How often do we hear the cry, ‘we couldn’t get it past the board’? Too often, I suspect. The intransigence of the Board of Directors is regularly blamed for the lack of innovation or progress in a company. Quite unfairly so.
The failure to manage perception and approval at board level lies firmly with the petitioner. A board paper should be an instrument of persuasion, and should work in much the same way as an advertisement. This means the petitioner must regard the board as a target audience, and take steps to understand members’ perspectives.
Boards are made up of non- executive and executive members, and both types are likely to be busy people – in their own right. Boards also often mix people with skin in the game and individuals without equity. So, that’s four constituencies to influence, even before you consider attitudinal variation.
Generally speaking, the clarity and persuasiveness of a board paper is in inverse proportion to its physical mass. It might almost be better to use a pair of old-fashioned weighing scales to assess likelihood of success. Board members rightly anticipate being weighed down with circumstantial detail. So much so that receipt of the pre-meeting ‘board pack’ is often met with a loud groan.
Furthermore, the writers of board papers are often so familiar with the material they are writing about; they assume everyone else shares a similar level of knowledge. They do not appreciate that many directors may not have their depth of understanding on a topic. This can be made worse if the writer uses unexplained abbreviations, technical jargon and financial or other information in graph or table format that is not adequately summarised. This leads to questions being asked … and questions that cannot be answered in the meeting lead to further delays.
Remember that in order to fulfil their fiduciary duties, directors should be confident they can trust the data presented. Does it cover the critical issues? Is it sufficiently up to date? Is the information purely historic or does it assess future risks?
Ideally any documentation prepared for the board should consider that bullet points are preferable to lengthy paragraphs. Long documents should contain an executive summary. Key points, options and recommendations should be highlighted. Technical terms should be explained in a glossary.
Returning to the importance of persuasion, no paper will succeed if it is poorly spelled or grammatically misconstrued. Telling the unvarnished truth – and not just ‘upping’ the good news – also improves its credibility.
Weighty, unintelligible board papers are disincentive to approval. Think about your audience before you draft. And give your board members a break!
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside