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Remote board meetings that produce results—A playbook for founders and facilitators

Claire Emerson

How to run, refine and reap the rewards from your most significant virtual gathering

Flights and hotels are booked. 

The perfect meeting place is secured. 

Lunch, dinner, and “post-meeting drinks” are scheduled. 

Then BOOM…

A pandemic strikes, and your company’s quarterly board meeting is… canceled? 

Well, not necessarily. 

But you’ll have to make some critical changes to your playbook if you’re moving one of your most significant in-person gatherings — to one that’s 100% virtual. 

And even if your company is shifting back “into the office,” you may still find that a more flexible, hybrid approach (a mix of in-person and virtual attendance) is necessary.

Whether you’re the Chairman, CEO, or filling the facilitator role — here are some useful ideas for hosting results-driven board meetings remotely.

Remote board meetings require a new set of rules 

While the intent remains the same, some adjustments are needed to accommodate the lack of “togetherness” offered by an in-person board meeting.

And it’s up to leadership to fully understand how to run the meeting so participants remain focused, informed, and attentive to arrive at the right decisions. 

“It is common knowledge that any corporation’s survival depends on the day-to-day leadership of its senior executives. Further from the spotlight, but just as essential, the Board of directors sits at the helm of a corporation, making decisions that can lead to its success—or failure.” — Dambisa Moyo.

Shifting to a virtual format means factoring in:

  • the absence of a shared meeting room, 
  • the knowledge that most members will be in their home or office (with more distractions than usual); and 
  • the levels of fatigue that being on camera can produce. 

Introducing some new rules for your board meeting will help reinforce the structure of the gathering and mold the behavior of your attendees in a remote setting. 

Pre-empting Potential Problems: Set the expectation upfront

A temporary set of rules for any coordinated occasion is guaranteed to make for a better gathering. 

Rules set the expectation for the meeting and create boundaries for your board members to stay within.

An example Pria Parker mentions in her book, The Art of Gathering, comes from ​​Paul Laudicina, who realized that a bad habit had formed in the Board of directors he was leading at A. T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm: 

“Board members were constantly asking for more information and clarifying questions, which prevented the kinds of conversations that help a board reach critical decisions." —Paul Laudicina

When negotiations among board members were breaking down, and tempers were flaring, Laudicina realized that people were asking questions to avoid making tough decisions. 

Curiosity was fine in general, but it wasn’t helpful given the purpose of this particular gathering. As the chair of the Board, he introduced a new rule: Board members could only ask questions that were not asking for more information—that were building on what information there already was. 

For example, ‘What is blocking us from getting this done?’, ‘Who has a problem with this?’ or ‘What would it take to agree on this issue?’ As opposed to ‘Can you give me last year’s Q4 numbers?”

A few rules you might consider introducing for your remote board meetings: 

  • Attendees must review the agenda or board deck before the meeting
  • No phones are allowed for the duration of the meeting 
  • All participants must have their video on (in a distraction-free environment) 
  • Announce specific topics to avoid so that focus remains on what the discussion needs to achieve
  • Five-minute time limits on talking so that everyone gets a fair say. 
  • The moderator/facilitator is in complete control of the tech!

The Purpose is Still Paramount: Drilling into the “why” 

The most important rule is that every board meeting should be organized around a clear purpose and desired outcome. 

Knowing these two things upfront makes every other decision about the gathering easier. And adds concrete guidelines for what you will and won’t talk about. 

“Having a purpose simply means knowing why you’re gathering and doing your participants the honor of being convened for a reason. And once you have that purpose in mind, you will suddenly find it easier to make all the decisions that a gathering requires.” — Priya Parker.

As with any vital company gathering — what it isn’t can help you decide what it is. 

Board meetings are not about dealing with day-to-day operations or providing a status update on the company. 

But they are an opportunity to: 

  • Shape company strategy 
  • Select leaders (in particular the CEO); and
  • Safeguard the company’s culture, ethics, and values.

Members are there to talk about short-term plans (next 12 months), medium-term plans (next 3-5 years), and answer the perennial question of what the company aims to achieve over the long term.

Board meetings are very much about the “bigger picture” and should be treated and facilitated with this in mind. 

Running a Remote Board Meeting: The three key stages

Stage 1: Planning, preparation, and priming your guests 

The meeting begins at the moment your attendees first learn of it. And priming board members for what’s to come is crucial to the effectiveness of each session. 

The less priming you do in this pregame window, the more work awaits you during the sessions.

  • Plan for the meeting well in advance (a month out is good practice); create a rough agenda, coordinate attendance, and decide on critical outcomes.
  • Send out a pre-read version of your board deck ~two weeks in advance, and collect questions from each board member in a Google Doc. 
  • The official/finalized board pack should be sent out to members 3 to 7 days before the board meeting so that members have enough time to digest the information.

Here is a helpful guideline Y Combinator shared about the Brex board meeting planning: 

28 day checklist for planning a remote or in person board meeting

While we don’t want to get hung up on the logistics, technology is still crucial for effectively running a remote board meeting. 

So, set up your tech stack early in the process to avoid last-minute decisions. 

