Working on a series of recent articles about advisory and company boards brought back memories of my worst and best board meetings. These are, of course, the ones from which I learned the most.

The worst

At first, I'd been impressed by the board's ability to argue so vigorously. Conflict is a form of thinking out loud and, as such, not something to be afraid of. But as this meeting went on–and on–and on, I realized that conflict was, in fact, the one thing this company was good at. What they did not do well was resolution. Part of the problem was that everyone was so smart that the debate took on a life of its own, quickly de-coupled from the reality of running a company. I came to realize that the love of intellectual debate for its own sake may be a sign of shining intelligence but it isn't productive.

As an antidote to this, I became (I suspect) quite boring in repeatedly asking for conclusions or action items. But as a new board member, I could see why they'd asked me to join them. This business desperately needed discipline and it had to start in the way they ran meetings. After this fiasco, we never had a meeting or a discussion without first determining who the ultimate decision maker would be. This was not always the same person but that there was such a person meant there would be a decision.

The best

At this meeting, the CEO had blindsided board members with a number of new initiatives they neither knew about or had advised on. This had several effects: it made them feel unnecessary and it made them angry. What was the point of giving their time if their opinion had no value?

To his credit, the CEO readily acknowledged that he'd goofed and asked the chairman to take matters forward. He did this by allowing ample time for discussion at the end of which he asked for everyone's view. He then gave his own. By the end of the meeting, many decisions had been turned around, mutual respect had been maintained, and we were all a great deal wiser about the business and each other. What was striking was that all of this took about 90 minutes. In contrast with the worst meeting, this was a highly-structured discussion where everyone knew that time was precious and spoke accordingly.

What I've learned from this is that it requires discipline and focus to have a good conflict. Unfettered exploration, however intriguing, has no place in the boardroom. That doesn't mean it has no place in business; it does. But by the time you have a lot of valuable people around a table contributing precious time, you need to be organized to extract the value.