Ten Suggestions for Better Board Meetings

Charlie Hartwell
May 7, 2018 · 5 min read
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Photo via ISM — Greater Boston Inc.

Many start-up founders do not have much experience working with Boards of Directors. This can lead to frustration for both the CEOs and the board members since both invest time and energy preparing for and attending meetings. A good Board of Directors partners with the CEO of the company, providing governance, experience, connections, and insight that can be invaluable.

Boards of Directors have a fiduciary responsibility, which they must take seriously, to the shareholders of the company. However, their engagement and support of a CEO and her/his team can be invaluable far past their governance obligations. They can be instrumental in supporting growth of the company.

There is no one right way to run a board meeting. Companies in very early stage will operate meetings differently than later stage companies. A typical pattern is for these meeting to become more formal as the company progresses from Seed Stage to Series A, B, or C and beyond. In my experience both as a CEO leading board meetings, and as a board member and board observer, I’ve gained insight as to how to conduct more productive board meetings. Here’s some recommendations.

  1. Send board materials to your board 4–5 days in advance (or even better, one week). This allows the board members time to review the updates. Don’t use your precious time with the board going through those decks. Addressing a few of the key pages of the board deck is fine. It is best if the board can come with an understanding of the business and spend time asking questions of what they reviewed. Too many times, I’ve witnessed frustration of board members who have sat through meetings getting new information presented to them that they didn’t have a chance to review beforehand.
  2. Consider starting the meeting with a brief mindfulness practice. You can do this in as little as 1–2 minutes. If the board members have the willingness to participate, people feel a deeper level of connection and are more present to the board business. Likely, your meeting will run more smoothly.
  3. Have as many meetings as possible in person. I find when people are on the phone for meetings, there can be more distractions. With smaller boards, phone or video conferences can be useful at times. However, if you’re including team members in the meeting and have board observers, it’s smart to be in person as often as feasible. Also, it gives board members time in your office, which helps them meet and interact with the team and experience the culture.
  4. Ask your board members at the beginning of the meeting if there’s anything they want to cover that is not on the agenda. This will allow you to see if there’s any issues or opportunities important to them that may need further information or discussion. Including and allowing your board this voice at the start of the meeting is a good idea. Set aside enough time in the meeting to cover their requests and make sure you listen.
  5. Don’t just view board meetings as a time to update the board, consider them as an opportunity to ask for help. Good boards help to add value to your enterprise. Most of us want to support your team. Come with a list of ways that the board can help you — strategy, contacts, unanswered questions about the business. Ask specifically who can help with what issue and schedule a follow up on requested items.
  6. In my experience, it is helpful for board members to spend time getting to know each other socially. I don’t find every board to be cohesive, and sometimes it’s because the members haven’t really gotten to know each other. This can be challenging for start-ups because board members tend to change every time there’s a new financing. Having board dinners the night before a meeting is one way to spend time socially. Board meetings normally operate more smoothly the better people know each other.
  7. Your boards can change frequently, especially if you’re fundraising every 12–18 months. Continue to engage investors as they leave your board. Be specific in things they can do to help you. The more engaged and supportive your investors are, even if they are not at a board meeting, the more likely they are to add value. Don’t spend much time with those who are not adding value. Most investors want to be updated and included. So, be specific in asking them to support you in ways they can add value and hold them to their commitments.
  8. There are different ebbs and flows to the time between board meetings. Some companies have monthly board calls with quarterly in-person meetings and some may only have meetings quarterly. Regardless of your individual circumstance, a monthly update letter showing highlights and challenges as well as financials and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is essential to keep your board up to speed.
  9. Make sure you have enough time allotted for your Board meetings. It can be annoying if you set aside 2 hours when there is actually 3 hours of business. What sometimes happens is that a board gets sidetracked on an issue that’s important to them that may not have been foreseen by the CEO. Then, they rush through material that is worth greater attention and focus. Typically, I find there isn’t enough time allocated for many board meetings.
  10. As you get into later stages, make sure to allot time for “in-camera” sessions, which is when board members meet without the CEO. This allows the investors time to discuss any issues without the CEO being present. It allows for good feedback for the CEO. Schedule this every time, because if it’s done only periodically, a CEO may feel they’ve done something wrong.

Board meetings can either drain or energize a CEO and can be a source of engagement or frustration for board members. My attitude is always that the more I know and feel updated, the more Bridge Builders Collaborative partners can add value to the investment.

Learn more about Charlie at ShiftIt Institute and check out Bridge Builders Collaborative partners and portfolio. Follow Charlie on LinkedIn and Twitter @ShiftIt_Inst.

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