A VC who is a veteran of hundreds of board meetings explains how to make sure yours aren’t a waste of time.
By Rachel Pike (Senior Associate, Draper Fisher Jurvetson)
A great VC is four things: a fundraiser, a manager, a deal-spotter, and a board member. At DFJ we learn by doing. As part of my training for role #4, I’ve been to almost two hundred board meetings. Some were productive and energetic, and some were a waste of time. What was the difference?
I’ve spent the last few months gathering data from meetings I’ve been to, fellow board members, CEOs, and my partners. Here are some suggestions from the best of the best.
Make It Short and Sweet
Don’t let the meeting drag on—set a strict finishing time, and stick to it. For a company of less than 50 people, the board meeting should be less than two hours. Larger companies may need three or four hours, but rarely more than that.
Tip: encourage management teams and/or board members to schedule meetings right after; they’re more likely to help keep the meeting on track.
Put Away Computers
Discussions are more fruitful and engaging when you’re not peering over a laptop screen. To keep everyone focused, encourage people to respond to emergency emails from their phones instead.
Tip: things stack up, so people will only put their computers away if you stick with rule #1.
Have Fewer People in the Room
In a large group, all sorts of unhelpful psychology can take over: comments are more performative, shy folks are less likely to contribute, and it’s easier for individuals to tune out. If you can limit each organization to one representative, do.
Tip: alternate board meetings that are for the broader group and “strategy sessions” that are for a small, trusted subset of the board (perhaps just full board members).
Make It Consistent
Always have a full team, executive, and investor-only or board-only sections of the meeting. There’s no reason to create a fuss for the few meetings when you’re discussing compensation or allocating options.
Make an Action List
Ask someone in the meeting to jot down an action list as things come up, and assign each task to someone in the room. After the meeting is done, send it to everyone who was in the room—nothing formal needed. It’s a great way to create accountability between the board and the company.
Tip: reviewing last meeting’s action items can serve as a great opening to the next month’s meeting.
Report on the Correct Metrics
When you wake up in the middle of the night and grab your phone, what numbers do you look at?
It’s a Balancing Act
There’s a fine line between reporting in too much detail and not giving the board enough information to be helpful. I analyzed 100 board decks from some of our most successful companies and looked at the ratio between the number of slides in the board deck and the number of employees. For companies with fewer than 20 people, this number can creep up to 1.5. For 20-50 employees, the number was nearly always below one, and for large companies it dropped off dramatically to below 0.5.
Congratulate a team that is executing.
Create a Common Language
You live and breathe your company and product every day. Your board members engage with the company weekly or monthly. Each product, business unit, or project needs a one-line description. Apart from encouraging a more productive discussion in the boardroom, repetition will create a consistent external message and will empower your board to do work for you outside the company walls.
Have an Annual Review
Management teams get an annual review, and boards should too. Each year, review the success of your board meetings in the year before. If it’s not working, change it!
Tip: a few things to review are metrics, location, frequency, agenda, and attendees.
About the guest blogger: Rachel works in early stage venture capital at DFJ. She focuses on the emerging enterprise, synthetic biology, and consumer internet. Her investments include WaterSmart, Karma, Zapier, and Spiral Genetics. She advises and observes at EdeniQ and Synthetic Genomics. She spends time at Angellist helping out as much as possible. Rachel joined DFJ after completing a PhD in atmospheric chemistry at University of Cambridge.
Photo credit: Mike Peel.