Abolish Board Meeting Update Calls

I had a board update call recently that inspired me to write the first of my Reinventing the Board Meeting posts.

The call was for a company that is doing great, is extremely well managed, and extraordinarily transparent. Two days before the call a very detailed update package was sent around to the board. It covered the operating characteristics of the business extensively and in a format that is consistent with all of the other reports. It was clear and unambiguous.

The company does a very nice job with the board update call. They don’t force the board to sit through a page by page discussion of the package. Instead, there’s a short overview for each section followed by any Q&A that board members have. This is a pretty good approach. After about an hour of this we spent another 30 minutes on a handful of governance and board related issues. Overall, the call lasted two hours.

When I reflect on the call, we didn’t cover any strategic issues, nor did we discuss anything that would materially impact the company. In addition, there was nothing discussed that couldn’t be handled in email back and forth or flagged for a deeper discussion at the next board meeting.

This board meeting update call is an artifact and is typical of the many board update calls I’ve been doing since I joined my first board (other than my own company) in 1994. I don’t even want to think of the number of hours of my life (which is probably cumulatively measured in years at this point) hanging on the end of the phone trying to stay intellectually engaged in a board update call.

I’ve come to believe that the board update call is worthless. There tend to be three parts – all which are easily separable:

  1. Business Update: At the minimum, this can be a monthly report that goes out to the full board. Assuming that all of the board members can read and are capable of writing an email, any questions can be surfaced via email. The best companies I’m involved in actually do this weekly and, if you follow Steve Blank’s “Boardroom as Bits” hypothesis, you can turn this into real time info where the board is incorporated into the information stream of the company.
  2. Business / Strategy Issues: For whatever reason, the vast majority of board update calls don’t have a deep discussion on any substantive issues. They are often flagged along with a shallow conversation but then deferred either to the next in person board meeting, left for interactions between individual board members and the CEO, or dropped on the floor and quickly forgotten.
  3. Legal / Governance Issues: Inevitably there are minutes to approve, options to approve, and other legal / governance issues to deal with. These almost always can be handled at the next in-person board meeting or by a UWC (“unanimous written consent” sent around by email.)

There were a dozen people on the call I was on including management team members. That’s a full person day of time spent on something that didn’t need to happen. Expensive.

CEO’s – reconsider how you are doing this. And to my fellow board members – challenge the CEOs and the boards you are on to engage in a more effective, continuous way. And to the CEO for every board I’m on – I’m happy to work with you to abolish the board meeting update call if you’d like.

  • i’m surprised people are doing this.  i’ve not worked with a board, but this process seems very antiquated.

    why not post a document to the board and then enable a q&a via a private forum which board members see.  all the questions can be discussed in the private forum in several threads over a period of a couple of days.

    then a voice call can be used to discuss strategic issues and efficiently use people’s time.

    • Yup – right on the money.

  • I cringe for any meeting that has “status update” in the title. 98% of the time the meeting is a waste of time. The 2% possibility of a productive conversation is not worth keeping these archaic beasts on people’s calendars. If meetings are toxic, status meetings are the plague. 

  • On top of the full person day of people on the call, there was probably another person day or two of management team members preparing the detailed update package. 

    You state, “At the minimum, this can be a monthly report that goes out to the full board.” Why? Is the monthly update report even necessary? If you want to abolish the board meeting update call, you should abolish the monthly report. Keep board meetings quarterly.

    • I prefer even more regular information than once a month. However, I
      don’t think the management team / CEO should have to provide anything
      different than what they are using internally to manage the business.
      So, if they are distributing data that they themselves are using /
      consuming, this should be no additional work.

      If, as a leadership team, they don’t have this data, then they have a
      different problem in that they haven’t put systems in place to
      understand, measure, and manage their business.

      • The key metrics (page views, visitors, accounts, purchases, etc.) on my web startup are available 24×7 via analytics we’ve setup. I really like the idea of setting up access for interested board directors to monitor at will. It wouldn’t be difficult to add other info board members desired through this interface. Is this what you had in mind? 

  • Smaxwell

    Great topic!  I see the same sorts of issues on some of the boards that I am on.  In my ideal world, the operating data is shared in advance (I don’t think the system for sharing matters as much as the idea that it is done in advance), everyone should come to the table understanding it, and the key business/strategy issues should be addressed at the board meetings.  I am also a fan of the management team simply sharing the reports that they use rather than creating something new for the board.

    I also think update calls are helpful, and they could be quick if there are no business/strategy issues to discuss.

    Some of the larger board issues that I see:

     – board members that come to board meetings without preparing for them and/or sidetrack the meeting with “shiny objects” that don’t align with the key business/strategy issues. 

    – boards are not optimally constructed from a membership standpoint to really nail key business/strategy issues

    – boards not changing in composition as the company develops to new stages and new issues.

    Perhaps you will address these in future posts.  As always, I enjoy hearing your views!

    Scott Maxwell
    OpenView Venture Partners

  • Since I started working on my current startup I have been using a private blog for all kinds of updates and questions.  I don’t have a formal board yet, but I asked the people that I would bug for advice if I could add them.  So far so good.  We will see how it goes though.

  • Hi Brad – I’m the founder of LeanLaunchLab.com and we’re building tools for startups to make traditional board meetings and coffee updates more efficient.  Our product is based on the concepts within Steve Blank’s “Boardroom as Bits” talk and we’re “baking in” customer dev and lean startup features.  We’re about a week away from MVP launch and I’d LOVE to get your thoughts and see if our product is a good fit to deploy to some of your portfolio companies.

    [email protected]

    • Email me ([email protected]) when you have something to play with and I’ll give you feedback.