Reinventing the Board Part III: The Agenda

1/17/12Follow @geshwiler

CEOs, investors, and board members frequently complain about ineffective board meetings. Steve Blank, Jeff Bussgang, Brad Feld, and Fred Wilson each have suggested board meetings could be improved by changing the format, process, or content.

Having good meetings starts by having the right people in the room (as discussed in the first installment of this series) and in having a good chair or facilitator for the discussion (as highlighted in the second). The board then can create the right agenda with a relatively simple, three-step process.

First, the chair and CEO should circulate the key questions and proposed agenda a week prior to the meeting, or even start collecting agenda items at the end of the prior board meeting. Most importantly, this helps everyone avoid wasting time creating dozens of slides that the board doesn’t value. It also allows time for reflection and input from other board members.

Some of the most effective CEOs and chairs I’ve seen call each board member in advance to get their input. Doing so also helps them build and maintain political clout with the board by encouraging board members to be heard, seeking their input, and avoiding nasty surprises at the meeting.

Second, in creating the agenda, the chair and CEO must reflect on what key questions are vital to the company’s success, as opposed to what are the most obvious. In the dozen years I have been on boards, I have seen too many stuck in the same routine. It’s easy—and a bit too comfortable—to review how sales were since the last board meeting, how many leads marketing generated, how the product has developed, and when the company might need more money.

All but the last question are like driving by looking in the rear-view mirror. Looking ahead to the next quarter’s sales or to the next release of the product at least focuses on the future, but only in the low-visibility fog of short-term goals. These are good questions, but more tactical than strategic. Of course companies need to address tactical questions, but too much attention there can lead to greatly missed opportunities.

Strategic discussions always start with tough questions that aren’t being asked. There are five areas for the board to have on its strategic checklist, with an optional sixth that should be reviewed at least twice per year (sometimes more frequently).

Team. Does the company have the right people in the right roles? Are they the right ones for where it wants to be in six months or a year? Veteran entrepreneur and venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe once said that in big … Next Page »

James Geshwiler, a managing director at CommonAngels for more than 10 years, has financed over 40 software and Internet companies and worked with them through over 100 rounds of investment and related changes in boards of directors. [Editor's note: CommonAngels is the lead investor in Xconomy.] Follow @geshwiler

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