How to Stop Your Board Meeting from Going Down a Rat Hole

Photo by Filipe Delgado from Pexels

We’ve all been in meetings that get off track — sinking ever down the proverbial “rat hole,” from which rescue feels impossible. How does it happen? And how can you avoid it?

This is part of a series on Managing Boards.

In my last post I wrote about board preparation before the meeting and frankly this can be applied to any type of meeting. Put simply:

  • Define what the objective of your meeting is
  • Produce an agenda with very specific items and times associated with them
  • Produce a “pre-read” that is distributed at least 72 hours prior to the meeting (financial, strategic analysis, framing of key decisions you want made)
  • And importantly do brief “pre calls” with each board member to walk them through what you’re thinking and ask whether there is anything super critical in his or her mind that you’re not planning to cover

Good board hygiene is that you should hand out a printed agenda at every seat with times for each topic allocated. You’re allowed to deviate but if you do so make sure it’s a conscious choice.

If you do all of these things in advance you’ve already reduced the chance of going down a rat hole substantially. But it still happens. Here are the characters that take you there:

  1. “The detail merchant” — Some people are just wired to want to ask 55 questions and understand every last detail. They don’t have a strong sense of “aperture” of their responsibilities. If they thought about it they’d realize that asking 55 questions is wasting the time of every board member and they probably don’t mean to do it — it’s just in their nature. A great way to deal with the “detail merchant” is to say, “these are great questions, how about if I put in a pin in it and you and I huddle up post meeting and I can walk you through it details. These are great questions. I’m just concerned we may not get through the agenda.” Most good natured people get the super polite hint — especially if you have a reputation for actually following up.
  2. “The negative nelly” — These are people who can’t help but find fault with anything you present. You might have 5 really positive signs but his or her mind is wired to find the one thing that didn’t go well. If that thing is truly more important than others — fair enough. But if it’s just catching you out for the sake of it to make the negative nelly feel good — it’s your job as CEO to stop it.
  3. “The distracted, senior person” — We’ve all been on boards with super senior investors or executives from companies who don’t read the materials in advance or are on their phones so they miss the tenor of the conversation. They ask 101 questions that were in the deck or they ask about topics you’ve already covered. Listen, it happens. As a fellow board member I try not to get too upset. But what drives me bonkers is when the CEO caters to this bad behavior by spending valuable time going through information that was already available. It is disrespectful of the time of the people who did do the pre-read and pre-call. If somebody isn’t paying a attention I would probably re-answer the question in the first instance to be polite. If it persists I would revert back to, “we covered that point a bit earlier. If it’s ok with you I’d really love to move on but I’m making a note to come back to it at the end of the meeting and make sure you get that answered.” (and actually write it down so they see it)
  4. The ADD Director — This is near and dear to me because this is, well, me! I can’t help it. I sometimes get distracted by what you’re talking about and really want to ask you a question about something not on the agenda. I don’t mean to do it and if I get a gentle brush back I will gladly say, “oh, yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. Let’s cover that later.” The problem with the ADD Director is that we literally can’t stop ourselves from asking whatever we want. The definition of somebody with ADD is somebody who has “impulse control” issues. Save us from ourselves. Politely answer any one line questions but don’t let us take you off track.
  5. The Ally — This is what you need the most. You need an ally. You need a non-executive board member who is your point person to help keep the meeting on track. This is the person who will step up when you can’t. Have a code word so they know when to help. This is the person who says, “Steve. Your questions are great and I have some similar questions, too. I see Mary trying to stay on agenda and I think this is the agenda we all agreed. Would you mind if we just note that topic and try to come back to it at the end of the meeting? I’m really sorry but I just don’t have time to overrun and I’m worried this is taking us off track.” I’m this guy. I do it without being asked. My ADD is prewired to be super annoyed when meetings waste my time. I start mentally struggling to pay attention because I become distracted by the fact that we’re talking about something completely non-strategic and off agenda. Obviously if it’s a great question and a worth debate and needs to be covered — I’m in. But mostly it’s just somebody’s pet interest to talk and talk and TALK about and it’s off topic. A good CEO finds allies and gets help keeping meetings from going down rat holes.

So here it is in a nut shell. The reason most meetings that go down rat holes end up there is that you have one of the archetypes above who take a meeting off track. Often they do it with good intentions and are willing to behave when asked. Too many CEOs see it as their responsibility to answer every question asked, whether germane to the agenda or not. The problem with this is that it both disrespects the time of every other board member AND it reduces the time a board has to function productively as a group. And the problem is that most board members would rather bite their lips than to speak out against the time waster.

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