“When I was a young entrepreneur, board meetings were by far the worst days of my life,” says Jeff Bonforte, the veteran company-builder who just sold his latest, Xobni, to Yahoo. “Board meetings are the height of insecurity for a CEO. Basically it’s a group of people who can both judge you and fire you based on that judgment.”
He’s had his fair share of bad experiences. At his first company, iDrive, he'd find himself every quarter standing in front of the room, sweating bullets, struggling to get through his meticulously-prepared slides. “It was a mess,” he says. “They’d just sit there and tell me how insufficient I was, how I needed to bring in someone more senior, or smarter. Then it just hit me. I don't need this. I don't need people to attack me for four straight hours. I need people who can help me.”
This shift in philosophy has shaped the way Bonforte has handled his board members and meetings ever since. The core of his new strategy: Your success as a CEO is contingent on your board doing their best to help you — so put them to work. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Why Board Meetings Suck
In order to flip the script on his board, Bonforte first needed to identify the problems. Why exactly were board meetings so nerve-racking, and in the end so useless? How could it be that a group of people so smart and accomplished in their own lives could make zero progress after spending hours in the same room? It baffled him, so he started logging his pain points:
Board meetings are long, grueling, and hard to focus.
It’s nearly impossible to capture your company’s story accurately when you’re obligated to only talk about certain things, i.e. how money’s getting spent.
You can’t always get who you want on your board. Sometimes you have a choice, but most of the time one or two members will not have been your first pick and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Too many boards are too big, and too many board members invite observers and general hangers on — all who want to chime in with something to sound smart.
If you present a deck from the front of a boardroom, you’re asking to be judged and picked apart. It’s like you’re pitching your company all over again, only this time to people who can take it away from you.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When you think about it, each of these issues has a logical response. And it starts with one key learning:
“Every single entrepreneur forgets that the board works for them,” Bonforte says. “They’re in meetings getting their asses kicked and walking out with even more work to do. They feel like they have to prove their vision instead of proving that everyone in the room should be working together to solve the problem. As the CEO, you feel like it’s your job to carry the ball across the line, but it’s also the board’s job too.”
What does this look like in practice?
After having his own ass handed to him a number of times, Bonforte knew things had to change. “I kept asking other CEOs, ‘How do you do your board meetings? I know I might sound like an idiot, but how do you make these things less miserable? Finally, I ran into a couple guys with some wild ideas.”
Has the market changed since we last met? If so, did it affect us negatively or positively?
Has the team changed? For better or worse?
Has our position in the market changed?
Did we do what we said we would?
“That’s all the board should be concerned about, Mike told me. Not whether the product should have a button over here or over there. Just deal with the macroeconomics and team development.”
Then Dan Rosensweig, CEO of online textbook startup Chegg, chipped in some revolutionary advice. “He’s the one that taught me how to keep boards artificially small, and that it wasn’t out of line to give board members action items,” Bonforte says.
Suddenly, board meetings were no longer about judgment. They were about being productive. “If you think of your board members as working for you, there’s no reason to lie or fudge things to look a certain way or prove your competence,” he says. “If you do those things, your board can’t help you effectively.” This also took weight off his shoulders.
“I used to stand there, imagining all the VCs on my board wondering why they made this investment. But, at that point, it’s just too bad. They’re already in the game. It may be true that I’m not the CEO they thought I’d be. No CEO ever is. They may always believe the company should be better than it actually is. But it doesn’t matter. We’re in it together and we can do great things, so let’s do it.”
By the time he sold Xobni, Bonforte was running board meetings like clockwork. The first step? “Whenever a todo item came up, I was always the first one to look at one of my board members and say, ‘Kevin, why don’t you handle that?’ And of course he’d be like ‘Uh, oh, okay, sure.’ Because what else could he say? If you’re not making unreasonable requests and they’re on the board, they’re supposed to help out.”
Ultimately, it turned out that board members liked coming away with assignments. “They all like being able to see an exit and say, ‘We worked really hard on that team.’ It might have been hard, but these are all people who have worked hard before and who like to accomplish things.”
At Xobni, Bonforte wasn't shy about pushing the board on workload. "During certain critical times, I'd propose something like daily calls. Obviously, everyone's calendar is a mess, so it meant 7 a.m. calls every morning." This was vastly different from how he ran boards earlier in his career, when he saw worked assigned in only one direction: from the board to the CEO. "Once I realized the board was there to help and not just to judge, I became much better at asking for and getting that help. I found that the harder the board worked for Xobni, the better it functioned at all levels."
