Mastering the techniques to hack your board can pay back your effort many times over. Prepping for a board meeting is super important but it is a waste if you cannot run a good meeting - well-run board meetings are important for the success of your company. Here are my tips for running a stellar startup board meeting:
Running a good board meeting requires staying focused throughout. You are there to have a useful discussion. As noted in the previous article, everything you discuss should be for one of three purposes:
- for information - things the directors need to know to do their job,
- for approval - items seeking formal or informal board approval
- for discussion - topics or questions where it is essential to get people into a room and exchange views and hash something out.
If it is not key information, an item for approval, or something which requires the discussion of these people, on this day, it does not belong in your board meeting.
People are natural story-tellers. They like to take a small thought and weave it into a long story, make tortured analogies, stop meetings to ask remedial questions they should know the answer to, or debate, pontificate and argue. Your job is to keep that kind of nonsense to a minimum. Stick to the helpful facts, keep the discussion streamlined and don't allow big personalities to stand up and give testimony. You have a job to do and not a lot of time to do it in - board meetings are expensive in terms of time and opportunity cost. Be ruthless about trying to keep them on track and focused on pushing into areas where discussion is truly needed and helpful.
Not everyone is an extrovert who likes to throw their views into the mix and think on the fly as they are speaking the words. Some participants will prefer to let others go first while they absorb and contemplate the conversation. Seek their voices out. Don't let the fastest or loudest voice have the last word. Make sure you reach out to the quieter voices in the room and pull those perspectives into the discussion. By calling on people rather than relying on volunteers, you not only set a tone of participation and inclusiveness, you may be availing of some of the best advice available in the room.
Good, detailed, and complete business conversations do not happen spontaneously. They are facilitated. Without facilitation, conversations can skim the surface, pivot on hunches and fall prey to confirmation bias. Having a valuable conversation requires facilitating one. Nothing fancy is required; just some structure to ensure balance and thoroughness. For example, if you are trying to decide between two courses of action, even a rudimentary whiteboard exercise of listing the pros and cons of each option, followed by a simple ranking of the relative weights can drive very marked insights (especially if you are inclusive). And there are many other tools like matrices, SWOT analyses, forced rankings et cetera. It doesn't matter as much what tool or method you choose as it does that you insist on an approach that is going to be methodical to go beyond the superficial.
Be demanding of yourself and your directors. When someone has a strongly held view or instinct, take the time to explore why and dig into what is at the root of the perspective. When someone comes to a meeting unprepared, ask them to prepare in the future. If they become distracted by their phone or computer during a meeting, or step out frequently or for long periods of time, insist that they make the schedule board discussion their top priority for that timeslot. When you agree on action items coming out of your meeting - for you or your directors - document them and hold people accountable for their promises.
Take the time to write good minutes and keep a good minute book. Writing good minutes is an art form - here's an exhaustive set of key "dos" and "don'ts" for your reference. The value of good minutes goes far beyond just reminding people of what occurred in the last meeting. They can provide very important legal protections for the company and its directors and officers, and they can avoid the loss of significant exit value in the event of an acquisition due diligence process. For more depth on good board minutes, here is another reference piece providing an overview. Make sure someone on the board learns how to write good minutes, take the time to approve them each meeting, and file them in your minute book.
Ultimately, even the best board meeting won't tell you precisely what to do. Only the tricky questions make it to the board room, and there is always space for reasonable people to differ on these questions. Your job as the leader of the company is to take the wisdom you draw out of your board at each meeting and synthesize it into a bold and decisive course of action. Someone has to sift, weigh and synthesize the output of a good board meeting, and that person is you.
With these tips, you'll begin mastering the art of running a good board meeting over time. Next we'll tackle how to demand good board conduct.