How to kill it at your next board meeting

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The Nightmare Board Meeting

This was a particularly bad board meeting.  Ana Sanchez Rivero remembers it very well and it still makes her shudder.  “I remember being all excited about the presentation and the possibility of picking up the business.”  Ana had just opened her new company, Allied Property Group, and was looking forward for the possibility of picking up business.  Anyone’s business would have been welcome.  This particular meeting was a Special Assessment and Budget meeting and the tension was in the air as soon as she walked in the room.  

The owners and the board members were all talking over each other, and some even began to shout and scream, making their disagreements deeply personal.  Clearly there was financial stress going on, and the rapport between the owners and board members had broken down to the point where working out a lasting solution was no longer possible.  Ana recalls, “I kept thinking of my mother and how she calls me every time there’s a meeting gone wrong being showcased on the Spanish news. It truly felt like this meeting was evolving into its own telenovela.”  Ana walked out of the room.  She knew giving her presentation on this day would be a waste of time.

Not every bad board meeting will be as horrendous as the one Ana Sanchez Rivero remembers, but everyone will have their share of bad board meetings.  What most people don’t know is that most board room failures are preventable!  You just have to know what makes or breaks a board meeting.

What is a bad board meeting?

There’s a major difference between a bad board meeting and a boring meeting, though boring meetings can often turn into bad meetings.

A bad meeting is when it’s no longer headed in the direction you want it to go.

If you don’t have a direction for the conversation to go, you’re going nowhere.  All the words said and the minutes burned are wasted if you’re not being productive with the time.

Inc. Magazine correspondent John Boitnott knows the unmistakable signs for when you’ve lost control off the board meeting.  First, everyone will be interrupting.  The interruptions can be board members talking over each other or worse, board members talking over you.  Another bad sign is when nobody’s talking.  It’s a sign that they’re not engaged in your story, or that they don’t understand well enough to be able to come up with worthwhile questions.  

Finally, another sign that you’ve failed the meeting is when people ask too many questions.  Too many questions means that either people aren’t clear on the next steps, or they lost focus on your story and are wandering down a rabbit hole of details.

It’ll be a bad meeting when you lose control of it, and the board wants to dive into topics you never intended to discuss.  Unfortunately, it’s a surefire sign that you have already failed the board meeting. It means that you haven’t aligned with where you want to take the conversation—of where you want to take your story.

The First Round Review reports on one of the leading reasons board meetings fail.  “It’s nearly impossible to capture your company’s story accurately when you’re obligated to only talk about certain things, i.e. how money’s getting spent.”  Utilizing an effective procurement software that reduces unnecessary expenses could easily reduce the urgency to discuss money and budgets at board meetings, thus allowing you to guide the discussion in line with your story.  Unfortunately, people all too often lose control of the meeting.

Jeff Bonfort is a veteran entrepreneur who sold his last company to Yahoo.  He says, “Every single [person] forgets that the board works for them.  They’re in meetings getting their asses kicked and walking out with even more work to do. They feel like they have to prove their vision instead of proving that everyone in the room should be working together to solve the problem.”

Failing the board meeting

What ends up failing a board meeting is tipping the fine balance between too much information and not enough information.  When you present too much information, the story can’t be directed in your direction because the information, no matter how clear it is, often doesn’t tell the real context of things that are going on.  You could talk about a thousand different things and they might have a thousand different questions leading in directions that are unproductive to your goals.

On the flipside, when you don’t have enough data to give the board, then the questions arise in a totally different line of questions that don’t point in the direction where you want the meeting to go.  This side of the information coin can get you into deep holes that you’re not able to get out of.  It really is about finding a fine balance for managing chaos. Too much data and not enough data cause different types of chaos.

What the Board Meeting Should Do for You

For you, a board meeting should be about getting what you need out of it, keeping the spotlight on them, asking them all the questions, and being able to guide the conversation exactly in the direction you want.  

Your goal is to create a story that aligns the board with what you’ve learned, what you’re doing from that place of learning, and where you’re headed.  Ideally, the board would ask the types of questions that allow you to back up your position with even more concrete evidence that backs up the position to which you’re trying to align them.  Take them all the way to the conclusion of what you’re trying to convey.

