Why You Should Ban Laptops at Board Meetings

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Suster (@msuster), a 2x entrepreneur, now VC at GRP Partners. Read more about Suster at his Startup BlogBothSidesoftheTable.

I haven’t had too many board meetings lately so I want to get this timely post out now lest somebody think I’m talking about their company or board in particular. This is a post about ALL boards.

Back when I ran board meetings as a CEO, the biggest annoyance was Blackberrys. You would always be able to tell what was going on by seeing the unhealthy infatuation board members had with staring at their crotches. Somehow they imagined you didn’t notice that they were glancing beneath the table secretly firing off one-line emails.

Every entrepreneur I know bitched about it and the smartest boards banned Blackberrys.

Fast forward to today. We now have ultra-lightweight laptops (MacBook Airs) or iPads and totally available Wi-Fi connections. So every board meeting I’m at has laptops opened and iPads on. They are just there to “be productive” and review your material. Um, yeah. This is a mistake.

Why a Mistake?
The board meeting is the one time you have as a management team to engage your investors. If you’ve raised money from meaningful people then you really want to maximize every minute of this time. That’s why I advise startups to get the board packs out early (so board members actually read them) and to focus as little of the board meeting as possible on “updates” and as much as possible on “strategic discussions.”

If you want to know how I believe you could run better board meetings you can read my 3 posts on “Running More Effective Board Meetings,” “The Agile Board” and “How to Communicate with Investors Between Meetings.”

But you know in your core that there is no positive gain from investors or management having laptops open. They don’t need to “go through your deck,” “access the financials,” “look at your competitors products” or any of the other BS reasons to have a laptop open. They should be engaged 100% in the meeting. And even they would prefer this. But given the temptations when your laptop is open that are elicited by those little popups of incoming email it’s impossible to not “just quickly read this message and fire off a response.”

We are all guilty. We are all human.

The reality is that over the years I’ve sat in 100’s of board meetings and I see what people do on their laptops. They flip between your presentation and email or the Internet. If any of us have our laptop sopen in any meeting we can’t help it. Which is why I don’t open it. It’s why when I go to a romantic dinner with my wife I leave my Blackberry in the car (at least I intend to ;-)) – because given the temptation we just can’t resist. We’re human. Even your management team members with laptops get sucked into other work.

The only solution to maximize your meeting – no laptops. Period.

What to Do About It?
If you have a 3-hour board meeting I recommend that you take a 20-minute email break 90 minutes in. Tell people in advance. Tell them that you have a “no laptop” policy so that you can maximize your time with them. Send them this post and blame it on me – I don’t care.

But if they know in advance that they’ll have a chance to get to email to “sign off on that important deal they’re supposed to close” there is no excuse for not giving you undivided attention for the time you have together.

Just Say “NO”
Ultimately it’s up to us as VCs to enforce the behavior amongst our peer group. There needs to be collective pressure to really be engaged in our board meetings or why have them at all. If we all agree to leave our laptops in their bags (not even on the table where we’ll be tempted to open them!) in exchange for an Internet time out every 90 minutes then we can all drive better behavior.

Think of it like a smoking break for email addicts.

And … Just say “no” to laptops in board meetings. I’m taking the pledge today.

You?

Image courtesy of Fotolia and the generosity of Ryan Born