Do the legwork beforehand. And don’t skimp. If you want to run a smooth board meeting, according to Bonforte, you need to:
Meet with each board member separately for 30 to 45 minutes in advance so you know how they’re going to vote, what they think about the agenda, and bust any potential issues or surprises. “I would go as far as to say, ‘We’ll talk about this. This is my big issue. This is where I think we should come out on it. What do you think?’”
Compile comprehensive materials, data, and updates in a packet and distribute it to your board members at least four days beforehand. Tell them to come prepared. (More on this later.)
If your board is too big, split it into smaller committees that you meet or hold calls with separately two to four weeks in advance. Then they can come and present what they’ve been working on.
"Nirav Tolia [now CEO of Nextdoor.com] taught me to do dinner or lunch before the board meeting, and include some of my key leaders. This allowed me to keep the subsequent meeting on time, and it gave my board the opportunity to get to know key people outside the high pressure environment of the meeting itself."
For the actual meeting, he recommends budgeting three hours, but only 90 minutes of content, including a 45 minute deep dive on an issue that you actually need the board’s help to resolve. Don’t make a deck — everyone should have brought their board packets with them — and don’t stand at the front of the room. Sit at the table just like everyone else.
VCs are used to being presented to so they can judge. You might feel like standing puts you in control, but it’s just the opposite.
The other major concern is who should be in the room. In Bonforte’s words: “If you have a board vote, you’re allowed to sit at the table. If you’re an observer, you shouldn’t even be here unless you contractually have to be.” By the midpoint of his time at Xobni, he managed to prohibit observers from board meetings. You want to narrow down the number of voices in the room. “Maybe you make a deal where observers are only there for half the meeting, but really, it shouldn’t be a committee discussion. If you couldn’t care less what these other people think, then only allow the people who need to be there.”
When you follow this format, you have a good shot at ending early — and there’s nothing better than ending early. “If you do it right, they had food before, you had a good productive talk resulting in concrete action items, everyone feels up to date, and they got to spend a relaxing three hours that they were required to spend anyway,” he says. “Whenever you run late, it’s always the CEOs fault. You introduce too much information, and everyone walks away feeling like nothing got resolved.”
The Art of the Board Pack
Instead of giving an opening spiel, Bonforte simply refers to the board pack, flipping through as speedily as possible. “I don’t talk about the data, it’s all right there in front of them. I just start in. Any questions on the dashboard? No? Okay. On the grant? Okay. Let’s approve these items. Any questions on the financials? Okay, great. Now here are a few things we’re proud of that I want to highlight, and a few things we’re nervous about that we should discuss.” That’s the whole shebang.
When he advises making these packs comprehensive, he means it. Instead of putting together dull, stapled packets of PowerPoint-like charts and graphs, he’d lay out a magazine-style review of where the company had gone over the last quarter, what the big concerns were now, and what big goals he had for the future. He even cribbed designs from Fortune and Forbes, complete with spotlight features on top contributors or new employees. Basically, there was no excuse not to read them.
“Slides are too ambiguous for a board to digest, and they’ll just end up asking questions based on how they’re interpreting them,” Bonforte says. “By writing everything down thoroughly, they can’t get away with misunderstanding or cheating. I’d write about the quarterly state of the company just like a journalist would, outlining the highlights of what we’ve got going on, the stuff I’m pretty optimistic about, the stuff I’m anxious about, etc.”
He even littered his reports with Easter eggs to make sure they’d been read. “I’d put a little something in there that said like, ‘If you read this, then you’ll know to wink at me during this part of the meeting,’ or ‘If you don’t ask me about this, I’ll know you didn’t see it.’” As far as he was concerned, if you didn’t read the pack, you shouldn’t even come to the meeting, much less contribute.
“Sometimes, if someone asked about something and clearly hadn’t done their homework, I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s in the board pack.’ That’s the most damning thing that can happen to a board member — realizing that all of their peers prepared for the meeting and they didn’t.”
Needless to say, putting together these board packs took a lot of time. That doesn’t mean they were long — always five pages at most. It was arriving at that five pages that kept Bonforte up at night. He’d routinely start with 20 and cut it down. But assembling the final product served multiple purposes. Not only did he create a good read chocked full of data for his board members (and eventually the entire company), it made him focus on what was truly important and how to use the time wisely.