You want to be able to end with something along the lines of “We look forward to sharing the updates with you in the next quarter.”

Navigating board room challenges

One of the challenges of having a bad board meeting is when, in the middle of having a deep conversation in a direction where you didn’t want to go in the first place, and the board begins to lose confidence.  You’ll be able to see it on their faces and hear it in their voice when they lose confidence in what you’re doing.  They’re not involved in the day-to-day operations and they don’t known all the things you do which make you confident about your story.  They can only see things from an outsider’s perspective.

That strongly suggests that you either failed to communicate the right information to align the board with your goals, or that you failed to anticipate the things that the board would find important based on their position of responsibility for the company.  When they can’t see things the way that you do, they start asking questions you may or may not be prepared for.  They’ll lose confidence in what you’re doing.

Sometimes the board members might feel partially responsible for the company’s financial issues, and they’ll try and transfer that tension onto you.  They’ll do this by casting doubts on how you can help solve the company’s problems. Aggregating all of the expenses and financial losses in a single report or packet may cause the board to despair, but it’ll be up to you to be ready and to provide solutions to real-world problems.

One of the greatest problems for companies is spend control.  They often lack any kind of spend control management systems to put into place.  While the numbers for expenses and losses may not be encouraging, they have to be collected, aggregated, and made known to the board.  This in itself isn’t the problem, but rather evidence of a problem.  Even though the board may see the numbers and already be skeptical about anything you want to pitch to them, the problem has to be known in order for solutions to be found and implemented.

Business Insider’s Brad Feld offers some valuable tips for keeping the board’s attention and keeping their interest, which will also keep their confidence in what you’re doing.  One of the leading causes of board meeting failure is “death by PowerPoint.”  It’s true that the board needs to see charts and graphs.  It’s true that they’ll need to be brought up to speed on the financials and the metrics.  

All of these questions can be answered by preparing a board meeting packet that everyone will receive a few days before the meeting.  This way, the board is brought up to speed and all the information that they’ll be expecting can be covered before the actual meeting.  Therefore, you won’t have to burn time answering detracting questions at the meeting.  The actual meeting can be your arena to control the dialogue and keep the meeting in line with your story.

The last thing you want is for their questions to be 10,000 feet deep in something, or 50,000 feet up somewhere else.  Those directions won’t let the meeting end at the finish line that you were hoping for.  This is why it’s so important to align them to the story and to stress what you’re accomplishing from your position of learning.

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Stack the Deck in Your Favor

Expert cited by Forbes, Business Insider, and Board Source all agree that “death by PowerPoint” is something to be avoided at all costs.  If you want to crush it at your next board meeting, the best thing to do is to follow their advice.  The board meeting experts all agree on three things: distribute the key information before the board meeting, have a board dinner the night before the meeting or a board lunch on the day of, and only have essential personnel attending the meeting.

When it comes to the financials and the vital metrics of the company, the board certainly needs to be informed.  In this case, their concerns are primarily financial because money talks.  The board will not only need to know what the financial reality is that the company faces, but they will also need to know how using certain spend management solutions can correct those financial problems.

Stack the deck ahead of time

The best way that you can keep the board’s attention and also keep them aligned with the story you want to present in the actual meeting, is for the board be given the vital need-to-know information before the meeting.  Board meeting experts recommend these packets go out between two and four days before the board meeting.  That way, the board members are expected to take the time to read up on the company’s metrics.

The packet given to the board members and the other essential personnel attending the meeting should be the least painful to read as possible.  It should be about finding the sweet spot between too much information and not enough information.  Too much can cause board members to ask questions in the wrong direction and go down a rabbit hole you were never prepared to be dragged through.  Not enough information won’t help them feel confident about what you’re doing at all.  They need to be informed, and they need to be informed in just the right way.

Instead of pages of ledgers with numbers, the best way to present the board with this information is to consolidate it and simplify it into as few pages as possible.  Some basic graphic design can also be helpful.  Instead of just charts and graphs and numbers, consider handing the board a magazine-style spread that outlines the reality of the problem, the available solutions, and the next steps forward.  After all, the point of replacing “Death by PowerPoint” isn’t to replace it with “Death by Homework.”

