Houston Voices

How to avoid a beating in your board meeting, according to a UH expert

Board meetings have you front and center and can feel like you're taking a beating under intense pressure. Thankfully, there are ways to make board meetings less brutal. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Board meetings can be taxing on CEOs. Think about it. You're standing in front of a group of suits that can fire you on the spot if they feel you're underperforming. You're out in the open. Naked. Vulnerable. Insecurities exposed for all to see. One wrong move and you could be back on the bread line. A board meeting puts you front and center.

Before we get into exactly how we can make this experience less soul-crushing, let's take a gander at what makes a board meeting so brutal to begin with.

Brutality of board meetings

Board meetings are long. They're a torture chamber. Those machine cogwheels that Charlie Chaplin was trapped in and smashed by in the movie Modern Times, that's what it's like to go through a board meeting.

It's extremely difficult to tell your startup's story and show its progress when you're being asked, nay, commanded, to talk about specific things only, like how are you spending money?

You get too many people sticking their hands in the pot. Board members invite other people to attend and suddenly everyone wants to hear themselves talk. They'll all want to chime in and get their spotlight to show how smart they are.

There's intense pressure. You're essentially pitching your startup all over again. Except this time you're pitching it to a room full of suits that can take it away from you.

"Startup CEOs tend to forget that it's the board that works for them," said Jeff Bonforte, former vice president of Communications Products at Yahoo! and creator of Yahoo! Mail, Messenger, and Answers.

"You have CEOs leaving these board meetings with more work on their plate to get done than when they went in. It's brutal. You have this pressure of feeling like it's on you to get to the finish line, but the fact of the matter is it's also the board's responsibility, too."

Lessening the blow of a board meeting

One way to make board meetings less brutal and more bearable is to narrow down the things that need to be covered. Have team dynamics changed for the better? Has the market changed since our last meeting? How did that impact us? What's our position now relative to last year? Are we doing what we said we'd be doing?

The core of a board meeting should cover temperature-check questions like this, rather than "the product should have a button that lights up on touch."

Once you make board meetings centered on action items and temperature-check questions, suddenly these meetings become more about moving forward and being productive, and less about judging you. Suddenly, board meetings become events where highly intelligent individuals with shared interests (the interest of not losing their investment) actually, get this, work together to improve the company, rather than belittle you.

Further lessening the blow

Meet with board members individually for about half an hour before a board meeting. Ask them what issues they want you to cover and ask for their opinion on the agenda you plan to present. This helps ease tensions and minimize surprises during a board meeting.

Put together a nice packet. Sort of a pre-board meeting prepper. It should show the board members what you plan to cover during your meeting. Make sure to send out these packets at least a few days prior to the meeting. This will encourage board members to come prepared because now they'll know what to expect.

Arrange a luncheon before a board meeting. This gives board members a chance to meet important people on your team and talk with each other without the intense atmosphere of a board meeting.

"Another thing you should do during a board meeting is, you want to sit at the table with the board members. Integrate yourself among them rather than stand in front of the room where you'll really feel the heat," said Bonforte.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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