Your First Board (Part 2): A Practical Guide to Getting Started
So, your startup is growing and you’ve reached the point where you’ve put together your first board of directors. Either you’ve decided the advice and support you hope to get from a board will benefit your company, or it’s part of the term sheet you received from a VC for your Series A funding round.
In Part I of this article, we explored some of the opportunities that come along with having a board of directors—as well as some of the pitfalls. Now that you’ve got your board in place, it’s time to have your first meeting. In this second of two parts, we consider the details of preparing for and running that first board meeting—and the ones that follow.
First things first
As the founder and CEO of your startup, it’s your job to organize your first board meeting, which includes deciding where and when to meet, creating the agenda and schedule, and preparing the materials you’ll present. It’s also your job to run the meeting. While you’re at it, we suggest setting up your meeting schedule for the upcoming year. Quarterly board meetings are common, though some companies in the early days choose to have 5-6 board meetings a year in order to get more feedback in the early days of the company. Some founders also like to have quarterly board meetings supplemented by mid-quarter or monthly board updates. We suggest starting with a cadence that works for you and the lead investors, and you can choose to add or remove meetings as you scale.
Who should you invite?
In addition to the board members, good founders and CEOs also invite key team members to make presentations—at minimum, the people running product, engineering, and sales. Have them prepare the materials they’ll present in advance of the meeting, then review those materials and make sure they are easily digestible. Not only will this help you prepare for the board meeting, but it will give you the opportunity to do a quick review of how your team is doing.
What gets presented?
The focus of your presentation is the current state of the business: Here’s what we said we would do and here’s what actually happened. Here are the highlights and lowlights. Now, let’s get into the product. Let’s get into sales. Let’s get into our financial performance. Let’s get into any hiring or other important decisions we’re making. When you prepare your board presentation, your goal is to give members the context they need to have productive discussions.
Be sure to send everyone a copy of your deck and other materials at least 48 hours before the meeting so they have time to digest it and be fully informed. And make sure you don’t overwhelm your board members with information, bogging them down with detail or inviting them to dig too deep into your operations. Keep your presentation crisp and factual as opposed to the kind of storytelling you would do when pitching investors.
Running the board meeting
One of the keys to running a productive board meeting is having a tight agenda. Start the meeting with an introduction, then have your team present their sections while you give some color commentary to add context and perspective. After all the board members’ questions, comments, and discussions are wrapped up, you will close the meeting. You might decide to have a board-only session where you’ll discuss strategic or people matters you don’t want the rest of your executive team to be involved in. But the number one rule for running a productive meeting is to have a schedule and stick to it.
Build trust with your board
Many founders and CEOs take the board to dinner the evening before or after the board meeting. This meeting has the dual benefit of creating relationships that go beyond the boardroom while building trust. Having a pre- or post- board meeting dinner—if not for every meeting, at least a few times a year—helps you build the deep reservoir of trust you’ll need to get you through your business’s inevitable ups and downs.
You’ll also build trust by ensuring the accuracy of the information you and your team present. Inaccurate information can lead board members to question you and your team during the meeting. “You said this last time, now you’re saying this. Where did this data come from?” It’s not just a distraction, but it makes you and your team look bad and destroys the trust you’ve worked so hard to build.
When board meetings go wrong
Board meetings can easily go off on tangents that cause them to run long, and no one likes meetings that run long. The cure is to run a very tight ship. Prepare the materials in advance, make sure everyone knows their roles, and stay on schedule. If you want to have open-ended discussions, then have those deeper discussions over dinner during your informal pre- or post- board meetings.
Avoid big surprises at the board meeting. If the business underperformed significantly, a key team member left, you are burning a lot more money than planned, a key customer churned, and so on, let the board members know individually ahead of time. Surprises can throw a wrench into your best laid plans, since the board members will want to spend the rest of the board on the material matter you surprised them with.
Another problem is if you as the founder or CEO dominate the discussions, or you constantly interrupt and speak over your team members. This will be immediately apparent to experienced board members and a cause for concern for how you run your organization. Do you have a strong team? Is the company built for success? If you find yourself in this situation, you’ve either got to hire stronger team members or curb your own insecurities and constant need to be the center of attention.
Running a successful board meeting takes preparation and practice. But it’s a skill you can and will get better at the more you do it.