Another thing you can do to help your case with the board is to convene the “meetings before the meeting.”  It sounds like work and that’s because it is work, but if you’re passionate about getting the board on board with your vision, you’ll be able to handle it like a champion.  The golden opportunity for having a board dinner the night before, or a board lunch the day of, is to answer all questions and to calm any fear and doubt that the board members may individually have.  When you give the board members the information packets beforehand, they’ll bring up their doubts at the meeting before the meeting.  This way, the negative energy and groupthink can be avoided.  (We’ll come back to this topic in the next chapter.)

Next, after distributing the need-to-know information to the board ahead of time, and arranging to meet with the board members ahead of the actual meeting, comes the time to thin the herd.  Inc. Magazine’s John Brandon writes about the type of people who ruin meetings.  Among the personality types are the persistent clock watchers and there’s often at least one person who likes to be the contrarian going against the flow—these contrarians can be neutralized if you meet with them ahead of the meeting.  

But the worst is the guy offering up ideas and opinions who shouldn’t even be there.  Sometimes the Chairman or other board members like to invite “experts” to sit in on the meeting.  They may even be on your side or at least start out sympathetic to the story you’re trying to sell to the board, but here’s the problem.  People attending meetings who actually care about the company or the project want to be seen as contributing, so they’ll often say anything just to try and contribute something for the good of the group.  In their eyes, it’s better than saying nothing.  John Brandon calls this the “Steve Jobs dismiss-you-from-the-meeting problem.”  If that person isn’t on the board and doesn’t have a clear, productive purpose for being at that meeting, then they shouldn’t be at that meeting.  End of story.

Those are the three tips that can neutralize what might otherwise be a minefield in the meeting room.  Prepare the need-to-know information and give it to the meeting participants a few days ahead of time; meet with the board ahead of time, preferably over lunch or dinner; and reduce the number of meeting participants to essential persons only.  That doesn’t seem too complicated, does it?

Packaging information the right way for the right audience

Now it’s time to consider how you’ll present the need-to-know information before the board meeting.  It’s highly recommended that you present the key data in a way that’s visually appealing.  But there are also certain ways to present the information, and to do it in a way that answers the types of questions a good, knowledgeable, engaged board member would ask.  

Mike Maples, CEO of Floodgate, offers important advice on including certain types of information that the board members have to consider.  The way to do this is to convey your story is a way that these four questions are answered: 1) Has the market changed since we last met? If so, did it affect us negatively or positively? 2) Has the team changed? For better or worse?  3) Has our position in the market changed?  And 4) Did we do what we said we would?  These questions need to be answered, and in a way that’s creative and engaging to the board.

In addition to using a little creative graphic design to present the need-to-know information, you should really consider dropping “Easter eggs” in the pre-board meeting packet.  At the bottom of certain pages or at the end of a section in the packet, you can leave big, bold-print instructions like “Ask me two questions about THIS” or “When you see this slide, raise your hand and name one company in this industry that overspent itself right out of business.”  Some of the board members will absolutely do these things, and some won’t.

Easter eggs serve the important purpose of hijacking the board and the other essential persons attending the meeting.  First, it gets them engaged in your presentation and they become participants in your story instead of the audience judging your story.  When they’re engaged as participants in your story, they’ll be less hostile to it.  That’s a big deal for a board making stressful long-term decisions like managing procurement for spending control.  Second, it tells a lot about the people who don’t follow your Easter egg instructions.  The people who don’t ask the questions or say the magic words either didn’t read the need-to-know information packet at all, or if they did, it just wasn’t important enough to them.  In the board room the heat is on them now.

Finding the information sweet spot

Finding that sweet spot, that balance between too much information and not enough, also serves to protect the company and protect the board.  The board doesn’t need to know about all the little details of the company’s day-to-day operations.  They don’t need to know all the footnotes and details for a particular project.  You also don’t want them to know all these things.  The day-to-day minutiae is for managers to deal with.  When the board gets fixated on management-level details, your presentation—your story—becomes a covered wagon broken down in the mud.

