Founders, Portfolio

Salman Ullah

Working with investors - board meetings: less really is more

In physics there’s a very powerful and fundamental notion called the principle of least action. And as far as we know nature hews to this principle whether in the motion of electrons or black holes.

In business the corresponding principle is no doubt the principle of maximal efficiency. Unfortunately, this latter principle tends to crash headlong into the principle of maximal overhead and bureaucracy. Board meetings are one arena where bureaucracy tends to win out over and over again, with dozens (even hundreds!) of slides extruded after a week or more of executive team effort and frantic updates sent minutes before the actual board session. We all must do better.

So let’s start with the point of a board meeting. In short it’s to inform the board on the state of the business and to have a discussion on the challenges and decision points facing the company. Board meetings are for problem solving, they are not an audit. And the outcome of the board meeting should be a set of actionable next steps which are then revisited/revised at the subsequent board meeting.

Here are some concrete steps that can be taken to maximize the impact of board meetings while minimizing the administrative burden on the executive team.

1) Focus - to drive the meeting, it’s very helpful to have a lowlights/highlights slide and a discussion topics slide. Similarly, a small set of KPIs and OKRs is an effective way to focus the board on how the executive team thinks about the business and to clarify what’s working vs not working.

2) So what - rather than creating a slew of slides to illustrate all the great activities and initiatives that are going on, only include slides that have a ‘so what’. In other words, they contain content needed for decision-making. For example, instead of sharing a detailed list of marketing activities to date, it’s more useful to share the lessons from the various activities and lead a discussion on the proposed changes to marketing.

3) Timeline - another useful mechanism for eliminating unnecessary slideware is the timeline test: if the content does not fit on a timeline then it’s probably not that useful for driving informed decision-making.

For example, instead of a set of bullet points on go-to-market efforts, it’s much more useful to lay these out on a quarter-by-quarter calendar, thereby clarifying the priorities and contingencies at a glance. If you aren’t ready to put things on a timeline then it’s probably not ready for discussion at the board meeting.

(Of course, you can and should engage the board on less mature topics but you should do that outside the formal board meetings which tend to be too short to allow for less structured discussions - see the last section below).

4) No Reformatting - sharing operating data with the board is often the most time-consuming area. It’s usually a manually intensive exercise in extracting and reformatting existing data into slides with dense tables and charts. Don’t do it.

A good rule of thumb is never to re-enter any of the underlying data into slides. Instead, take screenshots of the relevant dashboard/excel spreadsheets that you use to run your business.

This ‘no-reformat' approach forces you to actually have important operating data already formatted in the right way as a part of your normal operations. So for example, instead of creating a sales pipeline slide painstakingly embellished with customer logos, simply share a screenshot of the relevant report from your CRM.

5) Data sharing - of course, we still have to address the open question of what and how much data needs to be shared in the first place. The right amount is in the eye of the individual board members. Some want all the details behind the engineering metrics, others want to really drill into the sales pipeline and productivity metrics, while others are enthralled by financial metrics.

And that's the genesis of the hundred pagers… What is to be done? It’s actually pretty straightforward - give the board direct access to the underlying data. Grant them guest access to the google sheets, and CRM and whatever other data repositories they might be interested in.

By giving the board direct access to the detailed operating data on an ongoing basis, the team can focus the board meeting on the key issues and avoid the need for the hundred pager.

6) Duration - we’ll end on the topic of frequency and duration of board meetings. The quarterly board cadence is appropriate for startups with an established GTM and revenues in the millions of dollars. For less mature companies, holding board meetings every 6 to 8 weeks is more helpful given how quickly things change and the sheer number of decision points that typically arise in this phase. In either case, there’s little need for board meetings to go beyond two hours which is pretty much the upper limit for most people’s concentrated attention span.

Finally, there are times when a more leisurely, loosely structured two to three day session or ‘wallow’ is necessary, especially when it comes to questions of overall strategy. A good wallow typically takes a couple of days and requires the participation of the extended executive team as well as the board. Ideally, each team member will lead their respective discussions whether it’s around marketing, sales, engineering and so on. And just to be completely explicit, a wallow is not a board meeting and a board meeting is not a wallow - you will get better outcomes if they remain separate and distinct.

In summary, make the board part of your operating leadership team by bringing them within the data tent and focusing their attention on the most critical challenges and decision points (see our previous post on how to approach the overall relationship).