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May 24, 2021

How to Gain the Confidence of Your Board

board meeting

Throughout my career as a B2B marketer, I relished interacting with the board of directors. Whether it was at a quarterly meeting, a holiday dinner, or in passing at the office, I always got a sense of exhilaration over the opportunity to put my best foot forward. But I’ll confess something to you today: there was also a part of me that dreaded it, especially when I would attend board meetings. 

Why We Sometimes Dread Board Meetings

For one, preparing for board meetings is a lot of work. Even the most seasoned slide jockeys understand the pressure of crafting a compelling story, coupled with data to support it, and just the right talk track. I had a day job, after all, so the hours spent on my board deck took me away from driving the outcomes I was on the hook for in the first place.

Then there’s the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. As marketers, we don’t always know what the board wants to hear. Should we ask them? Should we guess? What if the story I tell fails to hit the right notes or worse, exposes weakness in my org that I should have blown the whistle about months ago?  

“Marketers Always Need Good Ideas From the Board,” Said Nobody Ever

As marketers, we have it even harder than most members of the executive leadership team (ELT) when we walk into board meetings. That’s because everyone fancies themselves a marketer in some way. Here’s the thing: we make hard things look easy, so everyone thinks they can do it. 

I can guarantee you that the CTO and CFO don’t have folks coming to them saying “I have an idea…” So we have the added pressure of knowing that a board member may offer the brilliant marketing idea they had in the shower that day and wonder if we can execute it next week.

If I’m being honest, these are all valid reasons to dread board meetings, but I started to wonder whether we should dread them. 

Are Board Meetings Friend or Foe?

After joining Norwest last year as an operating executive and gaining exposure to so many companies in the growth equity and venture portfolios, I began attending board meetings as an observer. My motivation was simple: to gain a deeper understanding of the businesses I was helping and to provide support to their marketing teams. 

My support spanned from working with marketers on their decks and preparation, to just being the friendly face on the Zoom channeling “Go You!” energy. I also thought I might pick up a few insights along the way that would be worthy of sharing. What a learning experience it was! So much that I ended up culling my insights into a playbook, of sorts, and later socialized it with several CMOs in the portfolio as well as multiple board members. 

Allow me to give a shout out to my top contributors, including Rob Arditi, Co-Head of Growth Equity at Norwest; Scott Beechuk, Partner (Venture) at Norwest; David Garcia, CEO of ScoutLogic and Senior Advisor at Norwest; and Wynn White, independent CMO advisor and former CMO at FloQast.

Enjoy these highlights below and view the slides from my recent webinar on this topic. Take note of the B2B metrics in the “bonus material” portion of the appendix!

Creating a Two-Way Exchange of Value

One of the things that stood out the most during my research was the degree to which most marketers (and extended ELT members) approach board meetings like a reporting session. I get it. The board is technically your boss’s boss, so it’s only natural that you think of them as superior to you. 

But consider this: board members are also people. People that have invested in your company and are motivated to make it successful. They’ve got major skin in the game and have a job to do when they turn up for board meetings. So why let them off the hook when you can turn the meeting into a roll-up-your sleeves working session?

Since you’re likely sending a pre-read of the materials in advance, assume the board has absorbed the details ahead of time. Once you get into the session, you can cover the highlights while leaving plenty of time to have a meaty discussion with the great minds in the room. This is the forum to leverage their experience and knowledge to jointly challenge assumptions, consider alternative paths and together come to the best decisions for the business. 

If we can reframe board meetings from a one-way reporting session to a two-way exchange of value, we’ll go a long way toward making board meetings our friend. Remember, you’re in this together, so put the board to work and hold them accountable. 

Pro Tips for Gaining the Board’s Confidence

Zoom Out

As we prepare for board meetings, we as marketers sometimes feel like we’re guessing what people want to hear, so we compensate by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into our decks. We go into KPI overdrive. Or worse, we share a marketing to-do list. 

One of the ways to combat this is to get clear on what story you want to tell and ask yourself for every slide: is there a “so what” here? It’s easy to get lost in the weeds and before you know it, you’re droning on slide by slide, using your data as a crutch for your talk track instead of telling a crisp story. 

At a high level, your deck should cover:

  • Objectives/Strategies
  • Progress against them
  • What’s working well, what’s not
  • Where you need help

A word of caution: resist the temptation to over-rotate on demand gen and pipeline. Even though that’s important, it’s not the only thing. Be prepared to address category, brand, and awareness as drivers of enterprise value.

Finally, don’t conflate board materials with board discussion. You’ll send all your materials in advance, so by the time you get in the room, challenge yourself to distill it down so that the headline on every slide is clear to a lean-back audience.

Be Candid

It goes without saying that honesty rules the day in any professional situation; that’s table stakes. What I mean by being candid is that you’re better off getting ahead of potential roadblocks and surfacing them to the board early and often. Two reasons for this. 

One, nobody likes surprises, especially negative ones. The worst thing that could happen is that challenges get swept under the rug or obscured, only to reveal themselves in the numbers two quarters later. (Gulp). If you hit challenges head-on, the board can provide you with resources and support to help you tackle them before they become major success blockers.

Second, I think candor is also important in the context of presenting a united story across functions in the company. I’ve observed board meetings where the marketer highlights green light statuses on things like SQLs, press coverage, and share of voice while the sales and CS leaders lament flagging close rates and retention. This not only shows a lack of alignment, but it also shows a gap in awareness of the broader business landscape.

Ask for Help

Of all functions in an org, dare I say that marketing is one of the most multifaceted. We wear ten hats on any given day and traverse strategic, visionary thinking with tactical execution. Because of this, it’s sometimes difficult for us to see the forest from the trees. 

This is where the board can help. Remember, they’re not living your reality. While you may have had a challenge rolling around in your head for weeks, they have not. So this makes them uniquely qualified to bring an open mind and a fresh perspective. Not to mention that they likely sit on multiple other boards and therefore have access to strategies, best practices, and data from other companies that can benefit you. 

This isn’t to say you should dump your challenges onto the board and expect them to tell you what to do. But if you come forth with what’s not working, and you present a POV, you’re in a powerful position to seek inputs, ask for resources, and leverage the board’s connections. They might not have all the answers, but they can find someone who does. 

Anticipating Questions: What the Board Might Ask You

As you can imagine, every company is different, every board meeting is different; so it’s impossible to predict specific questions. But, I have found that there are certain high-level themes that tend to pop up time and time again. And these aren’t just themes that I see in board meetings, these are common questions our partners ask of companies they are considering investing in. So, it’s good to think about these things as a marketer, even if you’re not yet getting in front of the board. 

  • What are the drivers of growth or underperformance?
  • What are the opportunities for improvement/risks?
  • Where should we be investing more dollars and what outcomes would that drive?
  • What are competitors doing better than we are?
  • What’s the plan, timeline, and expected outcomes?

Expanding Your Audience

There’s a certain mystique about board meetings among rank-and-file workers inside of companies. Everyone wants to know what goes on behind closed doors. So even if they don’t ask, your marketing team is dying to know how it went. I recommend making a practice of sharing your deck in a separate session following the board meeting.

Walk your team through the slides, review the narrative, and share the appropriate level of detail about the discussion with the board. This level of transparency will help them understand the bigger picture and how marketing fits into that. They’ll also find inspiration in seeing how the work they do every day contributes to the business. As leaders, we not only answer to the board, we work in service to our teams too. Then everyone wins!

Lisa Ames is Norwest’s CMO and Operating Executive. She leverages her more than 20 years of B2B SaaS marketing experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with portfolio companies to help them thrive.


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