For far too many CEOs, board meetings are a cause of stress. They send their teams in a frenzy pulling together materials, there are late-night fire drills of prep sessions, and the meetings feel like one big show-and-tell.
We can all agree that boards are incredibly important: According to a 2019 survey, 94 percent of private companies report increased revenue after putting a board in place. In my experience–both leading meetings as a CEO and attending as a board member and investor–your time together is a tremendous opportunity to dig into your toughest problems as a business.
Here are my top learnings on how to make your board meetings as productive as possible.
1. Have the right people around the table.
The outcome of any meeting is based on who’s in the room. Just like choosing investors, you should think of your board members as serious, long-term partners. You need to vet them and ensure that the people around the table have meaningful and diverse perspectives. For example, my board at LearnVest included a fintech visionary who built and sold his company for almost a billion dollars and a seasoned investor who’s backed internet changing companies like Facebook.
Having board members with directly applicable experience matters. As I always say, if you were going to hike Kilimanjaro, you’d want to talk to people who have been-there, done-that. You’d ask them when to go, what to pack, and their best advice for getting to the top.
As you assemble your board, make sure that you’re building a diverse team–the typical board has a median of only 1.5 women. Ensure diversity in all ways–gender, age, experience, expertise, and beyond. Doing so enables a mix of perspectives that will make for better discussions and smarter business decisions.
Ultimately, your board is an extension of your core team. Get to know them the way you would any senior leader at your company.
2. Focus 95 percent of the time on the tough stuff.
Plain and simple, start the meeting with your worst problems. Dive right into whatever challenge is truly keeping you up at night, and do so at the top of the meeting while everyone is fresh.
Remember: A “good” meeting doesn’t mean you make yourself and your company look like everything is working perfectly. In a growing company, that’ll never be the case. That said, a board meeting is also not the time to unveil surprises. If the problems are especially difficult, be sure to communicate with everyone in advance, giving ample time to process the issues, and then use the meeting for problem-solving. The more transparent you are as a leader, the more your board will trust you. That may mean revealing that a new product launch didn’t go as planned, or that your new senior hire is creating tension. When you treat them like they’re in the weeds with you, they’ll be that much more helpful in getting the work done.
At the end of the day, the board is there to work for you. They’re also owners in the company and want you and the business to succeed.
3. Be prepared and prepare others.
Your time together in a board meeting is limited, so your prep work counts. There are a few simple things that I consider must-dos:
- First, establish your board meeting dates at the beginning of the year. This ensures that the meetings get on everyone’s (very busy) calendars far in advance and increases the likelihood of everyone attending in person.
- Second, share these board dates with your senior leadership team. Regardless of whether they’ll actually be in the room presenting, you’ll likely tap them to put briefing materials together. Advance warning will help them carve out enough time to do so.
- Third, send briefing materials to the entire board a few days in advance of the meeting. Give everyone time to digest and sit with the information. Set the expectation that the board comes to the table ready to roll up their sleeves and work–not to simply watch the CEO present each slide. This is crucial to avoiding blindsiding the board.
4. Assign homework.
The board is there to support the CEO and help the company. So leverage them. Give the board meaningful tasks: Can they make a helpful intro? Close an important hire? I’ve been asked to do all sorts of things, like going with a CEO to scout the company’s next location before they signed a new lease.
Your board should help you throughout the entire year. Company challenges will never align perfectly to your scheduled board meetings. Ask for that extra white-boarding session, and whenever you send an update over email, highlight your clear asks in yellow. It’s simple, but it works.