Several members of your executive taken hours to prepare board materials so that you can inform your board of how things have gone since you last met 3 months ago and you have 3 hours together to make sure they have an accurate picture and to make sure you have their input into how to proceed in the months ahead. Given how seldom you come together you’d imagine you’d have the boards’ full attention during this time. Most likely you’d be wrong. You can solve this if you’re willing to.
How to Deal with Electronic Distractions
Of course the biggest competition you have with the attention of your board members is their mobile phones. Most board members don’t have the intention of checking email, reading the news or sending a quick text message but just like most smokers don’t want to pull out a cigarette — the modern executive can’t help himself or herself.
This is much easier to deal with that you would think.
- Announce at the start of the meeting that you’d like the board meeting to be “electronics free” including mobile phones, laptops or tablets. Have paper and pens available for notes. Be super polite and not aggressive and simply make the point that you really want the most productive time from your board members.
- Don’t allow your team to use laptops. I know many executives want to “stay productive” while they’re in the meeting and not being called on but if they’re not present and participating then you might as well leave them out of the room. It’s super distracting when your executives are typing away at email while the rest of the board is meant to be engaged in a discussion.
- Many outside lawyers like to attend board meetings. They all bring laptops and they all spend much of the time in the board meeting doing other email. Stop this. Either ask them to dial in or if they come ask them to really be present. If that’s not a good use of their time then simply ask them not to attend.
- Schedule a break in the meeting. If you have a 3-hour meeting put this at 1.5 hours in and have it for 15 minutes. Announce it at the start of the meeting and tell every member that this is the best time to check emails or make a short phone call but that you would really appreciate if they didn’t do it at any other time.
- If anybody says “I really work best when I can take electronic notes” on my (laptop, iPad, mobile phone) say, “I’m sure that’s right. But if I could ask that you please not do this for today. My goal is to make sure every member is present.” Best will in the world the most disciplined people in the world have a hard time resisting “just quickly checking” their text, email, news when they’re board. Then you’ve lost them.
- If you really want to make a show of it you could put the executive’s mobile phones in a tray on the side of the room and ask each board member to do the same when they arrive. I know it’s a bit aggressive but if you do so with a big smile on your face and a big ask of politeness I’ll bet you can pull this off. It’s really a way to emphasize how serious you are. The truth is that people who go out to dinner or to concerts or sports events and who leave their mobile phones in the car are actually more present for the event and enjoy themselves more. The same is true for board meetings.
I know all of this sounds draconian and many would say in the modern world this is counter-productive. But as a person who has sat in the room for years while executives present I’ve seen well-intentioned board members checking email, reading Facebook, scanning Twitter, downloading movies for their flights home, sending texts to friends, reading the news or any other number of things that distract from a productive group discussion.
You will encounter many sensible people who say versions of this:
Of course I understand that laptops can add productivity but sadly they are slippery slopes and the negatives to your meeting and even to your cognition in the meeting are not worth any gains from looking things up. It not only serves as a distraction to the laptop users but also to everybody around them.
How to Keep Board Members Engaged
Another problem with board member engagement is you. If you present slide after slide and if this becomes a download of too much information and not enough of a discussion then people’s attention spans wane.
The best board meetings are discussions and debates about the business yet many executive teams spent their time wanting to walk through hours of slides on how great they’re doing. Humans do much better when they’re participating than when they’re being lectured to. The most value you’ll get out of your board is when they’re speaking and offering you feedback and experiences from others companies in which they’re involved.
I recommend that executive teams send materials out 72 hours in advance. I recommend that CEOs do 1–1 calls with board members prior to the meeting to walk through the high-level financials. And I recommend that boards have 2–3 strategic topics that they consider during the in-person meeting. If you run your board this way you’ll maximize the time you have together as a group and keep your board engaged.
How to Stop Board Members from Scrolling Ahead
Final bit of advice. Some teams print out materials and hand out a printed binder during the board meeting. Don’t be this team. While it’s tempting to have a bible for your board members you’ll just enable them to “scroll ahead” and look at future slides when they’re bored. If you serve up their distraction then you only have yourselves to blame when they don’t pay attention.
Sometimes board members print out your decks or financials in advance and bring their own print outs. It’s super easy to politely say, “If you wouldn’t mind I’d love it if you would leave your notes in your bag. I don’t want to be controversial but I would love to try and have everybody fully engaged in the discussion and to do so I want to make sure everybody is on the same page at the same time.”
Note: This post is part of a series on managing startup boards. If you want to see the full roster of posts you can click the link above.