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How to save your board meetings from being swamped by ‘history’

The truth is, most board meetings are not as effective as they should be. I have sat through (and run) more board meetings than I can remember.

When it comes to board meetings, the single biggest blunder is focusing too much on reporting the past than discussing the future. All too often, board meetings accomplish little more than updating investors on what they have been working on. By the time the CEO has reached the last slide in the deck, two hours have elapsed and there’s little time for any meaningful, strategic discussion… the very thing that would benefit your company most.

The best board meetings feel more like working sessions. Think about it. Your board probably consists of some amazing individuals and talent. It’s your job to create a meeting framework that lets these individuals contribute to their maximum potential. Guy Kawasaki summed it up this way: “Most boards are under-utilized, not over-utilized.”

If you’re facing your first board meeting or are looking to get more out of your board meetings, here are a few things to consider:

1. Send out board material in advance.

When board members have a few days in advance to review the basics and important updates from your reporting period, you will free up time for valuable, future-focused discussions during the meeting itself. Note that sending documents at 2 AM the night before the meeting does not constitute “in advance” Give members at least two, or ideally three days, to fit reviewing your material into their schedule.

2. In addition, never bury important details in a 50-page document. If there are any critical updates or information that your investors should know, make sure it’s highlighted in either the Executive Summary or the email body.

3. Make sure that board members read the materials beforehand.  If you send your board pack well in advance, you should expect every board member to have read the material before the meeting. If your previous board meetings have traditionally rehashed the deck materials, your email should explain that this meeting will focus on discussing strategic issues and that members should have a grasp of the key issues beforehand in order to maximize the impact of the discussion.

4. Pick one or two strategic issues for each board meeting. Select one or two of the most pressing strategic issues facing your management team. For example, do you have questions about which international market to enter first? Or how to weigh priorities for what gets included at launch? Summarize these issues in the board materials (most likely in the email body) that you send out in advance, so that each board member arrives armed with ideas, opinions, and questions to drive the conversation forward right out of the gate.

5. Start the meeting by discussing the strategic issues identified. That way you’ll have plenty of time for an in-depth conversation that can help your team. Any questions on the reporting piece can be addressed at the end of the meeting or in one-on-one conversations with board members.

By structuring your board meetings this way you’ll get far more value out of the meeting, and your board, than if you spent 45 minutes fielding questions on a slide that outlined your business development activity for the past period. Your team will gain important insight and fresh thinking on how to move forward.

Henri Eliot is chief executive of Board Dynamics, a consultancy, which provides strategic advice to directors and boards throughout New Zealand and Australia.

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