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In my new book, Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, in addition to decomposing and explaining a lot about the functioning of board meetings, I also describe my ideal board meeting.
I had four of them this week. That’s a lot of board meetings in a week, but my weeks tend to either be “lots of board meetings” or “no board meetings” as I generally bunch them up. Thankfully, all four of them used my ideal board meeting template.
A critical aspect of my ideal board meeting is that the entire board package should be sent out several days in advance to all board members. It should be thorough, including whatever the CEO wants the board to know about what has happened since the last board meeting. While I prefer prose to a PowerPoint deck, either is fine. Optimally it’s in a format like Google Docs where everyone on the board can comment on specific things, allowing open Q&A on the board material prior to the board meeting. I like to decouple monthly financial reporting from the board package, but including a look back of the financials, along with discussion and framing is useful. But the meat of the board package should be what’s going on now and going forward, not looking back. The looking back is for support of the discussion.
Then – the board meeting has a simple structure intended to fit in three hours. Optimally all participants are either in person or on video conference. Since I’m not traveling for business right now, almost all of my board meetings have a video conferencing component. When done correctly, it’s often just as effective as an in-person meeting, and in some cases (if you follow my video conferencing rules) even more effective. What is not effective is when one or more people are on an audio conference.
Once everyone is settled, break the board meeting into three discrete sections. They, and their descriptions, follow:
Administration (30 minutes): Board overhead, resolutions, administration, and questions about the board package.
Discussion (up to 2 hours): Discussion on up to five topics. The five topics should fit on one slide or be written on the white board. The CEO is responsible for time boxing the discussion, or if he needs help, he should ask the lead director to do this. If you don’t have a lead director, read my book and get yourself one. This should be a discussion – you’ve got your board in the room – use it to help you go deeper on the specific topic you are trying to figure out. These topics can be on anything, but my experience is that the more precise the context is, the richer the discussion. I prefer for the full leadership team to be in the meeting for this part, although it’s entirely up to the CEO who is in the room.
Executive Session (30 minutes): CEO and board only. Here the board can give feedback specifically to the CEO or sensitive issues around personnel or other things the CEO wants to discuss separately from the management team can be covered. At the end, the CEO leaves and let’s the board have some time alone where the lead director checks in if there is any feedback the board would like to give the CEO.
If you have less than five topics, the board meeting can take less time. Or if the five topics only take an hour to go through, the board meeting can take less time. There is nothing ever wrong with ending a meeting early. Ever.
Now this template doesn’t always work – you often have other specific things you have to address. When a company is going through an M&A process, the board meetings tend to be frequent and cover other stuff. Or, when the company is in a downward spiral, or dealing with a crisis, the focus is often very precise.
But in my world, the day of the “board update” is over. I find no value in sitting in a room for three hours, paging through a PowerPoint deck while people present at me, and the people around the table ask an endless stream of questions, mostly demonstrating that they haven’t been engaged in what the company has been doing since the last board meeting.
I joined my first board of a company other than mine in 1994 (NetGenesis). Since then, I’ve sat on hundreds of boards and been to a zillion board meetings. It crushes my soul a little to think of the number of board meetings I have sat through that were ineffective, poorly run, or just plain boring. I guess that’s part of the motivation I have in writing Startup Boards: Reinventing the Board of Directors to Be Useful to the Entrepreneur (the next book in the Startup Revolution series which should be out sometime this summer.)
In the mean time, over the past two years I’ve done a lot of experiments with the boards I’m on. I’ve tried a lot of different things – some that are awesome, some that don’t matter, some that suck, and some that have been epic fails. For any that aren’t awesome, I’ve tried to kill the experiment quickly so it didn’t hurt anything and when I reflect on everything I’ve tried I think I’ve managed to “do no harm”, which is more than I can say for a lot of the other VCs who I’ve sat on boards with since 1994.
By this summer, I expect I’ll have a very clear view on the best practices from my perspective for making a Startup Board effective. Until then, I’m still running experiments, or experiencing experiments that the entrepreneurs run. And I’m thinking out loud (including in posts like this) on what has worked and hasn’t worked.
One of the things I’ve played around with is the board package. The number of different formats, styles, information incorporated, and distribution methods over the years boggles my mind. I not-so-fondly remember toting around “binders full of board meeting material” in the 1990s. Or pre-Gmail having a “board meeting folder” in Outlook so I could quickly find the upcoming board meeting documents. Or fighting through 19 attachments to an email to figure out where the actual board material was. PowerPoints, PDFs, Word documents, text files, Excel spreadsheets, Prezi docs, videos, email outlines – the list goes on.
