How To Lead a Strategic Board Discussion
Since this exercise is almost a Kobayashi Maru, sometimes the smartest strategy is to change the rules.
Rather than teeing up an impossible discussion, instead propose to create a working group of those members who are most interested (and presumably expert) in the chosen topic. Team those board members with the relevant executive staff, run a series of meetings that dive deep into the topic, and then report back into the larger group. Sometimes, as the WOPR computer concluded in War Games, the only winning move is not to play.
The benefits of these working groups are many:
- You engage the board members and really tap into their expertise.
- The smaller group size and more informal setting lead to more interesting and interactive discussions.
- You create an opportunity for the executive staff to increase their visibility and build relationships with board members.
Personally, I’ve participated in numerous such working groups on various topics (e.g., pricing, metrics, GTM planning and modeling, sales process, positioning/branding, product strategy, and reluctantly, compensation) and find them invariably superior to jumping into a hard topic with a big heterogeneous group.
That said, once in a while, you do need to lead such a discussion, so in that situation what should you do?
Do these five things:
- Make a deck. If you start the discussion from scratch without a tee-up, it will likely be a mess. Use a deck to frame the topic and maintain control. However, that deck is not a presentation. It should be built specifically to lead a discussion. Don’t just cut and paste slides from your internal meetings.
- Baseline the audience. Writing for the person in the room with the least expertise and familiarity with the topic, write 3-5 slides that describe the challenge you are facing and the decision you need to make. Try to decompose the overall question to three sub-questions about which you will lead a discussion. This will likely clarify your own thinking on the question greatly. If it’s a one-hour session, this part, including explanatory Q&A, should take 10 minutes.
- Ask three questions. The final three slides should each have one question in the title and blank body. Stay on each one for 15 minutes.
- Balance participation. Remember your goal is to enable a discussion, not necessarily to make the final decision. So lead a discussion. It’s not a discussion if you and the alpha board member are the only people talking. (That’s called watching two people talk.) Keep track of who’s talking and do so naturally, i.e., without “going around the room” (which also isn’t a discussion, it’s a serial Q&A).
- Summarize what you heard and either promise to get back to them with your final decision, propose splitting off a working group, or some other concrete action so that they know the next steps going forward.
Remember if you’re clear on the goal — to have a good discussion — and you build the deck and lead the group to stay focused on that goal, you might not arrive at an easy decision in 60 minutes, but you will indeed have delivered on what you promised — a good, board-level discussion about a complex issue.
(This post originally appeared on Kellblog and has been republished here with minor edits.)