You want the board to be informed enough to be motivated by what you’re doing.  You don’t want them to get mired down in small details that will detract from your story and what you’re trying to accomplish in this meeting.  Sometimes this involves explaining how you’ve learned from past failures, that you’re always learning and improving.  This should give the board confidence that you’re getting better all the time at what you do, and that you have all the right pieces in place to continue to move forward.

Board meetings tackle different issues at different stages in the life of a company.  Board meetings should be forward-looking and should instill a sense of optimism at the things the company will be able to accomplish in the coming quarters and the coming years.  Unfortunately, many board meetings become backward-looking and the board members will want to deviate from the story you’re trying to tell.  This can be remarkably frustrating emotionally, and it can also detract from the objectives you’re trying to accomplish.

Getting the Board Aligned with You Before the Next Meeting

People who may not start out on your side can at least be convinced not to fight you.  This is another important thing to consider when you have to meet with the board of directors.  It’ll always be more helpful to your cause when the board members are not a bunch of jerks.  Some people are very lucky that the board members they meet with are generally positive, supportive people.  They’ll give you the resources you need if you just give them the confidence they need in knowing you’re a good asset to the company they’re responsible for.

 Then there’s the other type of board member who’s anything but sunshine and rainbows.  He will express doubts, he’ll pollute others with his negativity, or he’ll be the one “nay” vote that torpedoes your plans.  People like them occasionally come with the territory and you’ll need to know how to anticipate their moves.

The meeting before the board meeting

Veteran company-builder Jeff Bonforte recommends trying to connect with board members outside the board room ahead of time.  “Meet with each board member separately for 30 to 45 minutes in advance so you know how they’re going to vote, what they think about the agenda, and bust any potential issues or surprises.”  This could give you the opportunity to speak with them more candidly, appeal to their concerns, and ensure that they won’t become hostile or lose confidence in you at the board meeting.

Bernie Tenenbaum of Forbes shares an anecdote of his friend Greg, who runs a large real estate development company.  Greg was doing a great job running the project and having all objectives completed on time, but he had a major problem.  Every time he met with the board to tell them the story that he wanted to tell, one particular board member kept hijacking the board meeting to fixate on cutting costs at one of the construction sites.  Before the next board meeting, Greg hosted a dinner for the board and the other people that had a stake in the board meeting.  During dinner, Greg was able to pull aside the board member who was focused on cutting costs.  This was his opportunity to directly answer all of her questions and reassure her about the project staying on budget.

This was a smart move on Greg’s part!  However, it’s important to point out how a financial concern was causing that board member to deviate hard from Greg’s story, and that’s why he was failing the previous board meetings.  He was able to recover, but this recurring problem could have been avoided if the company had an effective procurement system in place to reduce unnecessary costs.  Procurify offers the solution to problems like this one.

Money is the source of the board’s problems and you’re the solution

Spend management is what companies need, and it’s up to you to make the board understand this.  At the end of the day, money talks.  Businesses can’t stay in business if they’re not making money, and they’re not really making money if they’re bleeding cash for non-essential expenses.  Paulo Moretti, a Detroit-based supply chain consultant with the firm PM2Consult, advises aggregating all the organization-wide expenses onto one sheet just so the board can see it all in one place.  Next, it’s up to you to put the spotlight on indirect spend management in the least expected areas where costs accumulate.

“At most organizations, MRO purchasing is ripe for spend management, consolidation and optimization,” says Moretti. “When these expenses are better managed, buyers gain purchasing power across the organization.”  He also encourages doing supplier audits and revisiting amounts of money being spent on old contracts in order to prevent the preventable creep-up of costs.  After all costs are aggregated, including the cost of company purchases, some centralization of spending will be necessary.  For larger companies with locations in different states or regions, it may not be viable to centralize purchases, but it would still help to coordinate the purchases.  Supply chain expert Paulo Moretti says, The more you can centralize procurement, the more power you’ll gain and the more you’ll get out of your spend management strategies.”

