The objective of board meetings should always be to have great conversations that help you and your executive team think clearly about the issues in front of you, as well as making sure your directors have a clear and transparent view of the state of the business. These conversations come from a team dynamic that encourages productive conflict. There's no sure-fire formula for achieving this level of engagement, but here are three few guidelines you can follow to increase your chances.
Schedule board meetings in advance, and forge a schedule that works. Nothing is more disruptive – or more likely to drive low turnout – than last minute scheduling. Make sure you, or your executive assistant, knows board members’ general schedules and travel requirements, and whether they manage their own calendar or have their own executive assistant. Set your board meeting schedule for the year in the early fall, which is typically when people are mapping out most of their year’s major activities. If you know that one of your board members has to travel for your meetings, work with the CEOs of the other companies to coordinate meeting dates. Vary the location of meetings if you have directors in multiple geographies so travel is a shared sacrifice.
In the startup stage of our business at Return Path, we ran monthly meetings for an hour, mostly call-in. In the revenue stage, we moved to six to eight meetings per year, two hours in length, perhaps supplemented with two longer-form and in-person meetings. As a growth stage company, we run quarterly meetings. They’re all in-person, meaning every director is expected to travel to every meeting. We probably lose one director each time to a call-in or a no-show for some unavoidable conflict, but, for the most part, everyone is present. We leave four hours for every meeting (it’s almost impossible to get everything done in less time than that) and sometimes we need longer.
Many years, we also hold a board offsite, which is a meeting that runs across 24 hours, usually an afternoon, a dinner, and a morning, and is geared to recapping the prior year and planning out the next year together. It’s especially exhausting to do these meetings, and I’m sure it’s especially exhausting to attend them, but they’re well worth it. The intensity of the sessions, discussion, and even social time in between meetings is great for everyone to get on the same page and remember what's working, what's not, and what the world around us looks like as we dive into the deep end for another year.
Build a forward-looking agenda. The second step in having great board meetings is to set an agenda that will prompt the discussion that you want to have. With our current four-hour meetings, our time allocation is the following:
I. Welcomes and framing (5 minutes)
II. Official Business (no more than 15 minutes unless something big is going on)
III. Retrospective (45 minutes)
a. Target a short discussion on highlighted issues
b. Leave some time for Q&A
IV. On My Mind (2 hours)
a. You can spend this entire time on one topic, more than one, or all, as needed.
b. Format for discussions can vary—this is a good opportunity for breakout sessions, for example.
V. Executive Session (30 minutes)
This is your time with directors only, no observers or members of the management team (even if they are board members).
VI. Closed Session (30 minutes)
This is director-only time, without you or anyone else from the management team.
This agenda format focuses your meeting on the future, not the past. In the early years of the business, our board meetings were probably 75 percent “looking backwards” and 25 percent “looking forwards.” They were reporting meetings—reports which were largely in the hands of board members before the meetings anyway. They were dull as anything, and they were redundant: all of our board members were capable of processing historical information on their own. Today, our meetings are probably ten percent “looking backwards” and 90 percent “looking forwards”—and much more interesting as a result.
Separate background reading and presentation materials. Finally, focus on creating a more engaging dialogue during the meeting by separating background reading from presentation materials. In our early days, we created a huge Powerpoint deck as both a handout the week before the meeting and as the in-meeting deck. That didn’t create an engaging meeting.
There’s nothing more mind-numbing than a board meeting where the advance reading materials are lengthy Powerpoint presentations, than when the meeting itself is a series of team members standing up and going through the same slides, bullet by excruciating bullet—that attendees could read on their own.
When we separated the background and presentation materials, people were engaged by the Powerpoint—because it delivered fresh content. We started making the decks fun and engaging and colorful, as opposed to simple text and bullet slides. That was a step in the right direction, but the preparation consumed twice as much time for the management team, and we certainly didn’t get twice the value from it.
Now we send out a great set of comprehensive reading materials and reports ahead of the meeting, and then we have a completely Powerpoint-free meeting. No slides on the wall. This changes the paradigm away from a presentation—the whole concept of “management presenting to the board”—to an actual discussion. No checking email. No yawns. Nobody nodding off. Everyone—management and board—is highly engaged.