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November 15, 2006

Getting the Most From Your Board

Fred Wilson posted a great list of a dozen things he’s learned which make start-up boards effective (he says there are only eleven but there are two number sixes).  You should read all of them but let’s look at two which go hand in glove:

“7 - Always send the agenda and board materials at least one day in advance of the meeting and expect/demand that the members read it before coming to the meeting.

“8 - Do not spend the meeting going through the materials slide by slide. People can read, expect that they will.”

I’m on a board committee for a non-profit where the job of the committee is to approve various tasks to be done by the organization.  Our first meetings consisted of almost nothing but management presenting the proposals which had already been emailed to us; we rarely had time for good discussion.  But our chairman wisely said we would have future meetings assuming that everyone had done the reading.  Consideration of each proposal would start with discussion, not presentation. 

I didn’t take this policy seriously the first time: I hadn’t done the reading because I was sure we were going to have the details presented to us.  Uh uh..  I had to stay quiet for the first two proposals while I frantically read ahead to the third (fortunately for me it was a phone meeting).

This has been so effective for the committee that we’ve extended the policy to the full board.  Board meetings are better, too.

Back to Fred’s specifics:

Actually, the material should ALWAYS go out several days in advance (I’m preaching what I didn’t always practice).  It may be necessary to have a last minute supplement if a board meeting is right after the close of measurement period but don’t let that be an excuse.  The board’s job at a scheduled meeting is NOT to look at minute by minute trends in the business.  If the meetings can’t be held on data which is a week old, something’s wrong.

You should not only expect but insist that the material be read before the meeting.  Otherwise the meeting will bore those who did do their homework and will consist of you, the CEO, reciting data rather than you and your board discussing issues raised by the data.  If you only send the data a day before the meeting, you’ve created a great excuse for not going over it in advance.- you’ve almost said you don’t expect them to.

You should encourage people to ask questions – particularly clarifying questions – by email before the meeting.  If everyone is cc’d on the email, the stage will be better set for the meeting itself.  On the other hand sometimes a private email lets someone ask a question she or he may think is too dumb or too trivial to interrupt the meeting with (he or she may be right!)

DON’T bring printed copies of the data to the meeting (you can always get a copy for someone who “forgot” to bring his or hers).  People who like to work from hardcopy invariably make notes on it as they read; so, if they read it, they would already have a copy with their notes on it.  If they don’t have a copy, it’s probably because they didn’t read it; a little mild embarrassment will improve their behavior next time.

So when should there be presentations in board meetings?

Rarely.  You, the CEO, should do them only when it is important to give the  board the feeling and passion behind something major or to have them critique an important pitch you’ll be giving.  Presentations are appropriate for new products or new strategies.

Fred suggests inviting senior management to board meetings so the board can get to know them and vice versa.  That’s a good idea.  They should take turns doing presentations to the board diving down into their area of responsibility or a topic particularly relevant to them always followed by or interrupted by discussion.  In this case the goal is familiarization as much as information exchange and presentation skill is something the board will want to know about an exec, particularly, if she may be your successor.

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