“It was a great forcing function,” Bonforte said. “I would review with my executive team, and they might say, you go on for too long about the product, or you should rephrase this, or this part isn’t even true. I’d learn a lot through the process.”
What Boards Are Actually Good For
First, here’s what they’re bad at.
While Bonforte’s board packs often included product roadmaps — and he devoted time to justifying the company’s trajectory in that area — he warns against getting lost in the weeds on product features during meetings.
“It’s so easy for someone to say, ‘Hey let’s do a quick product review,’ and then it devolves into over an hour of what features people want to see and blah blah blah,” he says. “This is where I just said outright, I don’t want the board using this time for product reviews because most of you don’t know anything about the product. If they actually did know about the product and wanted to be a part of that process, they were invited to come to a formal review when the right people were in the room.”
A board meeting is not the right time to request a product feature directly from the CEO.
Instead, if you’re talking about product in depth, simply focus on the reasons you’ve decided to take certain directions. Whether you introduced a feature to generate revenue or increase engagement or promote growth — that’s all the board needs to know. Bonforte learned this lesson from a particularly harrowing experience.
At a previous startup, he had a board member who frequently gave him feedback about the product's shortcomings — in this case, that people thought it was too hard to use. When Bonforte asked whether they agreed with this assessment, they said they did. "That seems hard to believe, given that you've never logged in to the service," he replied. The board member was mortified. "I was probably too rude, but I knew this person didn't use the product, and my engineers and I were getting frustrated with the drive-by criticism. Saying that a product is too hard to use, particularly with an online storage service in 1999, is an easy comment to make. But for a board member to criticize the product directly to the team without taking the time to try it was inexcusable."
Where boards’ product expertise might be patchy, they can be extremely resourceful in business development and recruitment. In fact, Bonforte recommends reserving your 45-minute deep dive for one of these areas where you know board members’ connections and experience may come in handy.
“For example, you might talk about how to structure the best deal possible with a given partner. You tell everyone in the room that this is the challenge and that you want their opinion. This is where you want people to bring ideas to the table, especially if they have similar experiences from a previous startup.”
This is also where the tactic of splitting a larger board into smaller committees can come into play. For example, at Xobni, Bonforte created an operations committee to deal exclusively with M&A and funding issues. During meetings, he could lean on this group to have the relevant data at their fingertips and get the discussion rolling. Outside of the boardroom, this group also played an instrumental role in the eventual Yahoo sale. “They worked hard, and I essentially created a small board of powerful advocates that could influence the other voters.”
Here, Bonforte makes a key point: You don’t have to show up in a Teflon suit. You can be vulnerable on points where you genuinely need help. “You have to be willing to say, listen, I don’t know the best way to structure this deal. There has to be a better way than what I’m doing now,” he says. “You can be honest about being sub-optimal in some area. These people have seen a lot of stuff and are generally very capable.”
Ideally, deep dives present more opportunities for putting the board to work.
A lot of prospective hires are very influenced by having a VC they’ve read about in the news call them up and ask them if they’d consider working for you. You can tell your board the talent you need and assign them to go get it for you.
When it comes to raising funding, Bonforte says he’s had so many past board members simply wish him luck. His advice for young entrepreneurs: “That’s not okay. Say no... no good luck. Tell them that for the first round of discussions, you won't meet with anyone if the board isn't making the introduction. Remind them to add, 'It's the best company in my portfolio.'"
Don’t stop there, he says. Tell them that you’ll be tracking the number of introductions from each member. That’s how you get meetings. And at the end of the day, both you and the VC who helped you land funding can be proud of working toward a common goal. The whole board will respect you more for it.
Members can also be incredible assets in one-off situations you may never expect. In one case, Bonforte had fired someone who, rather disgruntled, threatened to sue. “A member on my board was savvy enough to say, ‘Jeff, it’s too hard for you to deal with this because you’re so involved. I’m going to take it from here. I won’t tell you anything about it. Go get back to work.’”
Board meetings are only useful if they move things forward. And to do that, their results need to be transparent to your whole company. Bonforte is big on transparency — for several reasons. Foremost, it’s a best practice to keep your employees in the know about factors that might affect their fate. Secondly, it keeps people who might want to get in on board meetings out of the room.
“People always think they want exposure to the board because it looks cool or elevates their status, but then it just ends up stressing them out,” he says. “So take your board pack, cleanse it of option information, then circulate it to the company immediately. If what people want is power and they believe power comes from data access, then make all the data available to everyone so it’s not unique.”