  • SavvyCal meeting polls is perfect for organizing board meetings allowing board members to vote on times that work for them. 
  • Charma is our go-to for agenda building and collaboration
  • Google slides is as good as anything for creating your decks. 
  • Charma is also a great way to keep the pre and post-meeting conversations in order (and asynchronous).  
  • Zoom can get the job done when it comes to holding the meeting. You can also consider something more customized like Boardable Spotlight

Stage 2: Hosting the Meeting: A beginning, middle, and an end 

In the image below, Sequoia Capital shares the format they use with their partner Dropbox, which is an excellent indication of what to include and how to run your meeting effectively. 

sequoia capital's suggested time allocation for a remote board meeting

The five key stages they cover have a clear beginning, middle, and end:

  1. Start with the big picture opening: Provide an update to the Board regarding highlights, lowlights, and challenges, as well as flagging the 1–3 strategic issues to be clarified. 
  2. Then calibrate: Bring in the executive team to disclose and discuss key metrics (without repeating what was in the meeting prep pack.) “The primary difference between company meetings and board meetings is that your employees spend every day at your company, which even the most committed board members can’t do. That means you’ll need to effectively and efficiently calibrate your Board every time you meet.”
  3. Follow up with company building: This is the action plan and ideally covers three key areas; product roadmap, forward-looking organizational chart, and business development opportunities.  
  4. Go deep with strategic working sessions: Dig into 2 or 3 of the most significant strategic issues initially flagged by the CEO and exec team. The length of these will depend on your circumstances, but it’s the Board’s job to use their expertise to prioritize accordingly.
  5. Close it out: Use this time for unfiltered discussion with board members, wrapping up any administrative points, and getting feedback. You want to make sure the FINAL closing marks center around the purpose of the meeting and hammer home key decisions made in the day’s sessions. 

Stage 3: The follow-up and action items: Adopting asynchronous communication  

The most productive board meetings result in several follow-up tasks and action items. 

A full write-up/review of the board meeting should be sent to all board members, including meeting minutes, transcripts, follow-up discussion points, questions, and the clarification of action items, which can happen asynchronously.  

It’s also good practice to take some time to reflect on what was discussed and clarify whether members addressed all meeting objectives. 

📚 Learn more about asynchronous communication.

The Playbook: 13 remote board meeting recommendations to refine your approach and produce the outcomes you want

Now that you’ve got a clear process for running an effective board meeting. 

Here are some tips and ideas for taking it to the next level and making the most of the time you have together in a new virtual environment. 

#1 Avoid shrinking a human challenge down to a logistical one 

Simply because the logistics of the gathering have changed doesn’t mean that people aren’t still at the heart of the meeting; how you facilitate shapes how people will show up. 

Yes, logistics matter. 

But what matters more is preparing and priming board members to participate wholly. 

Be sure to spend as much time as possible prepping your people for the meeting so that when they gather, board members can assemble ready to make decisions.  

#2 The chairman sets the agenda, but all members should contribute

Traditionally, the Chairman (often the CEO) moderates board meetings to ensure that board members engage in productive, balanced, and fair discussions about issues critical to the company.

The art of a good board meeting requires the CEO to bring out the critical issues, stimulate a productive discussion in a non-threatening fashion, and get consensus in a timely manner.” — Thomas Porter (Co-Founder at EDF Ventures)

But the agenda should be shaped well in advance with a collaborative approach from all board directors and meeting participants.  

Before your meeting, all attendees should receive a draft of the meeting agenda or board deck in the prep stage. This can happen asynchronously, giving members the ability to provide feedback and offer amendments before the official meetup. 

And as we saw earlier in the example from Brex, sending this out at least a week in advance allows everyone to highlight questions and make amendments. 

Giving a deadline for feedback will help organize and compile the key topics you need to cover (and avoid). 

📚 Check out these 7 strategies for improving collaborative meeting preparation.

#3 Failing to facilitate is facilitating failure 

Enforcing the agenda keeps the meeting moving, keeps all parties interested, and assures results and decisions get made.

In other words, you must have a host or an “enforcer”; someone in charge of facilitating all of the sessions, including transitions, breaks, openings, and closings. This is potentially a role the chairman can take up. However, there are grounds for hiring a professional facilitator. 

Ultimately you want someone who will save your board meetings from being dominated by informal sources of power: tenure at the company, professional success, the force of personality, etc. And keep you all on track toward the goal.

#4 Connect with board members outside of the context of the meeting 

Relationships flourish the more they are tended to. So it makes sense for the leadership team to connect with members of the Board away from the official meeting setting. 

This can help conversations flow better and reduce the time it might take for everyone to “warm up” in the meeting. 

Remember, you’re not gathering in person, which erases some connectedness. But you can make up for that with some thoughtful preparation before the meeting.

#5 Making up for the virtuality of the venue 

There are obvious and considerable “venue design” limitations when meeting remotely. 

