where the management team leaves, so it’s only you, the CEO, with the board. This allows for you and the board to discuss topics you may not want to share with members of the team present. An executive session should follow. That is where the CEO leaves the room, leaving the board to discuss the day’s topics (and anything else). They bring you back in for direct feedback after they have ended their session.

Imagine a world where…you follow up with each board member directly in the weeks following the board meeting. “So proactive, so strategic and gosh, what a good listener!”

Of course, this perfect world doesn’t always exist. You may not have a lot of strategic issues to cover in each board meeting. The discussion may go long, and you may run out of time for the executive session. The deck may not get finalized as early as you would like. Customer commitments, conferences, and a product launch may keep you from connecting with board members prior to the board meeting. These things happen.

However: While these things do happen, it’s your role as CEO (and your board’s responsibility, as well)
to make sure these things are the exception and not the rule.

By: Brian Hopcraft