Recently, I had a magical moment. I’m a huge believer in distributing the board material a few days in advance, having all the board members comment on it in advance of the meeting, and then having the meeting without going through the board material page by page. No death by endless Powerpoint, no reading a document I’ve already read. My favorite board meetings are the “one slide board meeting” where the only piece of paper allowed in the room is the agenda of the meeting.
When entrepreneurs don’t get this, I suggest that they pretend their board members can read and cognitively process the information in advance. And, if they don’t believe their board members will do this, just start having the board meeting under this assumption and watch how they board members get their shit together and read the material in advance.
In this recent magical moment, rather than receiving anything via email, a Google Doc notification showed up in my inbox. I went to it and the entire board package was in a single Google doc file. The entire management team and the entire board was included on it. As I read through the Google doc, whenever I had a comment or a question, I highlighted the section in question, hit Command-Option-M, and left a comment. Then, as other people read through the package, they left comments. And then the management team responded to the comments.
Voila – an interactive board package. Zero special technology. It wasn’t planned, or assigned. It just naturally happened. When we showed up to the board meeting, everyone had the issues in their mind. We’d already cut out an hour of setup, and probably another hour of discussion. So we got right down to the higher level issues that the board material, and comments, and the responses generated.
In this case, the CEO created a very simple agenda immediately before the board meeting that captured the strategic issues we needed to address. There were a few tactical questions outstanding – they got knocked off quickly. We had a two hour board meeting – 90 minutes of it was intense and fruitful. No one referred to any paper – we looked each other in the eyes for 90 minutes and had a deep, engaged, substantive discussion.
I’ve been describing this as a part of a “continuous board engagement” – similar to “continuous deployment and continuous innovation” in Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. I get information daily from most of the companies I’m involved in. I’m in the flow of a lot of information – some “noise” but a huge amount of “signal.” Then – the week before the board meeting, the current state of things gets consolidated into a dynamic document that allows everyone involved to interact with each other around the content.
I’m going to play a lot with this in the next few months. Any suggested tweaks or changes to this approach? Any obvious pitfalls?
I’ve been writing about boards of directors some lately – both changing my behavior as well as thinking out loud as I explore reinventing how boards work for the book “Startup Boards” that I’m working on with Mahendra Ramsinghani. All fit in the context of continuous communications as I believe three things about early stage companies and their boards.
1. Board members should be actively engaged with the company on a continuous / real time basis.
2. Existing board meeting dynamics are often an artifact of how they’ve been done for the past 30 years.
3. The way most board meetings are currently conducted is a waste of time for management, significantly inefficient, and generally ineffective.
One of the very simple tactical things I’m shifting to is a totally different board rhythm. Historically, many of the companies I’m involved in have been on a board rhythm of meetings every four to six weeks. As they become more mature, these board meetings shift to quarterly, although many of them have mid-quarter update calls. The board meetings themselves are long affairs (even the monthly ones) – often lasting three or more hours.
At some point I’ll dissect one of these board meetings and explain all the things that are artifacts of the past. These artifacts are a result of the communication methods that existed 30+ years ago that required paper and face to face meetings and resulted in very structured communications. But for now, I’ll give you three specific things to change.
1. Separate the monthly financials from the board meeting. Send out monthly financials (Income Statement, Balance Sheet, Cash Flow) with a written analysis of them. This written analysis should be done by the CEO (or president / COO), not the CFO, and should be in English, not accounting-ese.
2. Have quarterly board meetings. These should be in person meetings with no laptops, smartphones, or iPads in the room. Give the people pads of paper to write on if they don’t bring their own (I don’t carry paper). 100% attention for the meeting. Arrange the meeting so you can have a dinner the night before or after the meeting. The meeting shouldn’t last more than four hours but should be fully engaged.
3. Provide regular weekly CEO updates, to all board members. The best entrepreneurs I know communicate regularly with everyone in the company and have a structured update process of some sort. The best CEOs send out short but focused weekly updates to their boards. These are not “templated updates” – they don’t necessarily fill in a set of things that they update each week. Often they are just a “sit in front of the computer and send out an email update” type of update full of substance, whatever is on the CEO’s mind, and requests for help. My favorites have typos and look like a blog post of mine (e.g. it looks like someone just wrote it rather than struggled over it for hours to get it just right.)
