Networking is a critical part of relationship building, and there is no event more valuable to building relationships than the proverbial "breaking of bread" with people. I personally run many group lunches and dinners, and I attend even more, so I've developed a set of tips I often pass along in how to make these the most effective they can be.
I'm going to focus this post around the concept of a "board dinner" or "board lunch" since this is part of a series around how to more effectively run board relationships, but most of these tips can be broadly applied.
This will seem very specific on how I do things. You don't have to do them the same way but I figured if I gave you my playbook you could decide what's comfortable for you.
Why a board dinner (or lunch)?
Part of running a board is managing the board meeting itself, where you share your financial and operating progress, discuss your strategy and plans going forward, and get and give information to your board members. That is the basic function of a board meeting and this is often two to four hours depending on how early-stage or late-stage the company is.
Another part of managing relationships outside of the board construct is sending update emails and/or making regular, short calls to board members to keep them in the loop and solicit feedback as well as to create an open channel and build a relationship.
Managing a board is a bit like flying -- the vast majority of time you're at cruising altitude with the seatbelts off and there is nothing out of the ordinary. Every now and again you hit severe turbulence, where people are grabbing the arm rests and panicked about what might happen next. It is at these moments that having steady neighbors around you telling you "everything will be OK" really comes into play and having a flight attendant who really knows what to do in an emergency can make a huge difference.
These existential moments come up with companies and with boards. To the extent you have warm, personal relationships between board members, you often find a deep commitment to helping each other out with even the bumpiest of turbulence. Boards deal with companies that unexpectedly run out of cash, have lawsuits with customers or suppliers, fight off nasty competitors, deal with declining sales, manage founder in-fighting and so forth. Boards also deal with "good" hard problems, such as "should we sell the company now, and if so should we take cash or stock?"
Because getting out of the work environment helps build stronger personal rapport and because this rapport leads to more cohesive decision-making in tough times, you should consider your board meals an investment today in better decision-making down the road when you need it.
You can't expect board members to meet for a meal every time because with 4 or more meetings per year people have other responsibilities and time commitments, but work with your board on what works best for them. Zero meals per year is your loss.
When should you get a private room?
One of the strongest bits of advice I would give you is to be super anal about the physical environment of your group meal. If it's a table of four, you're hardly going to ask for a private room in a restaurant, but I would certainly pick somewhere extra quiet and visit it in advance to book the quietest table. If you care about the quality of your discussion and meal together you should care about noise, distractions and the like.
For any group of eight people or more, I always try to book private rooms in a restaurant and I will go out of my way to pick a restaurant that has a private room, which is infinitely more important than perfect food. Your goal is to have the best possible table discussion, and to have time for everybody to get to know each other on a human level, and that's really hard if you can't hear everybody speak. If you book in an open restaurant with a lot of noise, what happens is each person talks mostly to the person to the right or left of them and a bit to the person across. This is sub-optimal -- book a private room.
Planning a board meal isn't an admin's job -- it's your job. You can work with a great admin to help, but you need to own the quality of the physical environment, ambience, and food. It matters.
Should there be a topic?
My preferred structure is to start with a period of just general catch-up with your neighbors. You should allow a period for general networking, a chance to eat your first bites of food and some casual catch-ups. I usually recommend about 20 minutes of this if it's a two-hour dinner and about 10 minutes if it's a 60 to 90-minute lunch.
After the initial kibitzing, I recommend standing up and doing a small toast (if it's a dinner meeting) and introduce a "topic." For boards, this can be an issue you've been debating as a management team that you don't plan to cover at the board meeting, or you can even go a little bit more fun and introduce a "get to know you" topic if the group is newer. The goal is to lead a table-wide discussion where you're the facilitator. You can jump in to talk as well, but your primary goal is to be the ringmaster and to make sure you're doing the following:
- Including everybody in the discussion -- so calling on people who have spoken less or should have an answer to this topic
- Politely jumping in to stop the ball hogs from monopolizing the conversation
- Making sure the conversation doesn't drift too far out of the strike zone of the intended discussion topic
- Moving to the next topic if the conversation goes stale
I recommend that you have several bullet points on note cards to remind you of the topics you want to discuss, so that if it's getting a bit dull you don't have to think on the fly what to cover. You have to read the room and the mood of the conversation, but usually at some point people are talked out. At the point -- often around desserts and coffee -- it's OK to drift back to general networking if need be. Or, if you need a break, you can announce during the main course, "Please go ahead and eat. We'll come back to table topics after the main course." Every time is different -- you have to learn how to be a great meal host.
When to meet
When you do a meal will largely depend on when your board meeting is. If you have a board meeting in the morning and if many people travel to your meetings, you can easily ask for a dinner the night before. If you do, I would make sure that you don't have a "pre-board meeting" where you simply discuss everything you plan to discuss the next day. If you do this, the board meeting will feel like a repeat and people will want to stop having a separate meal.
If you do the board meeting in the afternoon you have a choice whether to do lunch before meeting or dinner afterward. I would mix it up a bit at various times of the year. Lunch is easier for people to commit to, but it's also more casual and people are thinking about the meeting they just came from or the meeting they need to go to. Dinners are better for relationships but come at a premium to schedule with busy people.
How to handle seating
I generally prefer not to have assigned seating with names pre-assigned. My rationale is that when you do this you run the risk of every person wondering why they were assigned to the seat they were assigned to. There is every chance of unintentionally slighting people.
That said, I prefer not to be completely casual about it either. If you have 10 people at a dinner and five are non-management board members, you could easily put a name tag on each plate of your company saying your company name--so for me I would put "Upfront Person" on name tags on the table and space them out every other seat.
Who should attend?
I think board dinners are an excellent chance for your broader team to get to know the board. It's both a way to reward senior executives with board exposure and relationships and also a chance to make sure your investors build strong, personal relationships with your team.
I would mix it up a bit. I would do some meals over the years with just the board and others where you bring the management team. If you have a big management team you can rotate who comes. At times I've enjoyed themes--for example, one board dinner might invite just six members of engineering and another might bring sales.
The key is knowing what you want to get out of the relationships that are built. I would do the first meal with a smaller crowd, because the first thing you want going is board-member-to-board-member relationships, and then you can broaden out.
Where should you sit?
The middle. Always. If your goal is to be the ringleader and help control the discussion, you should always sit near the middle of the table. When I arrive at a board dinner, in fact, the first thing I normally do is put something down on my chair near the middle of the table whether I'm hosting the dinner or not. Why? I figure if I'm putting in time for a meal I want the chance to talk to and interact with as many people as possible. It's always hard to do this at the end of the table.
Why you should pre-order the meal
I love the idea of pre-ordering shared plates that can be passed around where possible. You can easily accommodate eating idiosyncrasies by making sure a few of the dishes are vegetarian and/or fish. At the start of the night (or before) I would ask whether there are any food allergies and/or eating requirements (kosher, vegan, halal, etc.) and treat these as exceptions.
If your goal is to have table discussions then you want to minimize distractions. There is nothing more distracting than a waiter coming around the table and asking people for their order and then bugging everybody to sit plates and ask, "Wait, did you order the fish?"
I would pre-talk with the waiting staff -- almost apologetically -- and tell them in advance that your goal is to minimize disruptions and to focus on the conversations. Some waiters feel like they're the show and love to talk or tell you about the food or generally be the center of attention. This isn't the night for that. They politely need to know before the meal starts.
Meals are an incredibly effective way to strengthen relationships and discuss important topics. Some boards feel more transactional in nature, and these ignore the important social function of building strong ties across board members that are invaluable in times of need. It's worth the extra effort and time to plan board meals and also to involve your staff.