Because that is also the case in a board meeting, we were interested to read a recent piece by Mark Smith in which he explored a range of directors’ experiences of The Opening Act. 
So, what thoughts emerged on how might a board start a meeting? One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that there is no one answer. As Smith’s informants make clear, approaches not only vary but are also marked by nuances that reflect their industries. For example, does the board need to meet frequently to stay connected if things are changing and developing rapidly, or can they afford to come together less frequently (eg, quarterly) but for longer (say 2 days)?
A board meeting is more likely to be effective if it implements a previously developed board work plan or long-term agenda. These specify in advance the matters to which the board intends to apply its time and attention, and when. They provide the propulsion the board needs to escape from the gravitational pull of BAU.
For individual directors, the first real part of preparation for a board meeting starts when they receive their board materials—commonly, about a week before the meeting.
If board committees meet before a full board meeting, directors—even those who are not committee members—should be familiar with the complete content of a board meeting pack. We liked the suggestion that directors rotate responsibility for opening committee meetings with thoughts and reflections that help the board keep focused on doing the right things.
The social angle was also emphasised with the proposal that boards should plan social gatherings once or twice per year. We agree with the comment that, “It’s amazing how often business goes more smoothly when people know and appreciate each other. These social times are especially important when new directors are being assimilated onto the board”. This points to the importance of effective director induction and board teambuilding.
Another idea is that board members convene for dinner the night before a board meeting. This allows preliminary conversations about meeting agenda items and for directors to get to know each other better. Getting to know your colleagues better as ‘people’ is a key factor in improving board dynamics and in making difficult conversations easier to tackle.
Ensure the meeting gets on track quickly
One board chair, after calling a meeting to order, begins by noting the quorum, including specific attendees and any guests. She then reviews and approves the agenda. The assumption is that the directors are all well versed in the agenda and meeting materials sent to them in advance. She deals with necessary formalities and resolutions with the aim of moving quickly to strategic discussion time.
This sounds good but, in practice, we find that—while many boards talk of spending more time in strategic dialogue—they frontload their meetings with routine business that can easily absorb as much time as the board chair will allow. As a result, little time or energy is left for the ‘strategic discussion’ aspect of the meeting.
A particular challenge is the time a board might need for briefings from management and external advisors. It is notoriously difficult to get to the planned substance of a board meeting if these presentations are scheduled too close to the start of a meeting. The quality of presentations is typically variable, and they are often time-consuming well beyond their value to the board.
That is not always the fault of the presenters. We have seen many board meetings get sidetracked by directors latching onto aspects of presentations with little direct relevance to matters supposedly in focus. Reduce the risk—if possible schedule items requiring presentations later rather than earlier in the meeting.
A powerful way of getting a board meeting off on the right track, however, is the example offered by someone who described a healthcare company beginning every meeting by hearing from a patient. That practice immediately connects the board to the purpose of the company and to the customers’ experience. This kind of starting point is also likely to increase the likelihood of subsequent discussions on future-facing improvements to the company’s services. Many other kinds of organisation could benefit from an initiative like this in a form relevant to their own businesses.
Meetings that begin with (or are preceded by) confidential sessions of directors is an effective way to build board teamwork and to set the scene for a successful meeting. It is a chance to clarify the board’s thinking—particularly its priorities—and clear away what might be distractions.
One director advocated involving the chief executive in this session.  She says her boards use what she describes as ‘executive sessions’ to find out what is on the chief executive’s mind. This enables directors to be aware of certain topics and emerging issues or, for example, to pay particular attention to certain individuals during the meeting. These are things that are useful to know as the meeting gets underway. To link back to our opening paragraph, this session can be likened to a ‘team talk’ before players take the field. 
Another argued strongly for the board pack to include a two-page Word document overview of the content of the board pack, prepared by chief executive.  Even when the board pack doesn’t run to hundreds of pages (as it does in many organisations), we have seen worthwhile examples of chief executives’ overviews and similar overviews by board chairs. These are immensely helpful for directors in preparing for a board meeting. They are also a very useful starting point for the agenda confirmation process referred to earlier. For example, what is the overall shape of the meeting? Is it clear what the board needs to focus on? Does the sequencing of items set out in the agenda make sense or should the order be changed?
Meet and greet
Finally, we noted the views of another director who described to Smith the importance of participants being welcomed and properly introduced. Her reference, in particular, was to the executives who come and go from a board meeting.
This is not only good manners but, as she noted, being able to match names to faces helps when the board has conversations around succession and talent development. Although there is a clear distinction between board and executive duties, it helps break down barriers and demonstrate that board members are approachable and available if they can be potentially helpful in particular areas. The introductions make it easier to make connections and conduct future conversations.
 Mark R. Smith. ‘The Opening Act.’ Directors and Boards. October 2023.
 We would argue for the board to spend some time without the CEO first and then invite the CEO to join the board for ‘board/CEO time’. These two phases serve different purposes.
 We have written elsewhere about the importance of director-only sessions and how they might be conducted. See for example, ‘Are board-only sessions acceptable and worthwhile?’
 It is apparent from Smith’s interviews that many of the boards represented consume the board packs in the form of PowerPoint slides. We have cautioned elsewhere against the over use of PowerPoint and its associated bullet point presentation style.