Worried about how to make your next board meeting a successful one? Three founders share their tips and tricks to make that next gathering run smoothly.
Running successful board meetings is one of a founder or CEO’s most important duties. Yet if the thought of your next board meeting gives you heart palpitations, know this: They are far less intimidating when you come prepared.
As a business leader, you know your company inside and out. For board meetings, your job is to file down your expertise into a strategic update that gives board members an accurate view behind the curtain and expectations for what lies ahead.
We spoke to three founders who understand what makes board meetings run smoothly. Here, they break down how to prep instead of panic.
1. Embrace Honesty
In the boardroom, honesty isn’t just important from a moral standpoint. It’s also a fiduciary responsibility.
“The point of the meeting isn’t to put a bunch of spin on things and tell people things are going better than they actually are. Because inevitably the truth will come out anyway, and you’ll lose credibility,” says Sam Jacobs, founder and CEO of Pavilion (formerly known as Revenue Collective), a private membership for high-growth professionals.
“I’ve seen people spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage the board—but with earlier stage companies, the best way the board can be helpful is to tell them the truth,” Sam says.
Don’t Be a Cheerleader
Sam says board meetings should trend pessimistically rather than optimistically. Think of your board meetings as a unique opportunity to embrace the uncomfortable —and learn from it.
If additional team members are helping prepare board meeting materials, ensure they get this memo too. It’s natural for contributors like sales VPs and chief revenue officers (CROs) to act as enthusiastic cheerleaders, but focusing only on the positives can backfire.
For instance, the last thing you want is to derail an otherwise optimistic board meeting with news that your company is falling short of a major goal. It’s better to be straightforward from the start—even to the point of being cynical versus upbeat.
Build a Narrative
Instead of adopting a cheerleader role, the best way to convey updates is to build a clear narrative that explains factual updates in a straightforward, cohesive way.
“The main thing you have to be able to do is explain why what happened, happened—and to forecast and predict the future,” Sam says.
When you give context that looks backward and forward, you prove you’re paying attention to detail and willing to learn from mistakes.
Board members appreciate hearing phrases like the following:
- “As I presented three months ago…”
- “As you may recall from our previous meeting…”
Such phrases are the hallmark of an ongoing narrative. Maintaining a continuous thread between meetings helps to reassure board members that you’re looking to the future with a cohesive, realistic mindset.
2. Stay Focused
A clear narrative also helps to keep meetings focused, which is always the primary goal for Dan Rossignol, co-founder of JKURV. A board meeting veteran, Dan has presented to boards and served on them.
“Board meetings go astray when stakeholders try to move outside their swimlanes,” Dan explains.
It’s critical to focus on what matters and delegate board-meeting talking points to avoid meetings that result in unproductive finger-pointing.
Remember that your board members also have to report up the chain to their limited partners, who provide the essential funding that keeps fledgling businesses off the ground. That’s why focused updates and accurate metrics are vital resources for your board members, who can then pass on clear information illustrating how your business is evolving.
Looking for more communication tips? Read 6 Tips for Effective Board Communication.
Prepare an Executive Summary
Your best tool for staying focused is to go into each board meeting with an executive summary.
While board members need access to your entire hub of data, they also need a high-level executive summary to see the state of the company at a glance.
Creating executive summaries will help you unpack areas of weakness and figure out how to address them.
One useful method when preparing board decks is to follow the executive summary with slides detailing departmental updates and challenges. Achievements can be included as a secondary focus, if at all.
Don’t Overfill Slides
The adage “more isn’t synonymous with better” particularly holds true with board slide decks.
This advice goes hand-in-hand with staying focused: Too much information can make it difficult to highlight what’s truly important. Eliminating the extras allows high-level updates to take center stage and demonstrates to board members that you value their time.
Full slides can also have the adverse effect of stifling conversation rather than stimulating it.
“I’ve always found some of my best presentations have been one-line slides. [Board members] look at it, ask a question, and extract more value in the meeting,” Dan says.
Short slides leave people curious for more—and lead to a more engaging back-and-forth conversation.
