There's no consensus on how often the ritual should take place.
For most company directors the board meeting comes around once a month with awful regularity. A survey by 3i in 1992 found that, in two-thirds of the companies canvassed - both public and private - the board met either monthly or 10 times a year, and sat for three hours on average. Around 20% opted for every other month (much as in the US where boards typically forgather six or seven times a year). And some 14% met only once a quarter. Is that perhaps a little too infrequent? By the same token, are monthly meetings really necessary?
Patrick Dunne, head of 3i's independent directors programme, holds that the majority view is not necessarily the right one. 'It's easy for monthly meetings to become ritualistic. For the finance director in particular, who is usually the most heavily involved in preparation, the monthly boardroom cycle can become something of a hamster wheel. The fewer meetings you have, the more you have to focus. If you combine that approach with a sensible structure of sub-committees, then the board as a whole can function a lot more effectively.' Dunne's preference for a less crowded calendar is echoed elsewhere. 'If you meet for longer, but less often, you can get a lot more out of a meeting and put more in,' says David Shellard, managing director of headhunters Russell Reynolds. In place of a dozen half-day meetings, Shellard would rather see the board assembling six times a year, but for a whole day. 'A more time-generous meeting allows for a stronger strategic discussion.' There is a remarkable lack of consensus on this matter among Britain's biggest companies. BAT and Glaxo Wellcome directors come together once a month. At BTR, RTZ and SmithKline Beecham the board meets either five or six times a year. For the first time next year, BOC will hold six meetings instead of its usual eight. The change, says a spokesman, was prompted by a board review of 'the essential elements of its work'. The engineering group Halma also favours six meetings a year. 'Once every two months is quite sufficient for strategy,' opines chairman and chief executive David Barber.
There's no universally correct number, argues George Duncan, chairman of steelmakers ASW and a non-executive director of eight other companies including BET and Laporte. 'It's quite difficult to say that fewer is better,' he says. 'In some companies, say in a turnround situation, there is a need for a close and regular focus on operational areas. If the business follows an even pattern and operations don't require the same sort of attention, more time can be spent on strategy and meetings can be less frequent.' The current tendency is to hold a special meeting dedicated to strategy. And in view of the growing involvement of directors in non-strategic areas, particularly on audit committees, the trend is towards 'more rather then fewer meetings'.
Jonathan Charkham, a member of the Cadbury committee and non-executive director of Great Universal Stores, similarly favours flexibility. 'Frequency depends on the nature and complexity of the business. It's also a question of geography, as seen in the US. The greater the distance between the directors, the fewer and longer meetings a company will have. Quarterly meetings must be regarded as the absolute minimum.' Even in companies whose directors meet quarterly, he points out, board committees generally ensure that most non-executives will have at least six or seven commitments a year.
Frequent meetings don't always make for a better run company, as Duncan observes. But more important than the number of meetings is 'the quality and balance of the information'.