To Pre-Meet Or Not To Pre-Meet: That Is The Question

I once asked one of my board members which CEO ran the best board meetings across his portfolio companies.  His answer was, let’s call him, Jack.  Here’s what he said about him:

  • Jack got the board deck out 3-4 days in advance of the board meeting
  • Jack would call him — and every other board member — 2-3 days before each board meeting and walk through the entire deck and answer questions, taking maybe 2 hours to do so.
  • Board meetings with Jack would go very quickly and smoothly because all the questions had been asked in advance.

When I heard this, I thought, well, I have a few issues with Jack:

  • He spends a lot of time managing his board instead of running his business.  (I guess he got his CEO job by managing-up.)
  • He completely violates my “do it in the meeting” principle by having a series of pre-meetings before the actual meeting.

While I may have my doubts about Jack, others don’t seem to.  Consider entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster’s recent post, Why You Shouldn’t Decide Anything Important at Your Board Meetings.  Suster straight out recommends a 30 minute pre-meeting per board member.  Why?

  • Agenda input so you can adhere to the Golden Rule of Board Meetings:  “no surprises.”
  • So you can “count votes” in advance as know where people stand on important and/or controversial issues.
  • So you can use board members to convince each other of desired decisions.
  • Ultimately, because in his opinion, a board meeting is where you ratify decisions that are already pre-debated.

OK, I need to chew on this because, while practical, it violates every principle of how I think companies should conduct meetings — operational ones, at least.  When it comes to operational meetings, nothing makes me grumpier than:

  • Pre-meeting lobbying
  • Post-meeting “pocket vetoes”

My whole philosophy is that meetings should be the place where we debate things and make decisions.  Doing everything in advance defeats the purpose of meeting and risks encouraging political behavior (e.g., “if you vote for my bridge in Alaska, I’ll vote for your dam in Kentucky”), with managers horse-trading instead of voting for ideas based on their merits.

The only thing worse that teeing up everything in advance is what one old boss called the “pocket veto,” where a manager sits in a meeting, watches a decision get made, says nothing, and then goes to the CEO after the meeting and says something akin to “well, I didn’t feel comfortable saying this in the meeting, but based on point-I-was-uncomfortable-raising, I disagree strongly with the decision we reached.”

I remember this happened at Business Objects once and I thought:  “wait a minute, we’ve flown 15 people from around the world (in business class) to meet at this splendid hotel for 3 days — costing maybe literally $100,000 — and the group talked for two hours about a controversial decision, came to resolution, and made a decision only to have that decision overruled the next day.”  It made me wonder why we bothered to meet at all.

But I learned an important lesson.  Ever since then, I flat refuse to overrule decisions made in a meeting based on a pocket veto.  Whenever someone comes to me and says, “well, I didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up in the meeting (for some typically very good sounding reason about embarrassing someone or such), but based upon Thing-X, I think we need to reverse that decision,” I say one thing and only one thing in response:  “well, I guess you should have brought that up in the meeting.”

You see, I believe, based on a bevy of research, that functional groups of smart people make better decisions than even the smartest individuals.  So my job as CEO is to then assure three things:

But I’ve got a problem here because while we know that boards like pre-meetings, operationally I am opposed to both pre- and post-meetings.  Would it hypocritical for to say that pre-meetings are OK for me to conduct with the board, but that managers internally should avoid them?

Maybe.  But that’s what I’m going to say.   How can I sleep at night?  Because I think we need to differentiate between meetings with a decision maker  and meetings of a decision-making body.

Most people might think that the pricing committee, product strategy committee, or new product launch committee are democratic bodies, but they aren’t.  In reality, these are meetings with a decision maker present (e.g., the CEO, the SVP of products) and thus the committee is, perhaps subtly, an advisory group as opposed to a decision-making body.  In such meetings, the decision-maker should want to encourage vociferous debate, seek to prevent pre-meetings and horse-trading, and eliminate pocket vetoes because he/she wants to hear proposals debated clearly and completely based on the merits in order to arrive at the best decision.

However, board meetings are different.  Boards truly are a decision-making bodies ruled by one-person, one-vote.  Thus, while I reject Suster’s advice when it comes to conducting operational meetings (which I believe are inherently advisory groups), I agree with it when it comes to decision-making bodies.  In such cases, someone needs to know who stands where on what.

And that person needs to be the CEO.

7 responses to “To Pre-Meet Or Not To Pre-Meet: That Is The Question

  1. Great thought process – “meetings with a decision maker and meetings of a decision-making body”.

  2. I love the thought process. And the distinction about meetings with a decision maker present.

    So if the decision ultimately falls the decision maker, it seems the goal is for the committee to advise, and the decision maker to become as informed as possible. I don’t see any reason to close the option of pre-meetings, depending on the decision at hand. If the decision maker feels the best communication path for a decision includes pre-meetings to ensure understanding, why not?

    My premise is human communication is difficult, especially in meetings. In one-on-one conversations it’s easier to ensure there is understanding of all important factors. In group meetings a misunderstanding can sometimes unwittingly turn into influence, leading a group to a lesser decision.

    • Totally agree. It took me about 20 years too long to realize that “high tech” communications (email, SMS, vmail) are infinitely inferior to live 1-1. So much is lost compared to just speaking 1-1 live.

  3. Having run my last company and Board without pre-meetings, I can firmly say that I would never go that way again. Like you, I believed that best use of my time was to continue driving over 70% growth. But my take-away was – If the CEO does not engage in politics, the BoD will. And many decisions still get made before the meeting with you at a serious disadvantage.

  4. Captain Morgan

    As a new reader to your blog I am finding a lot of common ground and enjoy your thoughtful and in depth analysis and effort (plenty of “bubble gum”, quantity over quality posts out there) However on this one, I am going to respectfully disagree. If I go into an operational meeting and my VP of Sales and VP of Marketing for example are not on the same page regarding an important decision the meeting is likely to be inconclusive at best unless we have “pre-agreed” to disagree and the purpose of the meeting is to resolve this previously known disagreement constructively (which is fine). The problem is exasperated if the meeting involves one party bringing new data to the discussion (inevitable) and there is a disagreement on the facts and data. This is why I require all materials to be provided in advance of the meeting. Regarding my board I follow the “no surprises” rule.

    • On your S&M example, I generally agree. (See my post https://kellblog.com/2013/08/16/sales-is-from-mars-and-engineering-is-from-venus/). The point to me, which I suspect you get, is that the thing I like least about pre-meetings is the stifling of debate due to advance horse-trading, where — reductio ad absurdum — everyone has agreed in advance that the decision is already made, and that we have done so by “trading” — I’ll vote yes on this if you vote yes on that for me. That behavior completely undermines functional groups debating issues on the merits.

      Net is that I can be a bit idealistic and when in doubt 1-1 (live) communication works best. Indeed.

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