When I was at Apple, I met with all kinds of people: General Managers of hockey teams, CEOs of big companies, billionaires. No meeting scared me. That is, until I got here to Scrollmotion--and had to face my first board meeting. That gave me night terrors I will never forget.
If you've followed this column, you already know I can get a bit obsessed. Six years at Apple will do that to you. And my first meeting with our board members--not a formal board meeting, mind you, but a dinner--initiated a full-on episode. As a rule, I prep to a ridiculous degree for meetings, and I was pretty sure a bunch of chit-chat about golf wasn't going to get me through this one. Plus, these were finance people, not technology types, so that topic wasn't going to save me, either.
So I began by researching the folks I was meeting. I watched YouTube videos about dealing with corporate boards. Then I grappled with the age-old dilemmas of what to wear and whether to order a drink at dinner. (I wound up opting for a jacket and actual pants instead of jeans and, when my colleagues did order cocktails, asked for an Old Fashioned, figuring that was a bit more grown-up than my usual bourbon and Diet Coke.)
In the end, all my careful planning went out the window and I just decided to come clean with them. "I don't know much about financing, or boards," I confessed. And my education began. It took a while for me to really believe that our board was actually behind me--and in return for that support, I have made honesty my default setting. But candor is no substitute for preparation. So here is what I do to prepare for each board meeting.
Get out of the office
I want my team involved in big decisions. Two weeks before a meeting of our board, I hold an offsite for 2 to 3 days that runs through the operational side of the company--what's working and what is not--and then turns to the overall agenda: Is this meeting just a company update? Do you need help with a particular problem? Is it a capital call? Every one is different. Structure the agenda around that goal. We will also spend some time just bonding, debating any issues that are floating around. Occasionally that debate sounds like yelling, but it's a healthy kind of yelling.
Nail the visuals
Here we follow the Apple model, building gorgeous decks on our own software. In my view, your slides are incredibly important in conveying how you lead the company. If you present slop, that probably means you run the company like slop.
The guy who preceded me as CEO taught me this and I cannot stress it enough: The board meeting should be a non-event; everyone should know more or less exactly what is going to happen in advance. So in the week before the meeting I call every member and run through all the big issues, including any problems that may be lurking. Then my team helps me create what I call a "pre-read"--a written version or compilation of those conversations, as a way of both creating a record and as a set of notes the board members will share as a basis for conversation during the meeting itself. I typically don't put "surprise and delight" in the pre-read--I save those for the meeting; it's the financial issues, investment, people problems, legal matters, anything that affects the company at a substantial level.
Practice, practice, practice
I worked for our now-CRO back at Apple and he used to make me rehearse in front of him and nitpick every little thing. And I learned to see the difference it makes. So now I meet with everyone from my team who is going to speak. I stand in front of mirrors. I talk to myself. I spend my commute talking out loud in the car. I run ideas by my mentors. I do a dry run, sometimes several, for colleagues. It is exhausting, but it works.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
The leadership team and I will then usually get together as a group for two formal rehearsals--typically on Monday and Tuesday for a Wednesday meeting.
Yes, if you are going to get fired, it will probably be at the board meeting. But the time for worrying about that was last quarter. Right now your job is to be clear and honest and lay out a crystal clear portrait of where the company stands.
My dirty secret is that I do much of the above for every meeting. I even rehearse for company meetings. Does that make me a nerd? Possibly. But I still have a job.