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Utah Business

In her latest monthly column, Shauna Smith, CEO of the Savory Fund shares her top tips for killing it in a board meeting.

How to get the most out of a board meeting

Not too long ago, I was a bundle of nerves every time I saw a board meeting come up on my calendar because I had (and still have) a strong desire to show up well in board meetings. I mean come on, with all of the ballers of the company and/or industry gathered together in a room, who wouldn’t want to show up well?  

In my the early days, my mind was filled with questions like How do I act? How do I take minutes? Do I know how to make a motion? What do I say when I have a concern? Is there a right or wrong way to act in a board setting? And when I was finally brave enough to say something, I’d be left wondering did I say that right? with an emotion best described with the facepalming emoji.   

What can I say? I’m a work in progress, I guess we all are. The answer to all of my board-meeting questions came with time and experience. Though I did search for a “board meetings for dummies”-type read, I’ve yet to find a book or an article outlining good (and real-life) board meeting etiquette. Most of what I found was super robotic. 

And they’re not completely wrong, board meetings are meant to be fairly standard. They have a purpose, an invitation sent out long in advance, an agenda, a board, approval of past minutes, someone taking current minutes, yada yada yada.  Instead of preparing for your board meetings with only the help of a Google search bar, I thought I’d share some of my very real-life board room experience and advice with those of you who might be a new addition to board meetings. Here are a few things to keep in mind during your next meeting. 

Focus on the best interest of the company

An important unspoken element going into big meetings is the mindset of a board member. In the most basic terms, board members are responsible for acting in the best interest of the company. Board members are also responsible for ensuring no bad behavior like negligence or fraud is happening within the organization―two responsibilities are what is known as the duty of loyalty and care for board members. Because of this, coming into the meeting with a looking-for-solutions mindset is key to being a good contributor to a board. I always try to remind myself to bring my humility with me to every meeting, seek to understand, and exercise the Golden Rule.

 I remember my first board meeting with one of our newly acquired brands: I went in anticipating that the conversations might become tensious and I was concerned that we might lose sight of our objective and duties.  But when we discussed the topics that could have caused said concerns, I was met with the most patient, thoughtful responses from the members of our board.  They asked questions, got straight into the facts, and remained unemotional while making the best decisions as a board for the good of the company.  It was a refreshing experience and I remember leaving that meeting with a resolve to exercise restraint, patience, kindness, and a willingness to remain curious and unbiased because of the example they set for me.  

Keep track of your minutes and action items

When it comes to board meetings, the agenda is crucial. And the simpler you can keep the agenda, the better. Because of these kinds of time and agenda crunches, documenting minutes is crucial. Get those minutes approved and on the record because you never know when you’ll need to reference them.  

Action items are another important element to discuss.  You likely had a successful innovation discussion in the prior board meeting and some great ideas were likely exchanged but were any actions taken to make those ideas a reality?  Reporting back regarding action items is key to ensuring the board knows they were heard. It’s typically best practice to offer a status report of the top three or four action items from the last board meeting, has any progress been made? And if the idea fizzled, why so?

Don’t skip the negative

Speaking of fizzled ideas, the board wants reassurance that you can see both the good and the bad in the business and speak to both intelligently. A great mentor of mine encouraged me to create a “what’s hot, what’s not” list to get straight to the heart of the good, bad, and ugly.  I’ve appreciated how this simple exercise gets us quickly into the details.  That being said, it’s best not to reserve the bad stuff until the end of the meeting. The board sees right through that and it’s best to be straight out with it and get the hard stuff out of the way. Speak to it immediately and be willing to receive feedback.

Its also best to be succinct in your comments. Why say thirty words when you can say six? Board meetings often run long because people like to talk, something I know firsthand because I’m Southern and we love to talk.  So even I have had to learn to be more disciplined, especially in a board meeting setting. If you have a thought to share, say it in fewer words than necessary, and offer to take it offline if there is more to discuss at the conclusion of the meeting.   

Dig into the financials

As a board member, you also hold a fiduciary responsibility to the company and the financial review is an opportunity to really dig into the financial status of the company. If finances aren’t healthy, it’s the board’s opportunity to make a plan to get to a healthier place. If they are healthy, the meeting is an opportunity to offer the team a “well done,” pat on the back, and then discuss how to keep it in a healthy state.  

During the financial review, discussions can often turn intense. The very best piece of advice I could offer is: go in knowing every single detail about the business, prepare for hard questions, and speak to the performance.  Explain in detail the plan to do better by the next board meeting and graciously accept feedback. 

Regardless of the state of company finances, If you have a good board there will be a multitude of ideas and solutions to the problems the company faces.  The board members and meetings are a safe zone and refuge for the leadership of the company to brainstorm solutions, no matter what they may be. 

Make a plan for the future

By this point, you’ve seen the current status of the business and heard what you need to know about outstanding issues. Now, time to make a plan for the future. 

You have the brain trust of your organization gathered in a room with their undivided attention. Tap into their experience, their knowledge, and their creativity for ideas. The board wants to contribute to the success of the company. They have ideas and a great deal of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

 Use this rare opportunity to engage with board members about the future vision of the business and ask them for their thoughts. If you want a super productive conversation with thoughtful ideas, reach out to the board in advance with the question(s) and ask them to be prepared for a discussion―and welcome their thoughts and ideas.  

You are in good company, my friends. Until you attend one many times, board meetings seem foreign to anyone new to the process. And if you look around the board room, most members of the board are likely feeling equally as uncomfortable as you are. It isn’t something that most people are pros at―yet. The more you do it, the better you will become and when you know better, you do better.  

Shauna Smith is the cofounder of Four Foods Group and the CEO of The Savory Fund.