Strategy Sync vs. Time Sink with Your Board

Posted March 25th, 2021 by Rene Russo, in Boards and governance, From The Trenches

By Rene Russo, CEO of Xilio Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC. 

If we could quantify the time and money impact of the resources invested in quarterly Board meeting preparation, I wonder if we would “invest” so much in the process?

 If we knew the dollar impact and opportunity cost of CEOs’ overpreparation for Board members’ potential questions, would we shift focus to efforts that would result in more tangible value for the business?

I ask these questions not because I question the validity or role of the corporate Board in our companies, early-stage or public. I ask because now that I have gained both perspectives (as a CEO and Director) regarding the preparation and presentation for Board meetings, I believe we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves, our teams, and our Boards to ensure these interactions bring value and how to streamline the process. We know that in many companies, focus on other areas of the business almost stops the week(s) before a Board meeting. Is the ROI on this effort comparable to the ROI of other innovative work to advance our pipelines?

Much has been written about the biopharma Board and how to optimize its role in our companies. Over the past decade, Bruce Booth has written about this topic many times including two articles in his blogs High-Performing Boards in Early Stage Biotech and An Encyclopedia of Advice for Startup Boards, which include excellent and timeless advice for CEOs. Sam Truex wrote another helpful piece about filling Board seats and considering Board opportunities in her 2019 article, All A-Board. I recommend these articles and many others regarding our industry for any readers interested in learning more about the role a Board plays in advising on a company’s strategy, holding leadership accountable to shareholder and society interests, and ensuring the exploration of optionality in strategy and growth. These articles also speak to how CEOs need to “manage” their Boards to optimize the input, keep them engaged, and ensure they are “working for the company.” The role of CEO is not the topic of this blog but rather the leadership role the CEO needs to play to ensure that Board preparation doesn’t become a fire drill that yields a tome of PPT slides and does not tell a story or drive decision-making – 10 pounds of PPT slides in a 5-pound bag.

To prepare additional insights for this perspective, I reached out to long-time Board members and asked them to consider the following questions:

  • Reflecting on your Board experience, what can an organization do to give you what you need but streamline the time it takes to prepare those insights?
  • What do you wish organizations would share with you that you don’t usually hear/see in Board pre-read or discussions?
  • What advice would you give to an early- to mid-stage company on how they could improve their interactions with the Board without adding to their workload?

The responses tell me I am on to something as the Board members see the issue and want to advise how to address it. Importantly, there is consensus that the burden of prep for less valuable return warrants a conversation within the Board itself. After all, these individuals are literally responsible for the prudent use of company resources and investor dollars.

The practical advice includes the following:

  1. Develop a calendar and communication cadence for the year that maps out strategic conversations, topics requiring Board input, and the expectations on the timing of when pre-read materials are sent. This helps both the Board AND the organization know what to expect.
  2. Define a consistent framework (agenda) for Board meetings so that the flow is predictable and provides a guide for the organization. Leave ample open time (e.g., 2 hours) for discussion and debate on strategic topics.
  3. Focus on what the Board needs to know, not everything the organization has learned, so the important strategic topics can be discussed. Focus more on organizational health as well.
  4. Engage regularly with Board members so that those that want/need to dive deep into a topic can get their answers outside the meetings and those needs will increase the volume of the full pre-read prep.

Quotes from Experienced Participants Regarding Board Prep and Engagement:

How to Streamline:

“Ideally, leverage other committees or internal presentations, so you are not recreating the presentation every time.”

“An organized Board calendar is helpful for management and the Board, for example, strategy in the spring, budget and goals in the December meeting. Getting in a groove on topics.”

“Only talk about the most critical items for the Board to review and discuss and keep extraneous items and detail out of the boardroom; put those items into pre-reads if necessary, for the Board to advise. This is a unique challenge for highly technical executives – how to prioritize the most important items.”

“Minimize PowerPoint and increase discussion, which reduces prep time and increases the value of broad Board input.”

Areas Boards Wish Would Be Discussed:

“Health of the organization as a discussion, versus a presentation. What is really going on with respect to culture, people issues and concerns, and improvements needed? Also, CEOs should be clear about what’s working and what’s not – no surprises, no sugar-coating, so we can help.”

“A bigger framework on where the company is going over the next three years, and then how the company is marking progress on that journey; opposed to day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter issues.”

“More on real people issues, especially at the top of the organization; not so much the basics of the comp committee. More on how the senior leaders are doing, what is going well, and an honest assessment of where they are struggling.”

“Improve interactions with Board, really focus on prioritization of the most important topics, and cut back on the volume/detail of secondary issues. That and brutal candor about what is going well and where the team is struggling.”

“While it can be uncomfortable to cut conversations short, it is appreciated by Board members that we stay on time. If we need more time for a topic, take it offline or have a follow-up call – but we don’t derail the meeting when someone goes down into a rathole on a topic.”

Board meetings should be viewed as a “collaboration forum,” and the CEO should leverage Board members’ expertise to inform and guide decisions that will make a difference to the business, its people, and its strategy. Company leadership should address Board meetings and interactions from that perspective and use them as an opportunity to get to the core of important topics. In doing so, there would be a lot less content creation, organizational churn, and more focus on areas that will drive the sustainability of the business.

Bottom Line:

The amount of prep our teams do for Board meetings affects the bottom line. We need to demonstrate a partnership with our Board and our employees to ensure the investment helps us grow and achieve success.

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