Inside an A+ Board Meeting: 5 Rules of a Top CEO

By Elizabeth Weil, featuring Andrew McLeod (Co-Founder & CEO, Certn)

Most early stage founders learn to run board meetings the hard way — trial and error. And with remote work as the new norm, there hasn’t been a lot shared on how to run a great board meeting over Zoom.

So what does a great board meeting look like in 2021 when you are a pre-seed, seed, or Series A company?

I’ve sat on a number of boards, and seen them from both sides of the table. I know how hard this stuff is. And what’s worse, board meetings are typically private, so for most founders, your only way to know what great looks like is to guess.

Today I’m sharing an inside view of some of the best Zoom-based board meetings I’ve participated in — run by Andrew McLeod at Certn.

Here are his “5 Rules” for running unusually great board meetings:

  1. Great board meetings start before the meeting.
  2. Great board meetings focus on what’s concerning or not working
  3. Great board meetings are not a CEO show
  4. Great board meetings have a clear, repeatable structure
  5. Great board meetings continue after the meeting.

Let’s break them down…

Rule #1 — Great board meetings start before the meeting.

Think of your board as leverage. You can’t leverage them well if 90% of the meeting is spent on updates, and you lose further leverage if everyone is reacting to new information in the moment. Your job is to create a powerful, repeatable method to inform and inspire thoughtful input — before they even walk in the room.

Further, with board meetings now primarily on Zoom, the durations have shrunk by as much as 50%. So how does your format need to change?

Here’s Andrew’s playbook:

  • Send a video. Instead of running through last quarter’s updates on Zoom, send a video update. Vimeo or Loom can work well. Ask the whole board to watch it the week before the meeting.
  • Keep it tight. Aim for the video to be <1 hour.
  • Attach all the key materials. In addition to the video, send out the accompanying deck, any other relevant material to dive deeper into, and the meeting agenda with the questions the management team wants to get help with. Ask them to review all this information in advance.
  • Cc the presenting leaders. In the email to the board, cc the 2–4 other people on my leadership team who have been featured in the video. This gives the board a chance to reply with questions, and the team can either answer right away or take the time to prepare an answer for the meeting.
  • Get questions in advance. Be sure to also solicit questions from the board beforehand to be prepared to discuss them.
  • Make it easy for them. In case board members are tight on time or for reference, call out the key highlights of the video with the corresponding time marks.

Investor POV:

  • I typically watch the video at 1.2x speed and then send them any questions or bits that I highlighted while watching.
  • Andrew’s format also builds board cohesion because it empowers everyone to speak, making it less formal. The tone and demeanor is authentic and casual, enabling us to be more collegial with each other and (actually) helpful to Certn.
  • It’s important for founders to know that I don’t mind spending an hour on board meeting preparation. It makes the board meeting shorter as a result, and more productive than other longer, in-person board meetings I’ve been in. So don’t be shy or “feel bad” to make this a requirement of your board members. They will thank you for it.

Rule #2 — Great board meetings highlight what’s working in the pre-meeting materials, but focus on what’s concerning or not working

“We’re killing it” is a great way to kill the leverage a board offers. Not only is it usually false, but it often signifies that you as a CEO cannot be forthcoming about what’s not working. Every company has warts, and board meetings are the place to put them on full display.

Here’s Andrew’s playbook:

  • Set the stage. At the top of your deck and video, share the 3–4 challenges most on the team’s mind. These should be the 3–4 things you want the board to focus most on in their support.
  • Expose the backstory. Give a balanced sector forecast. What looks promising for the sector and geography your company is focused on, and what looks concerning? Remember: your board does not always know your sector as well as you do. Giving them this background helps them to give you better feedback and support.
  • Share your playbook. Articulate the opportunities you are pursuing in near and medium terms. This will enable your board to see the exactly what and exactly when of your response to sector and market conditions.
  • Be transparent about your performance (read: don’t pretty it up). This is the time for the board to see how your playbook and performance align…and misalign. Be ok with that latter part. If you didn’t have misalignment in companies, you wouldn’t have boards.
  • Have a numbers-driven POV & action plan. Articulate exactly where your team believes the problems exist, exactly what will be done to fix it, and exactly how. Talk in numbers here as much as possible. It’s a balance. You and your team need to feel confident about your assessment, but also open to theirs.
  • Make a clear CTA to the board. Repeat your “asks” across your board materials: in the email you send to them with all the attachments (deck, video) and links (agenda), in the deck and video themselves, and in the agenda. And be specific! That way they arrive to the actual meeting ready to focus on your big asks.

Investor POV:

  • The Certn board meetings are fully transparent right until the end, when Andrew spins his chair around, keeps us all on Zoom, and we talk about “Andrew as a leader.” This kind of transparency and openness has blown us all away. Andrew has shown the board that he’s open to hearing direct feedback, and has the curiosity and desire to grow and improve as a leader.

