To whom do you turn for advice about running your business? How many people have knowledge of your most critical organizational problems? Do you have the credibility you need to make the difficult, necessary decisions your team needs you to make? In his 2010 TEDxMidwest Talk, which has been viewed nearly 4 million times, entrepreneur and 37 signals founder Jason Fried describes meetings as “toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work.” Fried’s sentiments echo throughout countless articles in business media and beyond—everywhere from Inc. to NPR to Psychology Today. At their best, it seems, meetings are dull time-wasters; at their worst, they are a pandemic disrupting employees’ motivation and sapping their productivity. Much of this ire, however, overlooks the main beneficiary of a meeting: the CEO. Earlier in this series, I described why executives need diverse, differing opinions from a variety of sources, as well as why those opinions are perhaps more difficult to come by than ever before. In an effort to fill these gaps in their information channels and bases of knowledge, many executives institute advisory boards comprised of experts, colleagues, senior industry figures, and others vital to the continued success of the organization. Beyond what they add in terms of intellectual capacity, advisory boards perform another essential function: they take pressure off employees to participate in constant meetings with the one in charge, thereby supporting productivity in the short-term. That said, like all meetings, advisory board gatherings too can deteriorate into aimlessness without proper preparation and structure. If you have decided an advisory board is the right solution for your organization and have already assembled your team, here are a few tips for running effective, constructive, and engaging meetings:
Determine Advisory Board Meeting Frequency
How often should you convene your advisory board? The answer depends on your organizational needs as well as participants’ availability. Do not meet more than the minimal necessary amount. For businesses in which change occurs slowly, that could mean quarterly or bimonthly meetings, enough to check in with board members about the direction of the company but not so much that members are practically ersatz directors of daily operations. Startups and other organizations facing immediate, short-term questions in a specific phase of the business lifecycle may need to meet as often as once per month.
Conduct a “Test” Meeting
Even if you have recruited the friendliest, most competent board members, meeting dynamics are unpredictable. Before you structure the lasting terms of engagement with your board, conduct a preliminary trial meeting. Run it like you would a typical meeting—set an agenda, ask real questions about the business, take notes—but clarify to members that it is an evaluation, and that the format is subject to change. This first gathering can also serve as an “icebreaker” for participants to introduce themselves and get to know one another. Afterwards, you may decide that the meeting went well and keep the format, perhaps with small adjustments, moving forward; or it may become clear that a more dramatic shift is necessary, for example a shorter timeframe, reconfigured agenda, or even different board members.
Set Agendas and Make Expectations Clear
A week or so before each meeting, send participants an agenda. At the very least, set aside time for:
- Small talk/introductions (5–10 minutes)
- A summary of the previous meeting and updates (10–15 minutes)
- 1–3 discussion topics/action items (20–30 minutes each)
- Review and lingering questions (5–10 minutes)
If, in practice, your meetings significantly deviate from the schedule you set forth, consider it a sign that you should re-evaluate and recalibrate. Consider the other factors that may alter the format and length of your meetings:
- PowerPoint presentations
- Web conferencing technology, such as Skype or GoToMeeting
- Google Docs and other collaborative note-taking environments
All of these can benefit and increase engagement among participants, but make sure to account for set-up time. Coming up with an agenda beforehand not only gives a meeting structure and purpose; it also conveys your commitment to results. Each board member should be aware of his or her responsibility to show up on time and prepared with practical advice and input. It may be worthwhile to assign group members pre-meeting “homework” to ensure that members have reviewed relevant background information so they can make informed decisions. Similarly, follow-up notes demonstrate members were paying critical attention during the session.
Take Charge of the Conversation
As the one who assembled the board, you need to act as administrator and facilitator. Stick to your schedule, track action items and progress, and don’t be afraid to steer the conversation. There is a time and place for theoretical, “blue sky” discussion—don’t let it into the confines of the meeting, where it can be disruptive rather than visionary. Your role does not end when the meeting stops. You should continually communicate with participants about points and questions they brought up. Show them that you value their contributions, and they will bring their “A” game to future meetings. How can you determine whether one member is dominating the conversation or isn’t contributing enough? Group dynamics are delicate, and you will need “soft skills” such as active listening and leading by example to properly manage your board. A codified structure, however, can help. Through board guidelines, you can outline participatory aspects like the format of conversations as well as how long members are expected to speak and on which issues. Later on in this series, I will explore how to determine and systematize these terms of engagement. Finally, consider having someone uninvolved in decision-making take minutes or detailed notes, then send those details to participants following each meeting.
Meet With Participants on an Individual Basis
Your advisory board is an asset, and its members have a lot to offer in terms of experience, wisdom, and knowledge. Although a regular meeting focused on organizational goals may not be the best setting to take advantage of each participant’s unique perspective, it can form a pathway toward one-on-one exchanges at another date. Think about taking each of your members out to lunch or coffee to speak with them individually. Doing so will help you strengthen your bond with each person, benefiting future meetings as well as your overall career. Want to learn more about this subject? In part four of this six-part series on advisory boards, I will take a look at structuring board members’ terms of engagement, such as compensation, rules for confidentiality and conflicts, and more. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have about advisory boards or any related topic. As a Principal in Offit Kurman’s Business Transactions and Governance practice, I regularly advise clients on matters related to business formation and transactions, governance, mergers and acquisitions, IP, and more. I have extensive experience serving on advisory boards, and facilitate the Board of Advisors Network for the Exit Planning Exchange (XPX) Maryland Chapter. I also manage New Paradigm Counsel®, a service offering through which Offit Kurman delivers customized, comprehensive and cost-effective outsourced legal departments. Click here to contact me. To learn more about the XPX Board of Advisors Network, click here. For more on New Paradigm Counsel, click here.
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ABOUT JONATHAN WACHS
Jonathan Wachs provides strategic counseling and operational advice to clients in the areas of intellectual property, commercial transactions and outsourced legal departments. As head of the firm’s Intellectual Property Group, Mr. Wachs works closely with clients to develop, register, analyze, enforce, and transfer intellectual property assets in a customized, cost-efficient, and highly effective manner. Additionally, he conducts intellectual property audits through which clients learn the nature and value of their intellectual property assets and the steps needed to protect such assets from misappropriation or dilution. As a business lawyer, he has successfully negotiated and completed several multimillion dollar business transactions and has served as general counsel to several small and midsize businesses and organizations in various industries and professions. He also manages a blog about intellectual property issues, Friday Factoids. Mr. Wachs co-manages New Paradigm Counsel, a service through which Offit Kurman delivers customized, comprehensive and cost-effective outsourced legal departments. Through New Paradigm Counsel, Jon served as outsourced general counsel for a government contractor, a large printing business, a payment processing company and an identity theft restoration business. You can connect with Offit Kurman via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn.
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