How To Put Real Zoom Into Virtual Board Meetings
By now, every startup founder should be an expert at running online meetings. But are you getting full value when you meet virtually with your board? These meetings deserve special attention, and, as a venture investor who attends many, I’d like to share some best practices I’ve learned from CEOs that can make them more productive and painless for all concerned.
Two core principles lead to best practice. One is to capture the potential benefits of online sessions while minimizing their downsides. The other holds true for any board meeting, virtual or in person: Make it a two-way exchange, not just a presentation. Your board members are already, literally, on board. They want to help your company succeed any way they can. Give them plenty of chances to do so.
The first big innovation: Schedule more frequent but shorter board meetings—say, for 90 minutes every two months, instead of for several hours quarterly. Traditionally such frequent touch points were too taxing on everyone involved, especially when flying around Asia, but online meetings are time-savers and hassle-reducers. They eliminate the need to travel or even commute. Why not leverage that benefit in a time of need? You could put it to your board members roughly as follows: “With the constant uncertainties created by the pandemic, it would help to have your input more often, and to have us updating you more often. Bimonthly meetings will enable this. Since they will be shorter, they should easily fit everyone’s schedule.”
Short, highly focused meetings also reduce Zoom fatigue. Once a meeting is scheduled, I’d advise the standard ‘preparation steps’ that firms in our portfolio use. Start preparing the board deck two weeks in advance. If a controversial topic will be coming up, pre-contact each board member individually to discuss it and build consensus. (Don’t spring it as a surprise.) And, begin a series of steps that will make your board meeting a true meeting of the minds, with eager participation from all.
This is especially challenging online. When people log in from their home turf, their level of commitment to ‘being there’ is more tenuous and much more easily lost than in a roomful of others. Even the best of us can drift off or have a toddler steal the attention. To avoid being a talking head who speaks into the cyber-void, try these measures in advance.
- On the agenda, mark out a half-hour or so as a ‘strategic working session’ for discussing one or two issues of topmost importance. Give each issue a prominent slide in the deck. Clearly indicate that you are facing a strategic ‘choice’—for example, which new product to develop next—and that whether you’ve formed a preference or not, you’ll be asking for advice on how to proceed. Framing it this way, instead of as a presentation item with Q&A to follow, says “We need you. Please stay tuned.”
- Do a practice run-through of the meeting with your senior team members role-playing the board. Have them ask probing questions an investor might ask—and, conversely, come up with questions you’d like the board to address. Now you’re rehearsing a conversation rather than a one-way pitch.
- When you send out the deck, a week ahead, specify that everybody will sign in with video enabled. The stated reason: so we can all connect personally. The implicit reason: there will be nowhere to hide.
Then, at the meeting, consider these methods for keeping people engaged.
- Have a video ready to play during the few minutes before the start. In person, this is a time for early arrivals to talk informally, but online, people are tempted to check their phones or do such things that will set them on the path to distraction. The video can be one you’ve made about the company, or a found video about a relevant business topic—as long as it’s fresh and attention-getting for earlier arrivers waiting for people tricking in a few minutes later.
- Think of a way to begin the meeting that draws active involvement. I once saw a founder ask each board member to describe, briefly, what made the company valuable in their eyes. A range of viewpoints came out, which was enlightening in itself and set a positive tone with everyone contributing.
- As the meeting goes forward, don’t hesitate to call on specific board members by name. People may have something valuable to say, but all sorts of reasons for hanging back—they’re tired; their thoughts are only half-formed—and in a remote setting, the inclination to stay remote can win out. It really is important to hear from each person.
- Model the online behavior you want from others. Show up well-rested, so you feel relaxed, in good humor, and alert. Look deeply at the people on the screen. Be with them. And always, always…
- Own the meeting. Keep it on point and on schedule. Personal judgment is required, in order to listen attentively while not allowing long digressions about, say, the company’s logo design. In the latter case, invoke the shorter timeframe to rescue the agenda. Politely note that time is limited and ask if your team can make an appointment to hear these brilliant insights.
I’d like to close with a suggestion for early-stage startups that don’t yet have a board.
By taking advantage of the convenience that the online medium offers, you can request de facto ‘board meetings’. Ask your primary seed investors and mentor/advisor types if they’d be willing to log into periodic brainstorm-and-feedback sessions. For a new company that needs to find its bearings in today’s chaotic environment, the sessions would be immensely useful. They could also provide everyone with networking opportunities and synergies to explore.
And that’s enough for now. I have board meetings scheduled. They are virtual but I expect them to be great. May you and your board create a great future together.