Remember, money talks.  Financial strain is usually at the root of any business’ problems.  That’s where Procurify comes in to solve that problem.  However, in order to solve a problem, it’s up to you to sell them on the solution.  You already know that Procurify’s cutting-edge procurement software and spend management systems has all the solutions to their spend control problems.  You just have to get the board on board.

The ideal board is composed of positive, generally motivated people with great portfolios of solid investments they’ve done, and who have a strong but egoless point of view.  You have to consider where the board is coming from and the interests that they’re trying to protect.  Most importantly though, you must maintain that balance between too much information and not enough.  Help the board understand your story and they’ll follow you to the end of that story.  Then you can shake hands with the board members, smile, and tell them, “I really look forward to updating you next quarter.”

Killing It At Your Next Board Meeting

Money is the source of the board’s problems and you’re the solution

By now, you should know the things you need to do to be ready for that big board meeting.  If you want to absolutely kill it at your next board meeting, you’ll know that the biggest player in the room is you.  You have the power to make or break your own presentation.  You have the power to get that board of directors aligned with your story.

Killing it at your next board meeting involves doing the necessary leg work beforehand.  Your purpose in the meeting is to bring your solution to their existing problem.  Instead of sinking your valuable limited board room time into answering baseline questions about how your solution works or what your solution is, you should be explaining the different ways that your solution is the perfect resolution to their problems.

This is where the need-to-know information packets come into play.  They need to know the financials and the metrics of the company, and they also need to know the basics about the solution you’re presenting.  This is information that no longer needs to be discussed in the board room.

Instead of a boring aggregation ledgers and numbers, a little graphic design can go a long way.  Presenting the information in visually appealing layouts will be more likely to keep them reading so they can mentally be right where you want them at the beginning of the board meeting.

Ruling the board room

Here’s a recap to help you remember what’s important in your upcoming board meeting. I know you were given a lot of information in this book, but all of it meant to help you.

  • Ask people to hold their questions or comments until the end of the segment.
  • Stay on message. Rabbit holes are detrimental to your story. Too many questions are bad for your story.
  • Keep the questions corralled at the points where they serve your interest. Remember earlier where you read about Easter eggs in the need-to-know information packets?
  • Thin out the herd by only having essential personnel in that meeting.
  • Everyone should have seen the need-to-know information pocket beforehand. Arrange beforehand for them not to be there—you’ll be better off.
  • Meet with individual board members before the meeting. Neutralize the doubts of hostile board members who would otherwise pollute the board meeting with negativity.

Telling your story the way it’s meant to be told

You now know the basics for killing it at your next board meeting.  You know about what makes a bad board meeting, and the reasons why people lose their objective in board meetings.  You know about the leg work required ahead of time to make sure the board is up to speed and on your side.  You know about who should be there and who shouldn’t be there.

With a solid product or service, the advance preparation required, and having stacked the deck in your own favor, the board meeting is your arena to tell your story and have the board come along as participants.  Instead of going down an information rabbit hole, you’ll be able to show them how Procurify is the solution to their financial problems.

The electronic records kept by Procurify systems make it easier to write and analyze reports on the company’s procurement systems, allowing for more transparency.  Electronic procurement cuts down on costs by preventing duplicate spending, leveraging volume buying, and reducing costs associated with paper-based systems like postage and ink cartridges.  Keyword phrases like “lower costs” and “transparency in spending” is language that boards of directors understand.

E-procurement is also less expensive than traditional procurement.  Electronic procurement takes less time and those paid man-hours can be productively used elsewhere.  It also reduces paper usage because records are digital, not printed.  “Increased productivity” and “going green” are more phrases that board members like to hear and like repeating even more.

When purchases are synchronized or at least electronically coordinated, purchases become standardized so that different locations or departments aren’t purchasing the wrong goods.  The overall reduction of errors in Procurify systems make it easier for Procurify clients to compare orders to ensure new ones are always correct.  This is the story you should be telling the board at your next board meeting.  Finally, you should end that board meeting by shaking everyone’s hand and saying, “I really look forward to updating you next quarter.”

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