But some ideas for combatting that and creating elements of surprise are: 

  • Providing sustenance and snacks — send gift packs to all attendees for consumption on the meeting day. You need to keep blood sugar levels high and your people happy! You could go as far as tailoring to the specific preferences of each attendee.
  • Sending everyone a loanable lockbox for their phone. And have it as a ritual at the beginning of the meeting for everyone to lock their device away. Attendees can set their timers publicly and together, so no one can cheat. 
  • Including a “virtual happy hour” — if you send a bottle of wine, or some “after hours” snacks in your gift basket, they can be enjoyed together in a less formal setting after the meeting. 

📚 Check out this index of virtual team building ideas for every team size and budget. 

#6 Don’t start with the logistics

Wasting your opening on talking through tech, rules of engagement, or other low-value talking points is a mistake many meeting holders make. 

However vital it may seem to start with housekeeping — you are missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your board members. Your opening is the time to remind everyone why they are here and what you all want to achieve together. 

There will be logistical demands and things attendees need to know, but they do not need to know them in the opening remarks.

#7 Install fatigue killers

Throughout your meeting, build in breaks to avoid members dis-engaging and losing focus. You can even direct the activities in some of your breaks (e.g., stretching sessions, moving to a different space, or trying a new snack together!)

The idea is to break up the monotony of sitting still and staring into a camera. While also keeping everyone feeling like they’re taking the break together. 

Using different spaces has been known to help people focus and remember what happens during each meeting session. And while there are limitations due to the virtual environment, you can have attendees set up multiple “venues” in their homes or office. 

For instance, you can start in the office for the opening and executive summaries, move to the couch for the working sessions, and sit outside for the closing remarks and discussions. 

#8 Introduce everyone to the blank page 

Even the best board members might suck at keeping every thought they have from jumping out of them. 

So to avoid veering off track or letting conversations delve into unhelpful territory, introduce all members to the Blank page. 

It’s simple: Everyone has one blank piece of paper to jot down any thoughts, ideas, questions, or actions they think of. And towards the end of the meeting, if those things still need to be addressed, they can have the opportunity to bring them up (which we’ll talk about next). 

They may find that after the “urgency” of the thought wears off, it’s something they can discuss at another time, in a less formal setting. Or their question is addressed throughout the session. 

Thought capturing without interrupting attention is helpful for everyone! 

#9 Add a “parking lot” to the agenda

You may find that the meeting gets sidetracked by new discussion topics that pop up during the session — which can eat up time and distract board members from the most important agenda items. 

But you can avoid this by including a “parking lot” during the closing session. 

Anyone with random topics (worthy of discussion but not a top priority) can bring them up at this time. And together, you can assess what requires further research, can be considered for the next agenda, or delegated as a task.

#10 Close strong

Just as you don’t open a gathering with logistics, you should never end a gathering with them either (that includes thank-you’s.) 

A strong closing has two phases corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward. 

  • Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired and bond as a group one last time. 
  • Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world (outside of the board meeting!).

Use closing comments to bring attention to the critical outcomes of the gathering, what actions you’ll be taking to ensure these outcomes are met, and where the responsibility lies in enforcing these goals. 

#11 Draft the next board deck before you close

Before closing remarks, while ideas and decisions are still fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s good practice to throw together a rough agenda about what will need to be discussed in the next meeting. 

Of course, this agenda will likely change. 

But capturing those key discussion points now will make it easier to put together the following deck and ensure cohesion and coordination between now and then. 

#12 Seek feedback from board members

By understanding what’s working well and what’s falling short of expectations, you can use your board members’ feedback to know how to run more effective board meetings.

Turn to technology to get the job done! Send out a survey or use polling tools to gauge your board members’ opinions about your meetings. 

You’ll get the most helpful feedback by asking open-ended questions or having board members rate different qualities of the meetings on a numbered scale.

#13 Decision making is the name of the game 

“The quality  a board’s decision-making ultimately hinges on who is in the boardroom and the processes by which decisions are made.” — Dambisa Moyo.

Post-meeting follow-up should include factors that fall outside of the company’s long-term agenda and focus on improving the function of the Board

Three things to think about here: 

  • Board recruitment efforts, 
  • Upgrading board processes, and 
  • Achieving the ideal board structure.

Any feedback you receive from your board members can help to improve how future meetings run and how decisions get made

Keeping your company independent, profitable, and afloat 

“Remember, your board members lead busy professional and personal lives. Those with divergent work schedules will value the convenience of online collaboration. When you value their time and allow them to attend remotely, they’ll likely take notice and appreciate your efforts.” - Julie Perry, Boardable.

There are pros and cons to going virtual for your board meeting. But given the significance of the gathering and how it shapes the strategic moves your company will take over the next year and beyond — it’s worth taking the time to refine your approach. 

And although the in-person element is missing, the obvious advantages are: 

  • cutting costs by limiting travel and conference facilities, 
  • reducing the time commitment involved for your board members, and   
  • increasing attendance due to easy access and reduced time and travel commitments. 

(As well as having the opportunity to adhere to any strict health guidelines and social distancing rules that might be in place.) 

It may take some rethinking and some minor refinements to your meeting processes. Still, hopefully, with today’s playbook, you can make the necessary tweaks that will have you continue to run remote board meetings that produce results.  

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