Pippa Begg, Co-Chief Executive of Board Intelligence, explains how to make board meetings more efficient and productive
It’s fair to say most directors feel the same way about board meetings as they do about paying the bills – it is necessary to keep your house in order but not something many look forward to.
Badly run board meetings are too long, boring and unfocused. Even well run board meetings are punctuated by moments of stressful personal scrutiny, when the spotlight is turned on an individual presenter.
But like them or not, board meetings are part of business and cannot be avoided. To create more efficiency and better outcomes, board meetings need to be run as effectively as possible, through intelligent planning and good management, mitigating any downsides.
Anticipate all lines of questioning and ensure any extra information is to-hand and well-organised. Shuffling through wads of paper to find what you need will prolong the meeting and create tension.
Directors are busy and the goal of meetings is to make decisions. Do not include too much background information or assume those present have read and understood your paper, and give short and sensible answers to questions that help them decide.
If you are the principal organiser of the board meeting, think carefully about who needs to attend beyond the board directors. Do not assume that extra bodies in the room will produce better decisions or better inform the attendees.
Meetings are about discussion leading to appropriate actions. When deciding who to invite, focus on the input you would like from each person. If there is no valuable input that person can offer, do not invite them.
In the past, many boardrooms were made up of 14-20 people around the table, following the mantra of two brains are better than one. Modern boards are now much smaller, as more organisations realise that it is difficult to have for more than 6-10 people around the table make valuable contributions to the discussion.
Plan the board agenda carefully
When planning your agenda, make it part of best practice to ask the author to articulate why their paper (or proposition) is being submitted. If the author can’t give a succinct and credible reply, be firm and rule it out.
Much of what is wrong with board meetings is the responsibility of the directors themselves. We often hear executive directors complain about board meetings being “reporting shops” but not much is done to combat this.
For any board meeting, there should also be a pre-meeting agenda planning that involves the chair of the board and a handful of key attendees.
Board meetings inevitably involve a lot of reading material. It is a matter of courtesy and efficiency to ensure all the paperwork has been sent to board attendees in plenty of time for them to read it.
Recent research by Board Intelligence and Cambridge Judge Business School found that a director would need an entire day to read everything in a standard size board pack.
There is a tendency to provide directors with too much information, a lot of which is not necessary to make a good decision. As one FTSE-100 director puts it: “Tell me what I need to know, not everything you know”.
Well-written board papers
Well-written, summarized papers are an essential part of productive board meetings.
Executive summaries should be half a page long, clearly set out the context of the paper, outline the key issues at hand and provide clear recommendations or outcomes.
Organisations also need to take on a training role and provide examples of what good summaries should look like. Board Intelligence’s research found that over a quarter of directors want organisations to improve the standard of writing.
At the board meeting
Too often meetings either start late or overrun. To stand a chance of staying on track, the chair must set, and stick to, agreed time limits.
It should be a matter of basic etiquette that directors are paying attention throughout the meeting. No-one likes a colleague who is emailing, tweeting or texting and not paying attention to the discussion.
After the meeting
At the end of the meeting, the chair should make sure that everyone is clear on what actions are expected, when they should be delivered and who should deliver them.
Meetings do not need to be viewed as a chore. With the right preparation and effective communication, board meetings can provide real value to those attending.
Pippa Begg is co-chief executive of Board Intelligence.