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I’ve had a string of great board meetings lately. They all had several similar attributes.
There were no powerpoint slides: While each company has a substantive monthly reporting package, this was decoupled from the board meeting. I got my taste of financials, metrics, qualitative stuff, and whatever else the CEO wanted me to see on a monthly basis. But I read this independent of the board meeting (which wasn’t on a monthly cadence) and asked questions in reaction to getting the monthly reporting package rather than taking up air time in a board meeting.
The agenda was a simple set of bullet points: In several of these meetings it was written on the whiteboard at the beginning of the meeting. The topics covered were substantive but focused and were “in the moment” of importance, rather than some regurgitated monthly agenda that someone mindlessly edited from the previous meeting and then printed out.
Everyone involved was fully engaged: In several cases there were people on the phone or on videoconference, but they paid attention. And when they didn’t, we didn’t pay any attention to them.
Each topic was a discussion: There was no “reporting out”. The issue was framed by whomever started the discussion and then we went after it. There was no time limit. When people drifted off course (including me), someone (not always the same person) interrupted and pulled us back on course. We drove to answers, and – when we didn’t have consensus, ended up with a range out answers for the CEO to choose from (where we’d support whatever he chose.)
We got closure on each topic: There was no ambiguity. Even when we didn’t end up at a single answer, it was clear who (usually the CEO) owned the decision with an expectation that he would make it.
There was no bullshit: I don’t recall much “noise” – the “signal” in all of these meetings was very high.
The meetings didn’t expand to fill available time: The length ranged from 30 minutes to about four hours. But when we were done, we were done.
Everyone had a positive / constructive attitude, even when dealing with difficult issues: These were not happy, fluffy, mellow, no-conflict meetings. There was plenty of disagreement. There were arguments. But everyone approached them from perspective of solving a problem and getting to an answer.
We had a fun dinner either the night before the meeting or the evening after the meeting: Bottom line – we like hanging out with each other.
I’ve got another board dinner / meeting combo with a CEO who runs great board meetings (and – not surprisingly – a great business). While I’m sure I’ll figure out how to subject myself to more mind-numbing meetings that I don’t want to participate in, I feel like I’m turning a corner and have some impact on changing the board meetings I’m involved in for the better.
I’ve been on a number of board calls this month while I’ve been in Paris. About half of them have been via Skype; the other half have been standard audio conferencing. I’ve also had a bunch of other meetings, discussions, and pitches via Skype.
The quality of the meeting and interaction – when all attendees are in person or via videoconference (in my case Skype on my laptop) – was 10x better than the ones via audio conference only.
I’ve been vacillating between a “physical attendance at all board meetings” approach or “video conference at all board meetings approach” to life. It’s impossible for me to physically attend all board meetings, but there’s no reason why I can’t attend by video conference. I’m now encouraging everyone I work with – as well as everyone that has a board meeting – to have a physical + video conference approach. It is so much better than having people on audio conference.
In several of the meetings, we simply set up Skype on a laptop and put the laptop at the end of the table. It’s a simple, low cost (free) solution, that works awesomely well. In one case, there was more than one person on Skype. Rather than try to do a Skype three-way (which works well also), the company simply set up two laptops with a separate Skype session on each. Skype audio seemed to work just fine in all cases but one, so we did an audio conference for voice and Skype for video.
While there will always be adhoc conference calls on short notice for boards that need to ratify something, for any meeting over an hour, or any scheduled meeting, putting the effort into getting everyone either physically there or on video makes a huge difference.
I know it sounds trite, but it’s remarkable how much better – even in a one on one conversation – the discussion is when it’s video instead of just audio. The calls are higher impact, body language is apparent, and people pay full attention rather than “minimally acceptable attention + email”.
We’ve been waiting for and talking about video conferencing for a long time. I think it’s really ready this time.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 hate board meetings. I probably have 100 per year which means I’ve gone to well over 1,500 of the past 15 years (I’m sure the number is much higher). The vast majority are excruciatingly inefficient – three to four hours that could be handled in 45 minutes. And even then, it’s unclear that the information covered was particularly useful to the entrepreneurs and management, who are the ones the board meetings should be useful for in the first place. And they don’t merely waste three hours – they burn a day in advance “getting ready” and who knows how much time after following up on random things generated by me and my fellow board members. Toss in travel (since we invest all over the country, I lose a lot of time to traveling) and it just sucks.
Recently, Steve Blank, one of the founders of the Lean Startup concept, wrote two provocative posts about board meetings. Both are really good – go read them – I’ll wait:
Now, I’m lucky. I’ve been railing about board meetings for a while and a number of CEOs of the companies that I’m an investor in have dramatically upped their game around board meetings. I have a handful of single slide board meetings inspired by the early board meetings we had at Zynga. Almost all send out their materials in advance and spend no time in the actual meeting going through them and instead focus on the discussion. And others simply focus the meeting on a handful of specific questions.
Regardless, when I reflect on the amount of my time that I spend in board meetings that I think is generally worthless, I’ve decided I’m going to completely change how I approach this. The tempo is all wrong (I don’t need monthly board meetings for anything as I spend much more real time interacting with the entrepreneurs I’ve invested in). The focus is all wrong (I can read the financials in a few minutes – I don’t need to sit through an extended discussion of them). The discussion context is inefficient (I’m as much a problem as a victim here as I’m sure my other board members get tired of listening to me bloviate.)
It’s time to reinvent the private company board meeting. I’m going to give it a shot.