How to prepare for startup board meeting decks

Over the past few months, my sharings on why #boardsuccess is company success and 4 mistakes to avoid for an effective startup board have inspired many startup founders to discuss board management with me. Today, I’m going to touch on one of the most frequently asked questions — how to prepare for board meeting decks?

While it may seem reasonable to have a deck for your board meeting, because don’t all important meetings have decks? My answer to them is — you are asking the wrong question. The right question you should be asking is — how to make my board communication efficient and effective?

If you are puzzled here, try to take a step back and ask yourself why board meetings need to rely on decks and why board communications have to be during the meetings. Then you should be on the right track to understand why your original question was off the point.

In the pre-COVID world when everyone physically worked together, people believed the synchronous in-person meeting was the best way to communicate. But almost all meetings follow monotonic one-sided updates, where one person speaks and most people listen, accompanied by lengthy decks. People come into the meeting unprepared and uninformed, learning everything on the spot, and thus unable to have productive discussions.

As the whole world is evolving into a globally distributed work culture, business activities are becoming increasingly decentralized and communications can’t be just about synchronous meetings following rigid decks anymore. We have to reimagine how we do things in a way that’s native to the new distributed paradigm.

Now you see my point: The optimal form of board communication is actually not during the board meetings but everything in between those meetings. And even just for the board meetings, the optimal form should not be dictated by a deck.

In the new distributed work world, I believe there are 3 key principles in how to effectively and efficiently conduct board communications:

  1. Interactive & Engaging
  2. Short & Frequent
  3. Ask for Help When You Need It

First of all, in the legacy format of board meetings, the vast majority of the time is spent on the one-sided “updates”, e.g. financial performance, operating metrics, team growth, product roadmap, etc.. All of your board members — some of the most resourceful and insightful people in your network — ended up wasting their valuable time listening to all these announcements together in a live meeting. The synchronous meeting time you have with them is precious, so seize the moment to engage them in a live discussion and let them share more from their valuable experiences, instead of you reading bullet points from your board deck.

In the distributed world, most of these updates can move to asynchronous communications outside of the meetings. On Surfboard, you can share anything — key financial metrics, team updates, customer feedback, or news in your sector/space — that you think your board members and investors need to know. Even better, you now give them a channel to provide response and feedback asynchronously, and can continue the momentum outside of board meetings.

This not only makes the communication much more interactive than before, but also makes it more engaging because your board members now actually hear (read) you and have the context, instead of mechanically nodding to these updates during a meeting without any time to process the info.

On Surfboard, you can share updates and have engaging discussions with your board members and investors.
On Surfboard, you can share updates and have engaging discussions with your board members and investors.
On Surfboard, you can post news mention and industry updates and share with your board members and investors.
Or share news mentions and industry updates!

You may still wonder if a board meeting deck makes the conversation more structured and thus more efficient than piece-meal updates. However, I don’t believe a lengthy deck makes your communication more efficient. In fact, you spent hours and hours of time every quarter trying to compile and shuffle everything into a dull presentation, and it happens so infrequently that you often forgot about something that took place throughout the quarter. Better board communications should happen in digestible short-forms and much more frequently.

When I made this point during my conversations with founders, many of them asked if this creates extra work for them. However, as a founder, you should already be doing this work — this should be your weekly / monthly strategic reflections and prioritizations. Waiting till the end of the quarter to squeeze all thoughts into a lengthy board deck is rather creating extra work for yourself!

More importantly, sharing these short and frequent updates is how you build trust and reputation with your board members and investors. You are establishing yourself as a thoughtful, reflective, and disciplined entrepreneur. This trust can be very helpful when you later find yourself in challenging times and really need the support from your board members and investors.

On Surfboard, you can share weekly reflections with board & investors to get timely feedback and build trust.
On Surfboard, you can share weekly reflections with board & investors to get timely feedback and build trust.

The updates also don’t have to be text-heavy. You can leverage embedded videos, charts, and other forms of rich media to make the shared content more engaging.

On Surfboard, you can embed videos, graphics and links to make the content more engaging.
On Surfboard, you can embed videos, graphics and links to make the content more engaging.

Another reason why you should communicate with board and investors more frequently is that your startup moves fast and your asks need to be answered fast. So don’t let the old pace of board meetings and investor updates be the blocker for your company’s fast growth.

There’s a tendency for founders to not ask for help from board members and investors, or embed asks at the end of a long update. Founders often believe you can only ask for help when you send out updates, but, in fact, you are entitled to ask for help whenever you need it. “Asks” deserve more attention and thus should be decoupled from “updates”.

Founders also tend to ask for help in private 1–1 messages. But actually, asking for help publicly within your board and investor network is a good way to hold people accountable, and the visibility is a good push for everyone to jump in and help you. People want to be the most knowledgeable and helpful ones around the table, so leverage the peer pressure here and give your board members and investors a reason to engage.

On Surfboard, you can send out “asks” to your board and investors for help on hiring key candidates.
On Surfboard, you can send out “asks” to your board and investors for help on hiring key candidates.
On Surfboard, you can post asks to your board and investors about intros to customers and industry experts, or advice on a partnership you are pursuing.
Asks can also be about intros to customers and industry experts, or advice on a partnership you are pursuing.

So, to answer our original question: how to make my board communication efficient and effective? As a founder, you need to adopt more asynchronous communications that happen outside of the quarterly board meetings. You should share the updates in more interactive & engaging formats and make them short & frequent. Also, don’t forget to ask for help when you need it and separate “asks” from “updates”. Then, your actual meeting time can be better used for interactive discussions with your board members, who are incredible resources to help achieve your company’s success.

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Founder & CEO @ Surfboard | ex- GGV Capital / Morgan Stanley

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