While my 2012 board meeting schedule is locked in, I plan to shift to quarterly meetings in 2013 for every board I’m on. I’m sure some of my co-investors will still want monthly meetings, but that’ll be up to the CEO to ultimately decide and I’ll commit to being in person for one a quarter, but fully engaged on a continuous basis (like I try to always be.)
I love getting post board meeting emails that are retrospectives from execs in the meeting. This one came a week ago from Jeff Malek, the CTO and co-founder of BigDoor. They’ve been on a tear lately and are in the process of a massive set of Q1 launches for new customers.
We had a solid board meeting, but I suggested they were being too casual about a couple of things, including communication about what was going on. This is NOT a casual group and I knew using the word casual would press a few buttons. And they did – the right ones. Jeff’s retrospective is awesome and he was game to have me share it with you to get a sense of what’s inside a CTO’s head during and after a board meeting.
I have a retrospective addiction. But as a result of looking back at our meeting today Brad, words like ‘casual’ still ringing in my ears, I recognized I’d let some of my own assumptions drive away potential opportunities, maybe even creating some problems along the way. I’ve always run under the assumptions that :
- your inbox is an order of magnitude more onerous than mine (quite)
- the best way to respect and value your time would be to limit email/communication
- you and Keith have regular communications complete with bits about what I’m up to and thinking
- you know even in the absence of communication from me that I’m working like a madman, doing everything I can to make it happen
- you also know through some process of osmosis how much I value you, Foundry, your approach, feedback, etc
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that I took your feedback and concluded that I needed to give you more BigDoor insight, or that you needed more info in general to get a better picture – that’s what the numbers are for.
So while all of the above assumptions are probably true to some degree, here’s the new protocol I’m going to start optimistically running under:
- thanks to your candor and aversion to BS, you’ll tell me to STFU as needed
- you’d like a concise ping about whatever, whenever from me
- you’ll give me feedback if/when it makes sense to, and I won’t expect a reply otherwise, unless I’m asking a direct question
- doing so is likely to benefit both of us, one way or another – hopefully more candid feedback will ensue
- you know that I value your time highly, and mine specifically in the context of devoting most waking hours to making BigDoor a success
- you know that I am incredibly grateful to know you and have you as an investor
Those are my new assumptions. I felt like giving this topic some time and thought, glad I did, will keep it (mostly) short going forward but hopefully you know a bit more about where I’m coming from, out of this.
Thanks again for the time today, I thought it was an awesome f-ing meeting. I always leave them on fire.
Over the past two years I’ve been struggling mightily with the dynamics of “classical VC funded board of directors” and how these boards work. When I hear a VC say “I’m an active board member” it gives me the same nauseous feeling I get when someone says “I’m a value added investor.” I’ve been on some awesome boards, some terrible boards, and everything in between. Today, I refuse to be on a shitty or dysfunctional board and I’m proud that every board I’m on is one that I’d consider to be effective, although they all operate in different ways.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different approaches across a lot of boards and have been thinking hard about this lately. I’m working on a book called Startup Boards with Mahendra Ramsinghani and have done some interviews about this topic lately, including a chaotic one the other day with James Geshwiler on the Frank Peters Show.
My long term friend Matt Blumberg (Return Path CEO) and I were going back and forth about his recently board meeting (which ironically I missed) and he wrote some kind words about me and his other board members (Fred Wilson – USV, Greg Sands – Sutter Hill, Scott Weiss – A16Z, and Scott Petry – Authentic8.) I asked him if he’d write a guest post about what makes an awesome board member. He was willing – it follows.
I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path. And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation. All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts: Why I Love My Board, Part II, The Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.
But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members. I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others. Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.
Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:
- They are prepared and keep commitments: They show up to all meetings. They show up on time and don’t leave early. They do their homework. The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings.
- They speak their minds: They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room. They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think. I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
- They build independent relationships: They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings. They get to know individuals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well. None of this communication goes through you.
- They are resource rich: I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice. After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add. Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis.
- They are strategically engaged but operationally distant: This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area. But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like.
My interview/vetting process for Board members:
- Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member.
- Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high.
- Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists. Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well.
- Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors.
- Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand. Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting. You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way.
- Have no fear of rejecting them. Even if you like them. Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor. Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC). This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company.
I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member. Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:
- Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
- Comes with an opinion
- Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
- Call out your blind spots
- Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
- Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team
- Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative. Then get out of our way
- Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
- Pattern matching: they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching. To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
- Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
- Colorful and unique metaphors
Disclaimer – I run a private company. While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary. And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture. That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!