With 20 years of experience as a tech CEO, and 8+ years of experience as a public company board director, I've seen and experienced the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly of board meetings. So much of the outcome is in the hands of the CEO and if properly prepared for, board meetings can be useful and productive sessions.
Here are my top 10 tips, tried and tested, for running a successful board meeting:
1. Plan the agenda--seems obvious right? However, you need to remember the purpose of board meetings is for corporate governance and advice. Therefore, to achieve that objective, you must ensure that all the pertinent topics that need to be covered are properly laid out: sales, R&D, marketing, HR, finance, legal, etc.
2. Get materials out in advance - not doing so is a personal pet peeve. Nothing annoys me more than a CEO not getting materials out. A) If a CEO can't be bothered to put the time in to prepare in advance, then why should I bother to put the time in to show up? B) Boards do significantly better work when they have had time to think through the issues on the table in advance of the meeting.
3. Assume board members do their homework - see #2--in my experience the good board members know their responsibilities and will read what you send them. This streamlines the overall process and devotes energy to the important issues. If they're not willing to do that, then maybe they should not be on your board.
4. Focus on the big issues - see #1 and #3--You will most likely have a full board's attention for a limited time period--be it two hours or six--you want to use this time as efficiently as possible. That means you need to focus on what's not working, not what is. Yes, a little bit of advertising on how great a job your team is doing is helpful for morale--but it's not useful to the task at hand for the board. What matters is that you educate, go through the challenges and get the board's advice. Be open and get the real issues on the table. After all, what's the worst that can happen?--you get fired--but the alternative is to impede your success.
5. Remember what it means to be CEO - it means you are the leader. Even if you have a separate chair, it's your company and you need to be in control of the meeting. Make sure the conversation is rich and nutritious (not rat holing), make sure it's direct (not passive aggressive) and step in front of the bullets for your team.
6. No surprises. Good or bad - again, you want the best of their brainpower in the meeting and most people do better if they have 30 seconds to think about something before they respond. If it is good news--email is OK. If it is bad news--pick up the phone, call your board members and talk them through it directly.
7. Use dinners carefully - yes, board dinners can be useful but only if they planned with end goals laid out. Just going out to dinner to "bond," i.e., eat good food and drink good wine, is not a benefit to most board members and frankly, I'd rather be with my kids unless I'm really working. However, bringing small groups together to work on an issue, or bringing a presenter in to update the board on fiduciary responsibilities can be educational and still leave time for social interaction.
8. Have good AV - again obvious but so often neglected. It's a fact that today you will often find one or more board members have to phone in. It is just a side effect of our global economy. As a result, a quality phone system where those on the phone can clearly listen in and ultimately participate is a must.
9. Always have an executive session and an outside director's session--for the first, ask management except the CEO to leave, for the second ask the CEO to leave as well. This is important both for substance and for hygiene. The session with the CEO enables the board to have frank discussions about highly sensitive topics (for example if a board member believes the company should be broken up or sold--this is usually not a productive discussion to have in front of execs who are working 24 hours a day to hold it together) and about the performance of the executives. The outside director's session enables the directors to express their brightest and darkest thoughts to each other. In both cases, having these sessions every single meeting will avoid any anxiousness when going into an executive session.
10. Finally--don't let the meeting get you down - in my experience the most useful board meetings have been the ones that (in the moment) seemed the most brutal. You're getting your money's worth from your board when they are telling you the truth that no one else can, or will, tell you.