Start-Up Founder — Have To Run Your First Board Meeting?

You’ve built an interesting business. You have a team, customers, and dollars are starting to flow in. You chose to raise some money, and with it came some folks who want to meet on a fairly regular basis to discuss the business. What now?

I’ve led boards, sat on boards, presented to boards, and observed boards since 2005. I’ve asked for advice from the best board members I know and put together a framework for prepping for the first meeting. The goal is to help the rookies show up well, start their relationship with their newly constructed board on a solid foundation and help some CEOs avoid the mistakes so many first-timers (myself included) have made in the past.

Bad board meetings are rudderless and politically unhealthy. Average board meetings are administratively painful and uneventful. Great board meetings are focused, future-oriented, and are home to genuine debate. As CEO, you have a lot of control over which path is taken.

Here’s What You Do:

Hold advance one-on-one calls with each attendee and ask:

1) what topics do you hope we will cover. 
2) how do they prefer a good board meeting to be run? Preview the meeting and describe the topic(s) you intend to cover.

Simple rule — NEVER surprise anyone in the board room with bad news. Use the one-on-one calls to feel the reactions to controversial topics in advance. Board rooms are for discussion and decisions; one-on-ones are for delivering hard messages.

Prep for the deck early and get a consistent structure in place to reduce preparation time. Generally speaking, a good board deck is divided into 3 sections: housekeeping, major issues/topics, and financials.

Keep things simple. Decks should be presentable, but don’t fret over aesthetics. Content quality is what matters more than design. That said — PROOF carefully. Any numbers reported in a board deck must be absolutely flawless, and good grammar/spelling reflects professionalism.

Plan to distribute the materials 2 days prior to the meeting and set the expectation that housekeeping items and financial materials should be reviewed in advance as most of the meeting time will be used to discuss strategic topics.

At most, 20% of your meeting time should address housekeeping. These are general updates about which the board should be aware of or quickly discuss/approve (examples include: approving equity grants, a 409A report, etc.).

Most corporate attorneys are willing to attend board meetings for free and keep minutes. Up to you, but if your attorney is good and not disruptive (aka knows when and when not to contribute), having him/her in attendance can be useful.

At a minimum, 50%+ of your meeting time should focus on major issues. These are the 1–3 key obstacles, opportunities, priorities, or initiatives that require in-depth discussion. This is a great way to benefit from your board versus just reporting to them. Examples might include new partnerships, new verticals, acquisition opportunities, capital raises, lawsuits, key personnel decisions, annual planning, etc.)

Your deck should include more than you plan to discuss in person, especially as your company scales and more data deserves reporting. Consider the board deck a comprehensive review of the state of the company that could be interpreted without color commentary. You might only discuss half of the slides during the meeting.

Consider assigning certain sections of the BOD deck to various participants on your executive team. For example, the finance person could own the financial reporting section. The CMO might periodically attend and lead a strategic topic, etc. This provides board visibility to the larger team and represents a learning opportunity for key team members. (warning: don’t let this turn into a parade of executives reporting on their functional areas — only fold in others if it aids a specific discussion topic).

A Few Softer Suggestions

  • You’re the CEO; don’t just present options to the board. Make recommendations and offer supporting rationale and evidence.

  • It’s your meeting; do your best to minimize tangents and use the time allotted effectively. You’ve chosen this smart group of folks for a reason; don’t waste the opportunity to explore important topics to advance your business.

  • Schedule your full year of meetings in advance; getting three, five, or seven people aligned is a logistically difficult task. Don’t make it harder by shrinking the notice provided.

  • Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Following the first meeting(s), reach out to the board members for an informal post-mortem. You’ll be running these meetings for the life of the business…

Enjoy, and Good Luck!


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