Ideal Board Meetings

I had a great board meeting today at Quova and a near perfect board meeting at Rally last week.  While it’s a pleasure to be involved in both companies since they are both performing very well, the structure and tempo of each board meeting really turned me on.

I had started to notice a disconcerting rhythm to some of my board meetings.  On the positive side, several of my CEOs have done a spectacular job of putting together comprehensive board packages that we’ve replicated throughout much of our portfolio.  As a result, we have substantial, detailed board packages that come out around a week prior to the board meeting.  This gives me plenty of time to read through the board package, ask specific questions of the CEO in advance of the board meeting, and study the financials carefully.  Since most of my companies are working off the same board package template, the information is predictably organized, easy to follow, and comprehensive.

However, I’ve noticed recently that a lot of the time being spent in the board meeting was being squandered by effectively reading through the board package in real time.  This is often disguised as “functional updates” where each VP goes through his part of the business by simply rehashing the information in the board book.  Given that the typical board meeting is three hours, I started to notice that most of the meeting was being spent reviewing the board book (which I’d already read and gotten 90% of the information from) and a minority of the time was being spent on non-operational (e.g. strategic) discussion.

I’d subtly made this comment to several of my CEOs (as subtle as I’m capable of being – visualize a bull in a china shop) during board meetings in Q4 where I realized that while it was exciting to rehash what was essentially solid performance for 2004, I was much more interested in spending time looking forward and talking about what we needed to do to drive asymmetric business value in 2005.

Rally’s board meeting last week nailed it.  The board package came out five days prior to the meeting so everyone had plenty of time to read it.  We had a typical three hour board meeting that started on time.  The meeting then occurred as follows:

  • 5 minutes: Administrative items (approve the minutes, approve new options). 
  • 55 minutes: Department updates.  We used the board package as the guide, but each exec spent a few minutes summarizing key points (rather than reading from the package) and then we drilled into Q&A and discussion on each area.  It was a spirited discussion that was forward looking (e.g. “what are we doing in the next 30 days about issue X”) rather than backward looking (e.g. “good job on doing Y last month.”)
  • 90 minutes: 2005 Strategic Priorities.  We worked from a six page powerpoint presentation (that had crappy production value, but was high content value) and spent 80% of our time on one slide.  The entire leadership team participated in the discussion – it wasn’t a “presentation of a conclusion” but a “discussion about what to do given limited resources and divergent opportunities.” 
  • 30 minutes: Executive Session (Board Only).  We talked about a handful of personnel related issues, summarized the discussion, and set the tone for Q105.

I left the meeting feeling both excited by where Rally is at, delighted by the dynamic among the members of the leadership team, and satisfied with the direction the board gave the leadership team.

Today, I had a very similar board meeting at Quova.  While we covered very different topics – especially since we celebrated Quova’s five year anniversary today (with a fun event at the San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design) – the preparation was equivalent, the tempo was similar, and the I walked out of the meeting equally excited about where Quova is and how the leadership team is interacting with each other.

The CEOs of Rally and Quova reminded me how a well-executed board meeting early in the year is a great way to set the tone for the business for the year to come.

  • “Your ops review is not a slide show from your latest vacation,” said one of the smartest guys I’ve ever worked for. “Yes, I care about where you’ve been. Sure, I’d like to see the highlights of your recent journeys. But what I really care about is where you’re going now.”

    Your thoughts are apropos not just to board meetings, either. Lower level staff meetings and even individual one on ones benefit greatly from standardized, time-series metrics that focus the mind on the current trend, rather than the most recent success.

  • Tim Kresse

    Can you share the board book template in use at these companies?

  • steve

    how often do you think vc backed starups should hold board meetings? reason i ask is, having been on all sides of the table (entrepreneur/ceo; investor; independent director) i have come to believe that too frequent meetings are bad idea because the company and team spend way too much of their time on talking to directors, who can/should be kept up to date by frequent informal communications with the ceo and maybe head of bus dev. to wit, if a board meets monthly, that consumes no less than 5% of management time (one business day per month out of an average of 20 business days in a typical month) and often 10% (add one day to prepare all the presnetations and reports). furthermore, even the smartest and best intentioned directors often think off the cuff, and while inspiration does occasionally strike, more often the poor management team (who is intimated as hell by the directors) go chasing off after bad ideas (because they know they will be asked about same at next board meeting)

  • Brad wrote: “I had started to notice a disconcerting rhythm to some of my board meetings.” and “However, I�ve noticed recently that a lot of the time being spent in the board meeting was being squandered by effectively reading through the board package in real time.”

    FWIW – I find that understanding why this occurs can also be telling (though perhaps not applicable in the cases of your other boards). A couple of things that come to mind when I see business meetings run like this include:
    – leadership style and MO of chair (person that has run an established company vs. growth company vs. other)
    – exhaustion and not enough time to be thinking proactively
    – lack of clarity on where things should be going

  • wwhsu

    “that had crappy production value, but was high content value”

    I think this is a point that VC’s needs to emphasize more. Entrepreneurs and executives putting together the board packages needs to focus more on content rather than on presentation/production. Often the management spent so much time on the book that too much resources are taken up on “information exchange” rather than execution and moving the business forward. For example, for a monthly board meeting, executives must start working on their packages 1-2 weeks before hand in order to get a “McKinsey” quality presentation. This leaves only 2-3 weeks to focus on execution rather than presentation. I’ve found many CEO’s who are more focused on producing board packages than on operations/execution/personnel issues.

  • emu on a hillside

    1. I do not believe that board meetings should be more than quarterly.

    2. Historical results DO matter, especially as against plan.

    3. I can’t imagine why management team other than CEO and maybe CTO or CFO need to be in the Board meeting.

    4. Strategy is the province of the CEO, not the Board. I am perplexed by descriptions of entire management teams discussing strategy options with the board. CEO determines strategy; Board determines CEO.

    5. Assuming Board members can read and write, PowerPoint is to be avoided. I prefer lots of data, and things written out, all of it distributed in advance. PowerPoint is dysfunctional and worthless.

    6. VCs should stop referring to CEOs of companies in whioch their firms (or rather: funds managed by their firms) have an investment as “my CEO”. It ALWAYS irritates the CEOs and it is silly. If you have five VC funds in your company, can they each call you “my CEO”? Do their LPs call them “my VC”?

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