Making board meetings shorter, sharper and more productive

Board meeting
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Pippa Begg
Co-Chief Executive
Board Intelligence
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Meetings. The bane of executive life. It’s the all-too-frequent gripe of middle managers that they waste time in meetings when they should be focusing on the business.

But once you’ve joined a board, meetings are your work. Often there is precious little else, other than getting ready for the next round of meetings.

From years of working with hundreds of boards across all kinds of organisations, from FTSE 350 companies to health and education trusts, we calculate that board directors spend up to two days a month, say 10% of their working hours, in board and executive committee meetings.

That’s a big chunk of time. And that doesn’t include the hours, and sometimes days, they spend preparing.

You’d think that by the time you’d reached board level, your meetings would be models of efficiency, where issues were debated and decided with laser-like clarity, and time wasn’t wasted on day-to-day operational matters that should be discussed elsewhere. 

Sadly, this isn’t so. From our experience, board meetings suffer from just the same issues that blight team management meetings.

Getting the right balance

Many board meetings are still conducted with too little forethought or preparation, and ramble on with too little focus.

The best board agendas put the weightier items, which demand the most debate and consideration, near the top.

Worse still, board meetings can end up considering the ‘wrong’ things, confusing debate with decision-making, or allowing compliance and regulation to dominate at the expense of strategy. 

Don’t get me wrong. Boards are fully entitled to debate and discuss as well as decide. And clearly regulation and corporate governance are matters of high importance.

The problems arise when these topics are out of kilter, with, say, too much time being spent noting previous actions or receiving operational updates, rather than dedicated to setting the forward agenda for the organisation.

As with so much else in life, the more effort and thought that is spent on the running of meetings, the better their quality and efficiency.

No matter what your organisation does for its living, or its size, there is always room for improvement, so here is some advice about making your board meetings more productive.

Additional expert attendees

Boards often invite operational directors to attend part of a board meeting to give their views on a particular matter.

The trouble comes if too many people are invited to attend the board meeting because this will inevitably reduce the time spent on each item.

So when deciding who to invite to the board meeting, focus on the specific input you would like from each person, and be strict about not letting them tell you all they know on their expert topic, which will be far more than the meeting needs to make a good decision.

If you can’t be clear on why someone is coming to the meeting, don’t invite them. It’s inevitable that when more people are invited to a meeting, the longer it’s going to last.

In the past, many boardrooms routinely had up to 20 people around the table based on the idea that two brains were better than one. But these numbers became unwieldy and if you want a chance for everyone to contribute it’s hard to have more than 6-10 people round the board table.

Discuss the heavier items when people are fresh

Long board meetings, where tiredness and, dare I say it, boredom, have set in, are not best placed to make the most important decisions.

The best board agendas put the weightier items, which demand the most debate and consideration, near the top when directors are freshest to give these their maximum focus.

Spend time planning the agenda

The work you put in beforehand on the agenda will be returned in spades in terms of the efficient use of everyone’s time.

At the agenda planning stage ask the author to articulate why their paper (or proposition) is being submitted. If they can’t give a succinct and credible reply, be firm and rule it out.

Too often we hear executive directors bemoan that their meetings are "reporting shops."

And providing an update isn’t a reason. “I want to update the group on last quarter’s performance and discuss whether we should reallocate a portion of our budget from an underperforming area of our strategy” is.

The focus of meeting time should be on the pros/cons of the reallocation of budget not on the performance update which should be covered in a pre-read.

It’s in your own hands too

Too often we hear executive directors bemoan that their meetings are “reporting shops” but when asked what they are doing to combat this and make better use of everyone’s time you will be met with a room of blank faces.

For your most important standing meetings, arrange a priorities-setting session annually, followed by a pre-meeting agenda planning process for each individual meeting involving the meeting chair and some key attendees. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

At Board Intelligence, we estimate that when you look at just board meetings (ignoring the swathes of management meetings that sit below), FTSE 100 companies can typically save £0.75-£1.5m of wasted time by better organizing, structuring and preparing their meetings.

If you extrapolate that across all management meetings, you are flushing very material quantums of money down the drain.

Pre-reads

For meetings where a hefty pack of board papers will be discussed, make sure all the paperwork has been sent out in plenty of time for people to actually read it. Recent research by Board Intelligence and Cambridge Judge Business School found that to read everything in a standard size board pack, you’ll need to dedicate a whole day.

For most board meetings, there is a tendency to give far too much information and the kitchen sink which isn’t needed 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, nicely summarised papers are an essential part of productive meetings.

Executive summaries should be about half a page long, and should set out clearly the context of the paper, outline the key issues at hand and provide clear recommendations or outcomes in mind. Most executive summaries that we read feel more like an introduction to the paper.

That’s no surprise, it was the way that we were all educated and on entering the business world no one has been shown otherwise.

This is where training comes in. Very few people were born brilliant writers, most have been shown how to. In our research with Cambridge we also found that over a quarter of directors wanted organisations to improve the ability of paper writers.

During the meeting

Too often board meetings either start late or overrun. To stand a chance of staying on track it’s important to know who’s chairing the meeting and for them to be empowered to be firm and stick to agreed time limits. And it’s tough to contribute and chair – the art of facilitating is different to the art of contributing.

And remember your manners. No-one likes a fellow director who is constantly emailing, tweeting or texting and not paying attention to the discussion. If you’re not engaged in the debate you probably shouldn’t be in the room.

After the meeting

At the end of the meeting the chair should make sure that everyone is clear on what actions are expected, when and by whom they should be delivered. There will have been no point meeting if actions aren’t clearly delegated and progressed.

With focused preparation and greater thought beforehand, boards will have more productive and valuable conversations, and as we’ve seen in corporate history, that can make or break an organisation. 

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