During one of my recent office hours, I was asked by a founder about how to best prepare for their first formal board meeting.
While the two founders had previously held informal board meetings and separate sessions with an advisory board, this would their first meeting with external board members.
The fast-growing startup had recently completed a fundraise, involving VCs, and were looking to make a positive impression with the new members of their board.
(For more information on the difference between advisory and formal boards, please see my colleague’s piece on Startup Daily.)
Here’s what I shared.
Board meetings can be a great mechanism to drive success for a startup. When used well, they’re a place where ambitious goals are set and reviewed, difficult decisions get discussed and clarity is reached, and accountability and support is sought.
Preparing for a board meeting is key. In my experience, while most of the preparation is carried out by the CEO or founders in a startup, understanding the expectations of all board members is critical.
In boards where a chair has been appointed, the CEO should work closely with the chair to align expectations. Preparation will be reflected in a clear agenda and board pack.
Get the right agenda
An agenda sets out the key items of the meeting along with the time allocated to each item. When preparing an agenda, I like grouping items into matters for information, discussion, and decision.
A review of previous meeting minutes and action items might take 10 minutes and is a matter for information.
Where a founder is providing a review of key performance indicators, updates on a new product release, and a progress report on their hiring initiative, which might take a total 40 minutes, this would also fit into the matter for information category.
A session that explores how a startup may enter a new geographic market or plans on pursuing a channel partnership could take 60 minutes and is a matter for discussion.
Other common matters for discussion will include next financial year’s budget or understanding the impact of the competitive environment on our current business strategy.
Signing off on next year’s budget or getting approval to provide an end of year bonus to key team members are matters for decision. Sometimes, matters for decision can be taken very quickly, particularly if they’ve previously been a matter for discussion.
Here’s a sample agenda for a two-hour meeting:
- Previous meeting minutes and action items (5 minutes, information)
- CEO update (10 minutes, information)
- Metrics review (10 minutes, information)
- Financial performance v plan (10 minutes, information)
- Team review (10 minutes, information)
- Break (5 minutes)
- Competitor dynamic update (60 minutes, discussion)
- Budget sign off (5 minutes, decision)
- Action items (5 minutes, decision)
A longer board meeting may provide time for an additional discussion topic or the involvement of a third party to share relevant information.
Preparing a board pack
The board pack, which is often in the form of a deck, should be sent to board members prior to the board meeting.
The more time given to board members to review and consider the board pack, whose contents should mirror the meeting agenda, the greater the quality of the conversation around the boardroom table.
As a guide, receiving the pack three days in advance of the meeting is adequate, while one week is ideal.
Leverage existing systems and tools to create your board pack. If you already use a dashboard to monitor important metrics, include a screenshot or link in the pack.
Apply the same thinking to your existing business plan, financials, minutes, and board meeting schedule. There’s no need to spend precious time repurposing information or documents that already exist.
Instead, spend time on preparing notes to accompany matters for discussion.
Good notes contain an executive summary (explaining in a few clear and concise sentences the reason for the discussion and what you hope to achieve), background (providing information that allows a non-executive director to understand the situation as they aren’t involved in the startup on a day-to-day basis), options (showing what the founders and management believe are the set of available options), and issues (identifying the implications for the startup’s strategy, finances and risks).
They also include links to articles, spreadsheets or other materials that may be useful in preparing the board member to engage in a productive discussion.
Preparation of a high-quality board pack need not take hours. It’s about preparing (yourself and) your board members so they can contribute constructively to your next board meeting.
Running a successful meeting
In boards where a chair has not been appointed, it’s important to have clarity around who will chair board meetings. This person needs to manage the agenda so that the right amount of time is spent on the important items.
They will be prepared, invite founders and management to make presentations and facilitate input from board members while managing the room’s energy and time.
They’ll propose breaks during the meeting to minimise distractions and tease out items that require more discussion before achieving consensus.
Good chairs will take feedback from fellow board members so that the right rhythms develop in and around the board meeting.
- Benjamin Chong is a partner at venture capital firm Right Click Capital, investors in bold and visionary tech founders.