Founder's Guide
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Founder’s Guide to Productive Board Meetings

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As CEO, one of my responsibilities is to run our company’s board meetings. Throughout my career, I’ve had experience both running board meetings and attending as an investor or an independent member. If managed poorly or without an aligned goal in site, these meetings can be stressful for founders, and tedious for the board members. But they don’t have to be either, regardless of where your company is at.

Many think board meetings are all about reporting metrics and receiving judgment, but these meetings can accomplish much more than that. In fact, most of the reporting and feedback should be completed outside the meetings. Board meetings are more useful when the focus centers around charting the company’s future, not scrutinizing it’s past. Board meetings can be an invaluable mechanism for making well-grounded decisions for your company.

But to get the most out of these meetings, what should you share and discuss? What’s the appropriate level of detail? How do you maximally leverage the board members’ wisdom and expertise?

The tips in this post are a collection of lessons learned from my personal experience as well as lessons I’ve read and received from others.

Establish the expectations for your board meetings

Don’t make the common mistake of letting others’ expectations dictate the focus of your board meetings. Take control of these meetings by laying down the ground rules of how they’ll run. The sooner you do this, the better, but it’s never too late. Define and set your expectations. This could be done at your next meeting, or better yet, it could be done beforehand, individually with each board member.

Here are some ground rules of what to put into place:

Define the purpose and goals of your board meetings

  • “I want our board meetings to generate action items for the biggest questions we face as a company.”
  • “I want the action items produced in these meetings to contribute directly to the increased performance of this company.”

Determine what should (and should not) be discussed in your board meetings

What should be discussed

  • Board meetings should be used to discuss topics that each member can provide useful insights on, such as major company decisions and actions that need board approval.
  • Focus on topics that leverage your board’s networks and expertise such as recruitment, partnerships, and high-level business strategy.

What should not be discussed

  • Topics that only some board members can engage with are not a good use of the other members’ time. If a decision regarding such a matter requires board approval, or if you want to gather different perspectives on the topic, bring everyone up to speed with the issue and necessary context before the meeting, so that all members can have an informed discussion on it at the meeting.
  • Things that are not critical to the business but interests one of the members or relates to their background. If a board member is knowledgeable and interested in helping in an area, then invite them to discuss this with the corresponding business unit. In fact, this should be done proactively and not just as a deflection of unsolicited advice. You should continuously be matching your board members’ strengths with your company’s areas for improvement and facilitating their support outside of the board meeting. Determine what expertise each board member can bring and how they want to be involved, therefore defining when and how you’ll share things with the larger group vs. just one-on-one, when relevant.

The format of your board meetings

  • Establish and define a clear and recurring format for your board meetings. This format will largely dictate how productive and useful your board meetings are for everyone in attendance, so take careful thought and consideration when formulating this. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

The frequency of your board meetings

  • The maturity of your company will typically determine the frequency of your board meetings. Younger companies often change faster than older ones and therefore tend to meet more frequently. The frequency of your board meetings will also determine the time frame you review during the meetings. At Atrium, we hold them once a quarter and review the activity that occurred over the quarter that just closed.

The culture of your board meetings

  • Establishing the culture of your board meetings will increase the group’s alignment. At every Atrium all-hands meeting, we talk about our company values for the same reasons. The culture you establish for your board meetings is up to you, and will probably resemble the culture and values of your company.
  • At Atrium, some cultural items that we expect for our board meetings are that each board member will arrive at the meetings prepared and having read the board meeting packet we sent in advance (explained below) and that each board member should leave each meeting understanding how they can be most helpful to Atrium. Having this as an actual goal for yourself is a good way to ensure you’re not failing to take full advantage of the potential value that’s available to you.

Once you’ve defined the expectations for your board meetings, create a document that clearly states what they are, and send it to each member. Follow up individually to discuss, if necessary, so that all members have a clear understanding of how your board meetings will proceed going forward.

Do the heavy lifting between board meetings, not during

Surprisingly, board meetings are not an efficient place to make decisions. A board meeting is better spent confirming and documenting decisions that have already been reached outside the meetings. To avoid tedious and lop-sided discussions, I suggest talking separately with each board member between board meetings. This way we can go deep on a topic they each have expertise in, without making the actual meetings drag on with lengthy discussions that only some members can contribute to. Then when it comes time to actually meet as a board, the group can have an informed discussion, if needed, or confirm the decision already reached before the meeting.

Board meetings are not an efficient place to make decisions. Instead, spend time confirming and documenting decisions that have already been reached. Click To Tweet

 

Board meeting agenda

Atrium board meetings allow for 3 hours, but we aim to end early. The agenda we follow for each quarterly board meeting is as follows:

10:00am – 10:20am: CEO update
10:20am – 10:40am: Metrics update
10:40am – 12:45pm: Open discussions
12:45pm – 1:00pm: Closed session

 

Send out a “board meeting packet” before the meeting

To summarize the discussions had outside the board meetings and ensure everyone is on the same page — I create a “board meeting packet” in preparation for the next board meeting. The board meeting packet is an outline of the upcoming board meeting my team and I prepare and send to the board members 4 to 5 days in advance of the meetings. The board meeting packet details the items we plan to cover and provides important context. Receiving the board meeting packet in advance allows board members to digest the material and email me questions, or point out topics they want to address during the meeting. I can then respond to those questions and facilitate the discussions more effectively.

 

Follow-up after the board meetings

After each board meeting, follow-up with each board member by emailing them a concise recap of the decisions that were made and the action items for them to provide support on. This gives the board members an easy way to reference back to the meetings and will also help with keeping folks accountable.

We perform this same action with the exec team by sending them our key takeaways from the meeting and the action items for our team.

Use board meetings to your advantage

There’s no way around it — your performance as a leader will be judged by your board of directors, and how you run your board meetings will bear weight on their perception of you. Put yourself in the board members’ shoes: As a board member, would you have more confidence in a leader who proposed solutions without asking for advice, or would you prefer to support a CEO who used these meetings to apply the experience and knowledge of the board to better the overall team and position of the company? Be diligent in getting the most out of your board meetings to elevate both yourself and your company. By taking proactive measures to leverage the resources you have available to you, you will improve your board members’ perception of you as a leader.

Remember, it’s the board’s job to help you. Board members enjoy collaborating to solve challenging problems, so use everyone’s time wisely and collaborate to solve your company’s most challenging problems!

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  • thanks for sharing this – I have our first board meeting coming up and want it to set the tone. By magic your email appears and I’m reading this gem of an article. It’s really important to make them constructive and tackle the big issues – not just end up with the CEO in a Q&A barrage. cheers.

  • mm

    Justin Kan is an internet entrepreneur and investor known for founding various companies, including Twitch--a video game streaming platform (acquired by Amazon for $970mm). He served as Partner at Y Combinator, where he impacted over 900 companies and funded more than 130. Currently, Justin serves as CEO of Atrium, where he's building technology to revolutionize the $450bn legal industry.

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