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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