Rule #3 — Great board meetings are not a CEO show

Strong CEOs know that most parts of running a startup are not a CEO show. The board meeting is no exception. Do not underestimate how powerful a tool board meetings are for your leadership team.

Here’s Andrew’s playbook on how to use board meetings for leadership team growth:

  • Focus company leaders on strategy. Most companies focus on strategy 1x/year but that’s not enough. Board meeting prep is a force function for your leaders to reconsider strategy multiple times a year, making your company and leaders stronger.
  • Give them an outsider POV. Despite being the speakers, having to pull a deck together to present to the board helps them look at the quarter as if they were outsiders. This creates a higher cadence of ideas and creativity.
  • Use their materials as “game tape.” The materials your leaders compile are like game tape — learning moments to continuously look back on, and excel from. It’s also inspiring for them to look back and see how much they’ve achieved. That then makes them even more inspired leaders.
  • Let the exec team own their roles. This includes all follow up from the board, including answering any questions about their area of responsibility.

Investor POV:

  • When we can see the team effort at play, we can see how the Certn leaders communicate with each other. This makes evident Andrew’s empowering leadership style and sends a strong signal to the board about how the exec team collaborates.

Rule #4 — Great board meetings have a clear, repeatable structure

Remember that your board likely goes to many of these meetings, many of which are run differently (and maybe not well). By repeating your meeting structure again and again, it will make this group be better board members because they’ll see exactly what is expected of them.

Here’s Andrew’s playbook:

Email to the board (laying out the structure):

  • Minimal preamble — just get right to the info
  • Attach / link the video, deck, agenda, and any other reference materials.
  • Make your immediate CTA — i.e. to provide questions in advance so the team can be prepared
  • Share the video reel highlights — a “table of contents” with exact time coordinates, so the Board can quickly find / skip to a segment if they are pressed for time.

Deck structure (send to the Board to review the Friday before a Board Meeting):

  • Key updates and initiatives
  • Strategic insights
  • Previous quarter financials
  • Previous quarter revenue review, & next quarter revenue plan
  • Next two quarters’ forecasts & models
  • Reference materials

Agenda structure (drop into a Gdoc and add the link in the email):

  • Housekeeping
  • Welcome remarks / new team member presentations
  • Challenge 1 recap & discussion
  • Challenge 2 recap & discussion
  • Feedback needed
  • Key questions we need the Board’s advice on

Investor POV:

  • Speed matters. When you make the process repeatable it gets faster, increasing ROI for everyone.
  • Many founders don’t realize that boards are great networking opportunities for members, so finding ways to increase the qualitative time they can spend with each other is invaluable. The structure of Certn’s board meetings have enabled me to build relationships with board members 1:1 — we end up co-investing, learning from each other, and often forming lifelong friendships.

Rule #5 Great board meetings continue after the meeting.

A meeting is only as good as what happens after it. It’s important that both you, the CEO, and your leadership team prioritize a series of steps following the meeting to put ideas into action.

Here’s Andrew’s playbook:

  • What rises to the top? After the board meeting, take a day (not longer) to digest the conversation. What rises to the top? What are the pieces of feedback that were heard? What are the top 3 things your board believes should change or improve?
  • Leadership sync within 24 hours. Then do a leadership team sync within 24 hours to review the board notes, action items, and owners. Make sure everyone is aligned on priorities.
  • Actions should be measurable. In general, action items should have associated metrics.
  • Board & leadership comms. The CEO should send the regular communication to the board on objectives. Encourage “task forces” among your leaders to achieve these objectives.
  • But don’t “protect” your team from your board. Let your leadership team handle follow-up with the board 1:1, as appropriate. It’s important for the board to see this kind of teamwork, and equally for your Leaders to feel responsible to the board, too.
  • Give your board feedback on their progress. Make sure to build relationships between board meetings with your board members too. Hold 1:1s with them, and give them feedback on their progress on a quarterly basis.

Investor POV:

  • Seeing the post-meeting process at Certn is another signal to the board of the team quality. It makes us believe even more that this is the team that will win.
  • I’ve seen other companies struggle with follow-up and it’s not just a meeting problem — it’s a systemic problem.
  • Great meeting process is contagious, it becomes a way of how great founders and companies communicate, operate, and hit growth goals.

Thanks to Andrew McLeod, and the Certn team for their support on this essay, and for making this resource available to the entire founder community.

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Founder and GP @ Scribble (scribble.vc). Prev. a16z, Twitter. Investor: SpaceX, Slack, Coinbase, Figma, Clubhouse, Calm, Grab. & more. Mom of 3. Ultra-runner.