Board meetings can be a stressful exercise for even the most experienced CEOs. Justifying your actions and their consequences to a roomful of superiors can be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be the nerve-racking event that many people imagine. With the right attitude and enough preparation, you can run a productive board meeting without breaking a (noticeable) sweat—even if it’s your very first one.
Confidence begins with a simple shift in perspective: Look at your board not as judge and jury but as a resource you can harness to move your company forward. The board isn’t there simply to evaluate your performance as a leader (although, let’s be honest, that is part of it). They exist to support you and your company. And board meetings are your biggest opportunity to show members how they can help.
Though you can’t control what happens once you enter the boardroom, you can manage everything leading up to it. Make board meetings more productive and beneficial for everyone involved by ensuring that everyone shows up prepared and ready to work and by eliminating any chance of surprises.
Create an agenda that focuses on the big picture
As CEO, you lead the company and the board meeting. The agenda you set is your best opportunity to create a strong and efficient structure for your time together.
Make sure your agenda is clear and focused. A tight but comprehensive itinerary sets the tone for the meeting, ensures that board members stay engaged and on task, and guides discussions on only the most important topics. Concentrate on big-picture concerns, such as the direction the company is headed, rather than small ones, such as product design reviews.
According to Mike Maples, CEO of Floodgate, only four things should be discussed during a board meeting:
- Has the market changed since we last met, and did that affect us positively or negatively?
- Has the team changed? For better or worse?
- Has our position in the market changed?
- Did we do what we said we would?
Another way to shape your agenda is by identifying one or two major issues the company is facing that would benefit from the board’s unique expertise. Leverage these meetings to both inform the board and take advantage of the members’ experience and connections to further your shared goals.
Set a time limit for each item on the agenda, and be realistic about how long each conversation might take—reference past board minutes to get an idea on this—and overestimate so that you don’t run out of time. Jeff Bonforte of Xobni recommends scheduling three-hour meetings, but “only 90 minutes of content, including a 45-minute deep dive on an issue that you actually need the board’s help to resolve.”
You may get only a couple of hours with your board every few months, so use it thoughtfully. Don’t waste time on irrelevant presentations or get bogged down in procedure. The agenda will keep you on track. Once you’ve established it, prepare other materials to send to board members ahead of time.
Package advanced materials
The easiest way to grind a board meeting to a halt is by flooding participants with new information and materials they need to process. Instead, make sure board members have all the information they need to make decisions well in advance of the actual meeting. While you may use a slide deck during your presentation, it should simply summarize the materials the attendees already have.
Provide each board member with a comprehensive board pack: a package of informational materials that they review to prepare for the meeting. Although you probably have a lot to cover, keep these materials as brief as possible. The larger the pack, the less likely that members will read it all. Limit your materials to must-review items, and avoid extraneous data points.
Important materials your board pack should include:
- The meeting agenda
- Minutes from the previous meeting (to be approved)
- An executive summary: a concise write-up of the current state of the company
- Information about the company’s performance since the last meeting, including pertinent KPIs
- Relevant financial information
- Information related to any specific topics of discussion (product road maps, marketing reports, etc.)
Within these confines, use your board pack to tell a story about how the company is performing. Be realistic in your reports and resist the urge to paint an overly rosy picture, but convey your confidence in the vision of the company. These insights will guide your discussion and inform everyone’s decision-making.
Reach out to the board ahead of time
Set expectations for your meeting by providing members with a detailed agenda and board pack at least three to seven days before the board meeting. Because the information the packs contain is sensitive, share these documents using a secure file sharing technology; only your board members should be able to access them. Plus, you’ll be able to see who has opened the files and give procrastinating board members a nudge.
If possible, connect individually with board members before the meeting, but only after they’ve had a chance to review the prep materials. Invite each of them for lunch, coffee, or even a brief phone meeting. Use this time to do the following:
- Pre-pitch any controversial items and feel out the board’s responses so that you can better address concerns and potential questions during the actual meeting.
- Get a feel for how each board member intends to vote before a major motion.
- Gently break any bad news, and talk members through it (never surprise the board with bad news during a meeting).
These pre-meeting interactions are also a fantastic opportunity to build a personal relationship with board members, which will boost your confidence and their faith in you. This is your chance to get to know your board members better and to understand their unique viewpoints and opinions.
Enter the meeting with confidence
Running a board meeting with confidence is all about the prep work. You want to enter the meeting with complete confidence in what’s going to happen next. Avoid surprises at all costs.
Know exactly what you want to say in the meeting. Spend some time rehearsing key talking points and fielding potential questions with someone you trust. Anticipate any challenging questions that might come your way, and develop your answers.
Remember to have someone prep the room and test out all AV equipment, particularly if you have slides to share or board members dialing in. The culmination of your preparation is a strong agenda, an informed board, and a confident leader. The last step is execution.
During the actual meeting, continue to foster a team-building environment where you are all working toward the same goal: the betterment of the company. Remember that the most important work doesn’t take place during the board meeting; it takes place between meetings, in the form of research, outreach, and follow-up. Don’t be afraid to delegate tasks to board members or create smaller committees. Be proactive at putting your board to work.
Your board exists to protect the interests of the shareholders who have invested in your company. It’s their duty to assess and support the health of the company and your fitness as a leader. Remember that ultimately, the board wants the company to succeed as much as you do, and help them help you by making your board meetings as useful and productive as possible.