By Mary Morel | 9 October 2013
Most executives and directors involved in board room reporting understand, in theory, the difference between governance and operations.
The question is how to manage the blur that inevitably creeps in when executives provide too much information and directors start to engage with operational details.
Size is a symptom of this bulge and many companies indulge in yo-yo dieting. Board packs may start out lean, but over time start to grow until someone says ‘enough’. Then the pack is reviewed and lap band surgery is applied. Often appendices are the first to go and executives are given reduced page-length guidelines. Consultants’ reports may also be summarised rather than included.
For a while, the new diet works, then the blow-out starts from either side. Directors may request extra information for a variety of reasons (tighter economic times requiring more vigilance, lack of understanding of an issue) and sometimes this extra information becomes a standard, unquestioned part of the board pack.
Or executives who have the ‘curse of knowledge’ provide too much detail, which directors then read and inevitably ask questions about.
To prevent yo-yo dieting getting out of control, directors, and particularly the chair, must be clear about what information they need and why. They must also provide regular feedback on the quality of reports and papers they are receiving. Are they receiving the right information? Is the content accurate and complete? Are the reports and papers well-written and easy to read?
This feedback needs to percolate down to the writers who contribute to the reports and papers. Too often, writers work like mushrooms in the dark without having a clear understanding of the board’s role or whether their contribution is appropriate. Also, executives need to understand what information they are presenting and why. Many executives provide information dumps without stating their significance for the organisation.
For example, the fact that Susan Smith is on maternity leave is not a matter for the board unless Susan holds a key position in the organisation. Yet too often, that type of detail is provided without commentary.
Another issue is time management. Many executives leave preparing their report or paper until the last minute. While information needs to be topical, rushed writing is seldom good writing. Putting a document aside and rewriting it later always improves clarity and readability.
A famous quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Pascal goes along the lines of:
‘Sorry to write you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write you a short one.’
It is just as true for board reports and papers.