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There was one part of my job at Google that inspired me to work in venture capital. As one of the junior product managers, I was tasked with managing Google’s Product Reviews for the executive management team.

Each quarter, Eric, Larry and Sergey in addition to the rest of the executive team wanted to review the major projects inside the company. They took this 2 hour meeting on Fridays after lunch. I had to gather a list of these projects, schedule the meetings and take notes.

It was an inspiration to watch the triumvirate, the team of three men, manage those meetings. They were incredibly efficient. Each project had 20 minutes to present. More often than not, the team would be interrupted after the first slide, to answer a barrage of questions from the far side of the table that would dominate the rest of the meeting.

Eric in particular had an incredible ability to focus on the key issues and struggles of the project within just a few minutes, cutting through all the fluff.

Once, I had the opportunity to observe part of a board meeting. It was no different then even though he was reporting progress to the group of people who held him accountable.

After 18 months of watching these meetings, I wanted to work in a role that would help me build those skills. Lady luck found me and I ended up at Redpoint.

I observe 9 company boards and have spent time with about 12. I’ve seen seed stage boards, early stage boards with fast growing products and flagging growth, mid-stage companies struggling, CEO changes and transitions, and even a few public company boards. I’m grateful for the experience. I’ve never learned so much.

CEOs of several of the companies I work with have asked me how their board meetings compare to each other. They’ve only seen one board: their own. Each board meeting has a very different feel and flavor. Plus, they vary widely in content depending on the stage of the company and the kinds of challenges faced.

But effective board meetings have several common characteristics. This is my current list of best practices:

  • CEOs should distribute materials at least 2 days before the board meeting and demand that board members read the materials before the meeting.
  • Board meetings should focus on 3 to 4 critical decisions for the company. When presenting a decision to the board a CEO should always present the problem, the considered solution set and the most important as well as often forgotten, a recommended course of action.
  • Board meetings should be decision review meetings, not status update meetings. Status should be communicated throughout the period between board meetings. I try to meet with amenable CEOs at least every 1 to 2 weeks.
  • Key metrics should be reviewed during every meeting as well as financials, but total key metrics should be limited in scope (maybe 5 to 10 key metrics).
  • CEOs should manage the board like another team within the company. Focus the team on a particular set of decisions, dole out action items and ensure the board fulfills their obligations. (The board also has symmetrical responsibilities vis-a-vis the CEO). One easy way to do this is to structure the last part of the board meeting into a tripartite section where the CEO shares (1) what is going well (2) what the CEO is worried about (3) where the CEO needs help.
  • Board meetings should be limited to between 2 to 3 hours. It’s hard to keep focus for much longer.
  • Board meetings should have a closed session when the board meets without the CEO for 10 to 15 minutes after the meeting concludes.

There’s a great book on this topic called Read This Before Our Next Meeting.

By focusing the board on key questions and decisions, and ensuring the team is prepared, you can maximize the performance of the board and it’s impact on the company.

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2 thoughts on “Running effective board meetings

  1. Love the post, Tom. And I’m glad that you’re involved in these areas. I think it’s a great fit for your strengths.

    I’m finishing up a 3yr term as a board observer and many of your points resonate strongly. In my explorations I also enjoyed the two books on Corporate Chairmanship from Sir Adrian Cadbury. They’re rather pricey for one-reads, so let me know if you’d like to borrow them. I’ve also really got a lot out of the meetings I had with Ira Millstein, who heads Yale SOM’s Center for Corporate Governance. I try to watch what’s coming out of that group too. — John

  2. Thanks, John. I’m glad the post resonated with you. I’d love to borrow those books. Being part of a board is a fun, challenging experience!

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