Share company financial information and answer questions before quarterly meetings to equip board members to focus on forward-looking strategic issues, CFOs and board specialists said this week at the MIT Sloan CFO virtual summit.
Send an email several days before the meeting, and give board members a deadline to ask questions about it, said Joanne Cheng, CFO of PatientPing, a SaaS company for medical providers to track their patients' care. The extra time lets the executive team collaborate on the answers and get everyone on the same page before the meeting.
"The three-hour board meeting is no longer a readout of any financials," Cheng said.
Another way to complete the financial review ahead of time is to hold a pre-meeting.
Using the board meeting to look at a company's financial performance over the last quarter is a poor use of time, Deb Besemer, chair of video hosting company Brightcove, said. It's more important for the board to use the time to consider the company's strategic direction.
"At the end of every board meeting, it's always, ‘I have to get to the airport,' and the last couple of presentations have to be rushed," Besemer said. "The management team has sent out a deck of 80 slides, and you never get to the strategic ones."
For the pre-meeting to be effective, the CFO must speak to the board at a level the members understand. "That's a challenge," she said. "Not everyone has credentials in finance."
Bring consistent metrics
At these meetings, CFOs should present the same metrics each time; this gives board members a clear picture of company performance.
"The last thing you want to do is introduce different cuts on information and then invest time in a meeting to educate people on what they're looking at," Jason Park, CFO of sports betting operator DraftKings, said. "Stick to them quarter over quarter so people have some pattern recognition."
CFOs can establish upfront what measurements are most important to each board member and try to design metrics to capture what they want.
If the CFO identifies other measurements to track, let the board know your intention, even if you don't have the systems in place to do that tracking yet.
"Lay out a vision ... that you want this data but aren't able to report on it yet," said Cheng.
While each board has its own dynamic, the CEO and CFO shouldn't enter a meeting in disagreement over a major issue, such as an acquisition.
A big disagreement can signal a problem between the two most important executives in the company. "That's a thorny issue," Besemer said.
The CEO and CFO disagreeing on smaller issues while the board's in session, on the other hand, can be a positive; it gives members a chance to see a matter from different perspectives and shows that the CEO values the executive team's views.
"It shades risks differently," said Matt Vettel, managing partner of private equity investor Great Hill Partners. "They're challenging each other, looking for the best solution. That can be very helpful."
Although it's important for CFOs to develop relationships with each board member, they should avoid trying to solve problems with individual members outside of the board context.
"It's a common trap that really puts the CFO in a bad position," Vettel said. "You're better off saying, ‘That's a very interesting viewpoint, something the board should discuss. Let me put together some information to support your viewpoint and let's have the board make the decision.'"
The biggest mistake CFOs can make is being less than forthright on the company's financial position. There's only one recourse for a CFO who misleads the board on a financial matter.
"If trust is broken with the CFO, it's really hard to get that back," Besemer said. "In my experience, the CFO has to go at that point."