Technology's Role in Running More Effective Board Meetings

Matthew Bushery

The list of potential topics for discussion during board meetings today — whether you're a Fortune 500 company or early-stage startup — is lengthy:

  • Evaluate the company's recent financial performance from last quarter.
  • Spotlight product-enhancement and emerging-market opportunities.
  • Relay recent marketing campaign metrics and won-lost sales figures.
  • Discuss new offerings introduced by direct and indirect competitors.

Taking time to cover the state of the business and keep board members up to speed on core operations and long-term growth is a given.

But many board chairs neglect to address the state of their actual board meetings: what works, what doesn't, what agenda items are superfluous, and what info and data they should share with board members but haven't yet.

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, Sr. Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at Yale University, shared this insight in a piece for Harvard Business Review more than 20 years ago:

"If a board is to truly fulfill its mission — to monitor performance, advise the CEO, and provide connections with a broader world — it must become a robust team, one whose members know how to ferret out the truth, challenge one another, and even have a good fight now and then."

Making informed, structural changes to how board meetings are run to make them more impactful requires analysis of past sessions.

That's where emerging board meeting technology, like Zeck, comes into play.

We recently spoke with Zeck CEO and Co-founder Robert Wolfe to chat about how his AI-driven platform can help companies big and small, new and established, streamline their board meetings, as well as what specific best practices business leaders must abide by to make the most of these sessions.

HAI: What made board meetings seem ripe for disruption, in your view? And how do you envision Zeck solving for many of the pain points existing boards face today?

Robert: Modern board meeting practices aren’t so modern. The overarching objectives are fine and usually clear.

But while technology has evolved at an exponential rate, many of the accepted processes of running board meetings predate the internet. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.

There is a recent Seth Godin quote that I think is really relevant here:

“Humans have been communicating and coordinating since the beginning. But in the last 50 years, we’ve transformed the tech — now we need to think hard about whether we’re sticking with something because it works, or because we have always done it that way.”

The collective experience of Zeck’s co-founders, both as board members and multiple-time founders, led us to feel that board meetings are pretty broken — that meeting outcomes weren’t constructive.

We strongly felt that, by addressing quantitative issues in the board meeting process, we could positively affect the qualitative outcomes.

Zeck is a tool that solves a lot of the minutiae surrounding the board meeting.

More importantly, though, it’s guiding a new and streamlined board meeting process wherein each step of the process can be justified with “Because it works” instead of “We have always done it that way.”

We are reimagining the board meeting.

HAI: What do highly successful board meetings look like today? On the flip side, what are the hallmarks of ineffective and inefficient board meetings?

Robert: If company leadership and board members leave the board meeting thinking that it was an extremely valuable use of time, it’s probably been a successful board meeting. That’s pretty obvious but not so easily achieved. 

And then there are more granular characteristics of a successful board meeting. 

Was the discussion rearward-looking, spending the majority of focus on the state of the company? Or was the discussion forward-looking, focused on addressing challenges and making strategic decisions? 

Board members are unique resources. This is the time to harness their knowledge and direct it toward propulsive decision-making.

A rearward-looking update is a waste of time. If board members did their homework and read the material, no one benefits by them having the board deck read back to them again.

On that note, the expectation should be set that board members come to meetings prepared. Everyone should be familiar with material in advance. This is a reciprocal relationship.

And deal with governance, voting, and other time-sinks before the meeting. This strips hours of tedium away, and enables you to focus on the most important topics and build momentum.

HAI: A PwC survey found few business leaders think their corporate board members ask them probing questions. How can founders ensure their boards are active and engaged?

Robert: There are many commonly accepted practices that lead to disengagement. But if you ace the pre-meeting process, I promise your board will be more engaged.

First, avoid delivering too much info (or sharing meeting details too late).

Your team has spent countless hours compiling info and building a massive board deck, and then you attach a PDF or a PPT and send it to the board 48 to 72 hours before the board meeting? It’s not a surprise that the board might have difficulty absorbing all that info.

And so you spend four hours presenting the info back to the board. And the board members who did thoroughly read the material are, at that point, so disengaged that they are looking for the closest exit.

Don’t do that. Make updates concise and impactful. And send early. Zeck’s advantage is it was designed to guide concise updates and simplify sharing.

Second, ensure all board meeting material is read and understood.

The reciprocal obligation of board members being prepared was mentioned in passing. But it’s making a comeback here.

If you’ve followed the first step, you have done your part in giving the board a fair chance to absorb your board materials. 

Now, the expectation should be that each board member is so familiar with that info that they are ready to engage in constructive discussion. Other than blind faith, there wasn’t a great way to know this before.

So, when we built Zeck, we added analytics to give leadership transparency into who has viewed the Zeck. This reinforces the expectation that everyone is familiar with the material before the meeting.

Another benefit of analytics is knowing how much time each board member has spent reviewing each section of the update.

This is a pretty good directional indicator of where there is already engagement, and where the conversation should be focused within the board meeting.

Third, conduct an iterative preread.

It’s phenomenal for engagement if your board members are leaving comments during their preread. It flips the entire preread process from a one-way distribution of info to a two-way, iterative process.

You are driving engagement before the board meeting even happens. Moreover, it’s helping guide the board meeting itself because board members are already flagging and discussing important topics

Zeck is great at facilitating this, and we’ve witnessed this small addition make a huge qualitative difference in meeting quality. To the extent that some meetings are entirely comprised of discussion around comments: pure engagement.

HAI: Few board directors said board members who fall short of expectations are “addressed in a constructive manner,” per Protiviti research. How can more streamlined and structured board meetings tackle issues around involvement and engagement?

Robert: Assuming each board member “wants to be there,” those who fall short of expectations are often not engaged. Aspects of board engagement can and should be measured.

It goes back, again, to the idea that a healthy board dynamic is a two-way relationship. But I’ll add that it’s in everyone’s best interest — board, leadership, and investors — if board engagement is measured and accounted for. 

Leadership needs to set an expectation of engagement and equip board members with the right info prior to the meeting. Likewise, board members must do their part by being prepared and bringing their ‘A’ game.

Zeck’s analytics are a great reinforcement of engagement — simply remove the unknown. Is each board member reading the board deck or not? If not, why?

We’ve found that, when that transparency exists, and when the entire pre-meeting is designed to elicit engagement — and it’s all tangible, visible, measurable — concerns around involvement and engagement disappear.

HAI: Discuss the role of tech in improving the quality of board meetings. What other challenges can new software, including tools like Zeck that offers AI functionality, address to ensure smooth and successful meetings?

Robert: Whenever the subject of board meeting improvement surfaces, it’s astonishing to hear just how many people are more or less completely dissatisfied with their board meetings.

The need for change is palpable, and it feels like we’re on the cusp.

It’s hard to imagine board meetings being run the same way in three years. I believe modern applications of technology are going to improve nearly every aspect of the board meeting.

And we’re already seeing it happen.

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