At Onsite, we work closely with executive teams to drive growth, scale operations and achieve better and faster results. As a result, we have attended and prepared for many board meetings. We summarize our best practices for productive board meetings below.
Why do many executive teams loathe board meetings?
Board meetings are invaluable. They are the ultimate time and place to evaluate strategic progress, refine or revise goals and timelines, and receive insight from experienced people who are invested in the company’s success.
But, in my experience, executive teams dread the quarterly board meeting: it’s a lot of work, it necessitates business scrutiny, it might reveal issues. Conversely, it could be a time to reflect on the progress and celebrate successes.
After participating in many board meetings – as an operator, director, and observer – I believe that one reason executives dislike them is that company leaders have never been told what to include in the board agenda and materials, and what makes a board presentation valuable for both the management and the board. I have seen crisp, open, thoughtful, and productive board meetings; I’ve also seen too many perfunctory board meetings that waste valuable time, and consequently, undercut the board's confidence in management.
Board Meetings Are a CEO’s Strategic Weapon
Effective board meetings clarify priorities; they allow leaders to spotlight results, highlight challenges, and discuss key strategic issues. The best management teams and board members hold each other accountable and truly want to review company progress and improve where possible.
CEOs and management teams get the most out of board meetings when they arm directors with the information required to ask smart, pertinent questions. And the exceptional teams focus on the places where those questions – and the answers – will have the highest impact.
Seven Must-Haves for Your Board Presentation
While every company is different, the software companies that run the best board meetings have common approaches and provide similar information in their presentations. At a minimum, include these seven things in your board presentation decks.
1) Establish and stick to stated objectives
Too many of the worst board meetings begin with an agenda but not with objectives. There’s a big difference. An agenda is merely the data that gets presented. Objectives are what you want to get out of the time together. Before every board meeting, the CEO should complete this sentence: “This meeting will be a success if we…” “Get through the agenda on time,” is not an ideal response. “Agree on a budget” or “Set baseline goals and metrics” is much better.
2) Include a “State of the Union” from the CEO
Board meetings are most effective when organized around top priorities and issues. An update from the CEO on key accomplishments, challenges, and how the company plans to address those challenges helps orient the board. With a 360-degree view of the business, the board can provide sound advice and guidance.
Avoid the temptation to speak in phrases. “Good” is not a number. Include data. Real measurable outcomes aligned with key performance indicators will help the board – and the management team – make good decisions. It’s also important, as part of the CEO report, to include and review action items, including any from previous board or leadership meetings.
This is also the time for the CEO to ask for guidance on key decisions. Asking for the board’s point of view on challenging decisions ensures that the board agrees with the decision and is invested in the outcome.
3) Don’t shy away from non-financial numbers
Board members can add the most value when they have access to the rich data that informs management decisions, not just the requisite financial statements. So, while you may summarize, also provide the metrics you use to monitor progress. That way, board members can help you be sure you’re measuring the correct things and in the best way.
Board members can share how your measures stack up against other businesses they've seen and what that means.
Data such as financial statements, HR metrics, sales and marketing data (e.g., bookings growth and customer success metrics), and product management and development metrics (such as product roadmap milestones) are all useful for board members.
When in doubt, hand it out. If you don’t have data on something, it may be worth discussing that as well. Importantly: board meetings are more effective when the materials – especially data information – are sent 48 hours in advance. To assist with productive board meetings, Insight Onsite has developed a template board package that includes the metrics that are important for effective board discussions
4) Functional summaries matter
A one-page summary by function with key highlights from the quarter, near-term priorities, and current challenges lets the board quickly see what’s happening by department.
The executive team leaders in a software company (product, engineering, marketing, sales, customer success, HR, and finance) should present a dashboard of key metrics, current priorities, and progress against previously discussed priorities. Good CEOs have leadership team meetings where functional heads know the constraints and priorities of their colleagues; where this doesn’t occur, the board meeting is a good forum to disseminate information so everyone may understand the situation. When the team has a complete view, priorities can change, cooperation can grow, and teams can be more effective. By seeing these functional priorities too, your board may be able to help the process along.
5) Review strategy
A board’s role is governance, results, and strategy. Too often strategy gets lots amidst the approval of board minutes and the dissection of business metrics.
CEOs should discuss market dynamics, competitive moves, environmental factors, new relevant regulation, talent retention, M&A, and company direction. The board meeting is an opportunity to get a broader perspective and review industry dynamics that may impact the business. Discussing the probabilities of different scenarios is a core responsibility of the board.
6) Spotlight your team
People are the most important asset of any business. As any good manager knows, recruiting, hiring, training, and developing the best talent is what separates the great teams from the rest.
Leadership and execution are hard work for company leaders. By giving functional leaders a chance to display their potential and be acknowledged by the board for their accomplishments, the CEO ensures that leaders are motivated and aligned.
Understanding and displaying their senior leaders' potential and performance in a board deck calls out key team members and helps keep the organization focused on talent development.
7) Seek out direct feedback
Good board meetings include time alone with the CEO for the board to provide the CEO with confidential feedback, and for the group to collectively review executive team composition, highlight capability gaps, and discuss succession plans. The board is able to provide observations and proffer help.
The CEO job is lonely. The board meeting time represents an opportunity to discuss concerns behind closed doors and obtain input. The CEO should view this time as one of the key benefits of board meetings. The collective capability of the board is focused on improving the company. Take the chance to tap into this experience and knowledge.
Getting It Right
When prepared and delivered well, board materials help leadership teams focus on what matters and allow board members to prove their value. As you prepare your presentation and run your board meetings, follow the rules: be honest, support your plans and presentations with data, and most importantly, seek and solicit feedback from board members. Rather than loathe board meetings and seeking perfunctory sign-off, view the time as an opportunity to get the advice and investment every company needs to deliver outstanding performance. Our list of seven must-haves will get you most of the way there; the quality of the dialog will do the rest.