Reinventing the “Bored” Meeting
For many entrepreneurs, the process of organizing a board meeting inspires anxiety and dread. Founders assume these meetings require dense decks, weeks of tireless preparation and a seemingly endless session cramped in a conference room with subpar pastries. As we kick off the new year, the 8VC team encourages founders and board members alike to reflect upon the existing board meeting structure and contemplate transitioning towards a format that not only alleviates an entrepreneur’s work load and stress, but inspires a more productive session. Each board member boasts a unique skill set, so your time together should be devoted towards leveraging the brain power in the room to help craft strategy and tackle both immediate and looming challenges.
Shifting away from simply reporting on recent performance to engaging in a dynamic strategy session won’t transpire over night. However, in the long run, the proposed model will involve significantly less work as compared to the insane build up we are conditioned to accept as the norm. The key to ensuring a seamless implementation is contingent upon whether you already have a strong reporting structure in place. Entrepreneurs oftentimes vocalize variations of the following sentiment: “My investors asked me for monthly reports, so I’m compiling XYZ documents for them.” While we encourage founders to send regular updates our way, these reports should not be designed for “us”. Reporting is an awesome tool that empowers entrepreneurs to better understand how their business is performing. Perhaps certain KPIs drive growth. Track those consistently! The reporting framework is meant for the company. In being able to consistently review how the metrics evolve, team members can glean invaluable insights that ultimately shape the trajectory of the business. You don’t need a fancy deck though to communicate this information. Figure out what’s the best way for your team to digest this information. In the spirit of transparency, you can then share this information with board members just as you see it. My partners and I don’t want you wasting time on perfecting a monthly report, but instead focused on analyzing and acting upon the conveyed data. Even if you give us this information in its rawest form, we firmly believe at 8VC that it is our responsibility as board members to take the time to sift through it, ask questions and really understand what we’re reading. This is what we signed up for!
As you broach the topic of reporting, make sure that it’s a two way conversation to avoid enforcing a rigid structure that isn’t well aligned with how the company tracks data (i.e. do the KPIs that are integral to the business typically display improvement on a monthly or quarterly basis). Once the cadence is mutually agreed upon, board directors are then obligated to learn this information and follow up with clarifying questions should anything communicated in the data require further inquiry. I typically like to organize a monthly sync where we can conduct a deeper dive into the numbers and pressing strategy. However, this surely isn’t the only way to do it as I’ve seen my partners adopt different approaches.
Once it’s time to convene for a board meeting, all directors have the same base line knowledge regarding recent progress. There are no surprises as we’re not seeing the quarterly data for the first time during the BOD meeting. We no longer need to spend a lion’s share of time reading numbers out loud, but are empowered to get our hands dirty and dig deep into the areas in which the entrepreneurs seek the most support on.
So how do you actually go about this? Well, just ask Nik Bratkovski (CEO) and Cam Howieson (COO), the hyper-thoughtful and proactive co-founders of Opencare (an 8VC portfolio company) as they inspired the game-changing model. “We found that quite a few of our early board meetings were ‘bored’ meetings. We spent countless hours preparing and then everyone (including ourselves!) were falling asleep as we raced through the information.” Nik increasingly recognized that every board meeting “…felt like a big waste of time. This simply didn’t add up given that our board is stacked with insanely smart and thoughtful individuals.” Instead of simply accepting this as the norm, Nik and Cam decided to “rebuild our meetings ground up in order to solve for very challenging problems, lay the foundation for long-term strategy and not only identify, but solve for blind spots.”
They taught us that simply saying we’re going to “talk strategy” won’t suffice, as setting the tone before the meeting allows for more fruitful discussion during. We would recommend circulating a board packet 4–5 days in advance of the BOD. The easiest way to do this is via google slides so individuals can leave questions and or comments in the document. The board packet should not be an overwhelming document, but include a few key components:
- Consolidated reporting for the period of time you’re discussing (to pull from the consistent reporting as discussed above). If it’s the Q4 BOD, you can include monthly financials for October — December, consolidated quarterly performance and YTD. Seeing that founders typically propose projections at the start of the year, I always like to see how performance tracks to these goals, showcasing the associated variance. Acknowledging whether we missed the mark or exceeded expectations helps us become better predictors overtime. If we’re always on track, this is a signal that we likely need to be more ambitious with how we’re setting goals.
- 3–4 strategy session topics. The conversation can be focused on anything that’s top of mind to the entrepreneur, but is typically oriented around hiring plans, thinking through a go to market strategy, addressing a specific obstacle or key strategic question etc. The board packet will outline the topics of conversation and offer any relevant supplemental material or high level notes. If you’re kicking off a conversation around how you plan on growing the team, share a projected org chart, salaries associated with these new hires etc.
The benefit of sharing this packet via google slides is that board members can ask questions and request clarification in line. I tend to set a pretty stringent deadline of submitting questions 2 days in advance of the meeting. The entrepreneur/team then has a day to respond to all questions in the document. Going into the board meeting, all key follow ups have been addressed.
As we kick off this meeting, we’ll project the questions and responses as part of the presentation and make sure everyone is on the same page. I’d devote 30 minutes max to this section. The rest of the time is strictly devoted to the strategy convos (typically ~30 minutes per each topic). Setting a timer or assigning a timekeeper makes all the difference. You can then assess when you hit that 30 minute mark whether the conversation can segue into an offline chat or whether it’s valuable to continue engaging in the dialogue then and there.
Once the board meeting wraps up, circulate notes and key action items for the sake of transparency, assigning an owner to each next step to ensure no one drops the ball.
By no means do I expect companies to rigidly adopt this model, but I encourage both entrepreneurs and board members to participate in a collaborative process wherein they tailor the format. Dr. Jessica Richman, co-founder/co-CEO of uBiome, is an early adopter and noted, “Working sessions have helped to structure our board conversations around important topics, making our board meetings more productive and substantial. We can now engage in targeted discussions around growth strategies with respect to our expanding at home test business and talk through opportunities on the therapeutics front. It allows us to harness the powerful people in the room around the topics we are most focused on versus spending two hours reiterating metrics that board members can read on their own.”
By being more thoughtful about structure, both my partners and the entrepreneurs we work with have noticed that conversations are focused, impactful, and we’re unlocking each board member’s unique unfair advantage. As Nik and Cam so aptly put it, “We finally started feeling that the board and our team are sitting on the same side of the table and working together on the business. It is an exhilarating notion, and as a result, we’ve developed a much deeper and more trusting relationship with our board members.”