Bringing value to Board meetings

Startup Boards have a long list of responsibilities, not least of all is often just helping to keep the whole endeavour afloat.

However, there are a number of common mistakes that we’ve seen startups make when establishing and facilitating Board meetings, that are generally avoidable.

Startup directors don’t always receive the information they need to make fully informed decisions on key matters. Most startups move quickly and directors often have a less complete understanding of the company than the management team because of their limited exposure to the day-to-day activities. Key items such as strategic direction, risk management or even compliance issues can fall off the list under the more pressing issues of the day, or because they are uncomfortable topics.

Furthermore, dynamics amongst individuals on the board can also hamper information flow. Particularly where the Founder/CEO maintains a closer relationship with one or other Director. How Founders/CEOs choose to share information and how they engage with the Board is often critical to ensure that all directors are really adding value for the company and can indeed do their job.

Improving the productivity of your Board meetings

In order to give your startup a fighting chance, there are some simple things – often deliberate, structural things – that Founders/CEOs and Boards can do to ensure high quality information makes its way into Board meetings and Board discussions can be as meaningful as possible.

Here’s a list of a few things that I’ve observed that seem to work well for driving productive Board meetings and functional Founder/CEO/Board relationships:

1. Hold Board meetings at the company’s offices, in person, if possible. Let Board members see, touch, and feel your products. Let everyone look each other in the eye. Let them experience the company’s culture.

2. The Board serves a fundamentally different purpose to Management. Be thoughtful about what the Board needs in order to effectively carry out its critical governance role.

3. Share information ahead of time. Give Board members at least 3-4 days to read and digest. Set expectations that everyone will come prepared, and don’t just read through the materials in the meeting. Board meetings are a critical opportunity to discuss, debate and decide.

4. Present information in a consistent format each month. It should be easy to find important information, compare progress month-to-month, and identify trends over time. The quality and format of information shared can mean the difference between short-term tactical discussion of the minutiae, and more productive longer-term strategic input on critical issues.

5. Show the Board what you consider to be the most important metrics to understand the progress of the business – the metrics that truly matter. This also helps Board members to be your advocates out there in the real world, giving them the ammunition to share key progress with others because it will always be top-of-mind.

6. Don’t carry Board members whose opinion you, and other Board members, do not solicit, respect, or care about. It’s a waste of your time and theirs.

7. Have a “no surprises” policy. I dislike finding things out after the fact (especially because the “surprises” I’m talking about here are almost always negative ones). It also makes Founders/CEOs look like they aren’t in control of what’s going on in the business. Even a quick ”heads up” phone call an hour ahead of the meeting is infinitely better than springing things in the middle of the meeting. This goes both ways – if Board members have a major issue with something in your Board papers, they should have the courtesy to give you a heads up as well.

8. Ensure that the Board meeting time and energy is focused on the challenges the business is currently facing and where help and/or advice is needed. This does a couple of key things – it focuses the Board on the key barriers to the company’s success, it allows Board members to add the value you brought them in for, and it enhances Board engagement when everyone feels like they’ve helped to solve the problem.

9. Make sure Board meetings end on a positive note where possible. Ideally, everyone leaves the room feeling optimistic about the company’s future. Building a startup is enough of a grind at the best of times.

10. Show that you’ve listened to the Board’s comments and input. Demonstrate how you followed up on take-aways and to-dos from previous Board meetings. Having another person in the meeting to take notes can help to make sure any nuggets of wisdom, or critical suggestions, don’t get missed.

11. Always schedule some time for a ‘Board only’ session in meetings. Not only for Board members (minus management) to discuss what’s on their minds, but also for CEO to get feedback from Board. Boards should use the Board only time regardless of whether they have anything to discuss – otherwise management knows when there is an issue with them.

12. Involve members of your team in the Board meeting (where appropriate). This helps develop experience amongst the team (you’ll be surprised how presenting helps people grow!), as well as ensuring the organisational culture can permeate both the team and the Board.

In Summary

Startup Boards should not be just for show. Make sure that Board meetings are more than just something to be scheduled once a month. Board members and meetings can, and should, add real value to the company, often all it takes is a little forethought and a deliberate approach.