Keeping slides brief doesn’t mean you can’t provide additional information. Simply include beefed-up detail on other material rather than the slides themselves.
3. Highlight Your Processes
One of the best ways to stay focused and demonstrate accountability is to clarify your processes.
Without the right processes, your company will be sacrificing growth opportunities.
“Are you building a playbook or a framework to have people wake up every morning and say, ‘I know what my role is?’” Dan asks.
If not, you should be. Dan accomplishes this by building out clear playbooks for roles like sales and customer success. For example:
- At one company, he created a handbook for sales development representatives (SDRs). When new SDRs joined the business, they could quickly get up to speed and make a tangible impact faster.
- At another company, he developed a productivity metrics dashboard that provided transparency on how account executives (AEs) spent their time.
The key is using board meetings to share how such practices impact your company’s growth. Board members who see smart processes will gain confidence in your business’s ability to scale.
4. Rehearse in Advance
Whether or not you feel nervous before board meetings, conduct at least one practice run-through in advance. This will help you discover which slides you need to revise, find where you need extra notes at the ready, and ensure you’re nailing the numbers and narrative.
“It’s OK to have your laptop open and have all your Salesforce dashboards out. You’ve got to have them up,” Sam says. “And that’s why you should do dress rehearsals.”
The more you rehearse, the more prepared you’ll be to answer questions from the board. Pair statements and updates with concrete numbers and examples whenever possible. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll get called on to provide them.
Dan advocates for involving core team members in board deck prep and dress rehearsals even if they won’t attend the actual board meetings.
“It shouldn’t be just the C-level or the VP-level building these things. It should be a bottoms-up pursuit. We’re the mouthpiece for the rest of the company, so they should have a reason to participate during that process,” Dan says.
Also, just because contributing team members won’t attend the board meeting doesn’t mean you can’t mention them. In fact, when you can say the Director of X sees a particular trend, it carries more credibility than your word alone.
For even more tips on getting your ducks in a row, read How to Prepare for a Board Meeting.
5. Include All Voices
In addition to leveraging the full expertise of your team to enhance board meetings, you also want to empower every board member’s contribution.
Sometimes this takes intentional strategizing ahead of time.
“Men can come in and be very loud and take up a lot of air, and women can be more soft-spoken but have just as valuable ideas,” says Caroline Cotto, the inaugural board president for the Upcycled Food Association (UFA) as well as Co-Founder & COO of Renewal Mill.
Caroline suggests having members write their ideas in a shared document or email their thoughts. On Zoom calls, they can contribute ideas in the chat (particularly if someone is talkative on the call).
Your board consists of members with individual strengths—and equally distinct communication styles. To include quieter members during board meetings, reach out to them ahead of time about relevant agenda items. They’re more likely to engage in the discussion if they have time to process and prepare.
OnBoard’s 2022 Board Effectiveness Survey showed just how important engagement can be: 49% of participants said a more engaged board is a primary driver of overall effectiveness.
Bonus: Use the Right Technology
The modern world is filled with remote companies, busy board members, and never-ending Zoom screens. The tech you use to stay organized can make the difference between smooth board communication and frustration.
At a minimum, you need a hub where board members can access pre-read material, slide decks, and company metrics at a moment’s notice. Time-pressed board members need access to answers 24/7—not at the end of a long email chain.
Better yet, invest in one of the many solutions dedicated to board meetings, such as OnBoard’s board management software.
No matter how you prepare, true board meeting success comes when you know your business and your board members so well that you can anticipate questions and have answers at the ready.
Ready to propel your board meetings forward? Get started with a free trial of OnBoard.
About The Author
- Adam Wire is a Content Marketing Manager at OnBoard who joined the company in 2021. A Ball State University graduate, Adam worked in various content marketing roles at Angi, USA Football, and Adult & Child Health following a 12-year career in newspapers. His favorite part of the job is problem-solving and helping teammates achieve their goals. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two dogs. He’s an avid sports fan and foodie who also enjoys lawn and yard work and running.
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