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Author Archive for Mary Morel

Writing board and executive papers

Writing executive and board papers

How to write board papers when your organisation doesn’t have executive papers

I’ve worked for a few organisations this year, large and small, that don’t have executive papers. The problem with not having executive papers is that writers produce board papers that read like executive papers. I call them pseudo-board papers.

With small-to-medium-sized organisations, I can understand their not wanting executives to spend more time writing papers. As one CEO said: ‘There’s no way I’m going to introduce another level of reporting.’ In that organisation, most writers were technical experts and many found writing difficult and time-consuming, taking time away from ‘real’ work.

In larger organisations, the same reasoning may apply, but I wonder if the benefits of executive papers might outweigh the disadvantages of more reporting.

The pseudo-board papers I read included information such as:

  • Social media metrics in raw data (e.g. number of ‘likes’)
  • Individual safety incidents described in-depth without any insight into trends or action being taken
  • All staff movements given with no commentary on the significance of the information

NB I have used the term ‘board papers’ to refer to both regular reports and one-off papers.

So what’s the difference between executive and board papers?

Board papers are concise, strategic and risk-focused, while executive papers may be longer and more operational. Board papers will include insights and commentary, giving the writers’ opinion, and executive papers may be more factual and data-driven.

In simple terms, I think of board papers telling me the ‘what’ and ‘why’ with a bit of the ‘how’, and executive papers telling me ‘what’ and with a bit of ‘why’ and a lot of the ‘how’.

Write yourself an executive paper

When writing board papers, I often encourage people to think about their key messages first, then work out what evidence and data they need to support their messages.

I wonder if you need to take a different approach if your organisation doesn’t have executive papers and try writing one yourself. You need to have all the data in one place to see it clearly and analyse it for insights, highlights or issues.

Some of your data may be useful for an appendix but think carefully before providing an appendix. Many writers undo the benefit of a concise paper when they throw in an appendix to ‘cover themselves’. While appendices occasionally have their place, they are compulsory, reading for directors – not optional –  so must be relevant.

Think of your audience’s role

When thinking of the difference between executive and board papers, it helps to think of the different roles of a board member and an executive. A board has an overview role, so needs to understand what is happening, but doesn’t need all the details. The value directors often bring to a topic is being able to look at it from a broader standpoint. They can’t do that if they’re mired in data that lacks a framework. An executive team is operational, so needs more detail, but often doesn’t need as much background information.

As well as thinking about their roles, it helps if you see your audience as real people. Many writers have never met the board and may never do so. If that is the case, it’s useful to look at the directors’ profiles, which are usually on the internet. Having an understanding of directors’ qualifications and experience helps you appreciate what context to provide and what questions they might ask. Talking to someone who has presented to the board can also flesh out your knowledge.

You will know the executive team – if not personally, at least by reputation – and will have a better understanding of their information requirements. Although they won’t all be subject-matter experts on your topic, you can often use more jargon and provide less background information.

What do you want your audience to know or do?

Once you’ve got all your data in one place and are thinking about your audience, you need to pitch your writing at the right level. It helps if you ask yourself:

What do I want my audience to know or do after reading my board report or paper?

In the examples I’ve given earlier, the writers wanted to inform directors about the current state of play and maybe highlight issues that the directors needed to know about. If there was nothing contentious or newsworthy in these papers, the directors won’t need to discuss them.

The information would now be dealt with differently:

  • The social media metrics would be analysed and linked to a strategy and key performance indicators.
  • The safety report would link to key performance indicators with exceptions, good and bad, noted. If necessary, there could be discussion about a particular issue, and some data could be included in an appendix.
  • Only key staff movements would be noted, unless there were a sudden rise in resignations that needed an explanation.

As you’re writing a board paper, you’ll be thinking about what you want to communicate. Once you’ve written it, put it aside and then look at it through an imaginary director’s eyes. Ask yourself:

What will the directors know or what action will they take after reading this report or paper?

Reviewing your report or paper from their perspective can help you refine your content.

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‘Directors don’t read their board papers’

Directors don't read papers‘We know they don’t read their board papers because they ask questions that are addressed in the papers.’

I hear this complaint often from people who write and present to boards.

Write so directors can recall the content

I am sure there are some directors who rely on meetings rather than their board pack, but in my experience most directors take their fiduciary duties seriously. And I am sure many are reading APRA’s report on the Commonwealth Bank with great interest.

While I appreciate that writers get annoyed by seemingly stupid questions, I wonder if part of the fault lies in the way they are writing. What if directors had read their papers, but not managed to tease out the key messages from the waffle?

Over the last few years, I’ve read hundreds of board papers and I often have to re-read papers several times to feel confident that I understand what the writer is saying. Given the amount of material directors have to read, it’s no wonder they miss things. Writers don’t appreciate that directors may allocate 10 minutes to read a paper that they have spent 10 hours or more slaving over.

Imagine if directors could read and understand a board paper in a single reading and know what action, if any, was required? When they glanced at the paper in the board meeting, they could quickly recall the content.

That would be a win for everyone, but not many papers are like that.

State the key messages in the summary

Many board paper templates have a summary section (sometimes called other names, such as Overview, Key points, Discussion questions). When confronted with this section, most writers treat it as an introduction and state what the paper will cover.

Yet if writers want directors to quickly recall what they’ve read, a summary is an excellent place to remind them. For instance, I recently asked a writer what the key messages were in his paper. He was able to tell me:

  • Products have been refined to meet customers’ needs based on demographics
  • Costs associated with this are $X
  • Potential risks will be managed by…

Another example:

  • We’ve made more money in the last financial year
  • As a consequence of making more money, we have an X issue, which we can address by Y

In writing, you need to be more specific than in speech. For instance, you’d need to state what you mean by ‘refined’ in the first example above, but if you clarify your messages before writing, you can then place them upfront in your paper.

Provide balance between the big picture and details

Some writers think when I talk about getting to the point upfront that I am asking them to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator as if they were writing for a tabloid newspaper. They tell me that their topics are complex and that it will take directors years to understand the technicalities of their business. One CEO recently told me that he expected directors to take three years to come up to speed.

It’s a question of balance. Directors don’t need to understand the full complexities of a business – they are not on staff – but they do need to  know what’s happening in the organisation and they need evidence to support high-level messaging so they can make decisions with comfort and confidence. Scandals emerging from the Banking Commission in Australia make me wonder how well-informed many directors are.

Obviously, making sure directors are informed is not just a matter of providing better-written papers, but they would help!

Remember the basic principles of writing well

Sometimes I think we over-complicate things and if we stopped and asked basic questions before we wrote, we would write more clearly.

The basic principles of writing are simple:

  • What do you want to say and why?
  • Is a paper the best way to communicate your message?
  • What does your audience know about this topic?
  • What outcome do you want?

Then you need to:

  • State your key messages upfront
  • Contextualise your messages with background and relevant details
  • Structure your writing for your reader, not yourself
  • Group information so it is easy to read and remember
  • Use language your audience will relate to

If writers wrote simply and clearly, I am sure directors would find their papers easier to read and ask fewer questions that have already been addressed in the paper.