writing notes

How to write a smashing board paper

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” apparently said Mark Twain. He might have said the same about writing a board paper! In our work assisting boards of all shapes and sizes across the country, a consistent topic of discussion is the nature, content and length of board papers. 

It’s the role of the board collectively to provide guidance to management on its information needs. In our experience, this is a common area for board improvement. While boards are often good at critiquing management’s reports and papers, they can struggle to proactively outline what they are seeking in board papers. Even more unhelpful is when individual directors on the same board provide conflicting advice to management in this regard.  

In the absence of this clarity, management runs the risk of second-guessing what information the board should receive. Inevitably, this results in board papers that are lengthy and unwieldy. 

So what are some tips for management when writing board reports and papers? 

Sue Tomat works with clients across the globe assisting them to communicate more effectively. Sue offers the following key insights: 

Tip 1: Guide report writers to change their mindsets about the purpose of reporting. The best board reports are written by those whose mindset is collaborative. They understand the purpose of a report is to enable the board members, as the elected representatives of the investors, to satisfy themselves that management is taking action to sort out material issues, manage material challenges and take advantage of material opportunities. This leads to more, future-, action- and solution-focused information in reports and enables the board members to: 

  • fulfil their duties to the shareholders who elected them 
  • collaborate with management by offering their perspectives, based on their collective extensive experience and expertise, to ensure actions and solutions are likely to be effective.  

Tip 2: Educate writers of update or ‘noting’ reports about the differences between the role of the board and their roles. The board’s role is to focus on material exceptions and, even more importantly, what is being done about them (revisit Tip 1). The board doesn’t need to know about immaterial matters. 

Tip 3: Remind report writers that it is inevitable that they will be asked unexpected questions. Report writers often agonise over having been asked unexpected questions. This often leads to a ‘put it all in just in case’ approach to report writing, leading to a ‘world of pain’ for board members. In reality, it is impossible to write a report that anticipates every question. This is because every board member’s unique work and life experiences: 

  • will inform their questions 
  • cannot be known by the writers unless they are telepathic! 

Like any other skill, good writing is based on learning and practising. Training for those who are involved in writing board papers can be a good investment. Board-approved templates for standard board reports (eg the CEO, CFO and risk report) and the standard board briefing paper can also be very helpful.  

Sue’s services include:  

  • training writers and readers to collaboratively produce excellent reports that enable them all to get on with the job of creating thriving businesses 
  • consulting to refine outdated and ineffective templates 
  • consulting to refine high-stakes documents, including investor and stakeholder communications. 

You can view Sue’s profile on Linkedin here.

Directors Australia facilitates board and management workshops on a range of areas including roles, expectations and dynamics. You can read more about services HERE

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