Make Your Board Materials Reflect Well on You
Foresight BoardOps is lucky to have an Advisory Board that includes governance luminaries like Doug Chia of Soundboard Governance. Here, Doug shares his best advice on making your board materials reflect well on you. Here is Doug’s great advice on preparing your advance materials and yourself for board and committee meetings.
Directors must fulfill fiduciary duties to the company, and a critical part that is receiving the information they need to be adequately informed and conduct effective board meetings. Directors who serve or have served on multiple boards can tell a lot about the company’s management based on the materials they receive to prepare for board meetings and how those materials are used in meetings. Here are several things to keep in mind for your board and committee meeting materials.
Manage the Volume of Advance Materials
Generally, you should provide your directors enough information to enable them to:
- fulfill their oversight duties,
- have well-informed discussions, and
- make informed decisions,
but not so much that the volume obscures the most relevant information. Avoid getting “into the weeds” with operational detail that would be useful to a high-level staff member at your company, but not necessarily to an outside board member.
To this end, set standards for presentation decks to make presenters succinctly lay out their key points, action items, and recommendations. Discuss with your board the ideal standards for presentation decks. Here is a starting point for those discussions:
- 10 slides per presentation deck,
- 8 to 10 lines of text per slide,
- 2 charts, graphs, tables or other visuals per slide.
Specify the Purpose of Advance Materials
Oftentimes, directors are not clear why you are providing certain materials to them. Your advance materials should always identify:
- why you are providing the materials to the board, and
- what board action or feedback (if any) you are seeking.
Indicate on the cover of each cover memo and slide presentation deck: “For Information,” “For Discussion,” “For Action,” etc. This will tell your directors how they should be thinking about each item before diving into the advance materials.
Provide Cover Memos for Advance Materials
Provide a 1 or 2-page cover memo for each topic on the meeting agenda. This memo will set the stage for each presentation deck and meeting discussion with a narrative explanation of the context, key take-aways and decision points. The memo should:
- Briefly summarize the topic.
- Say why this topic is on the agenda for this particular meeting.
- Include relevant background or context not covered in your presentation deck (particularly helpful to the newer directors).
- Summarize your conclusions and/or recommendations.
- Tell your directors what (if anything) you need from them.
These memos will focus your directors’ attention on the most critical points in the presentation decks.
You can also use brief memos to update your board regarding ongoing oversight matters that do not require review at meetings and to address any follow-up items from prior meetings that do not require further discussion.
Use a Consistent Format for Presentation Decks
Develop a standard template for slide presentation decks for board meetings. A consistent layout, format and style will help your directors better navigate the materials.
Consistent format is especially important in reporting key performance metrics, which should be part of the advance materials for every board meeting, so directors can easily see trends. You can also develop standard “dashboards” of key performance metrics for this purpose that regular presenters update for every meeting.
Your directors are likely accessing your advance materials via an electronic board portal, such as Foresight®, and reviewing them on a laptop or tablet. Make sure to use a format conducive to reading and navigation on a small electronic device. Make sure fonts are large enough and your charts are not too busy. You can build required fonts and font sizes into your standard template.
Write to Be Easily Understood
Make your materials crisp. Write in active voice and in “plain English.” Use short sentences and bullet points. Avoid using shorthand, acronyms and industry or company jargon. Ifyou use do use certain acronyms, shorthand, or technical terms in your board materials on a regular basis, consider providing a glossary that spells out acronyms and defines technical terms. This will be especially helpful for newer board members.
One common complaint from boards in general is that presenters spend too much time “walking through” the advance materials, taking away precious time for directors to ask questions and give feedback. Assume your directors will carefully read the materials you send and arrive at meetings prepared to engage in robust discussion and make necessary decisions.
Resist the urge to go through each slide in your advance materials at the meeting. Do not read your slides aloud word-for-word. You may not even need to reference every slide during your presentation. A consistent message from boards is that showing fewer slides results in more efficient meetings and allows more time for engage discussion.
Manage Your Time
Assume you will have less than the budgeted time to cover your agenda topic. With many substantive items to cover at each meeting, there is a good chance that at the meeting, presenters will be asked to move quickly through their presentations “for the sake of time” (especially topics scheduled for the later part of meeting). Even if you do have a large chunk of time budgeted for a topic, anticipate that directors will ask questions that take the discussion deeper into some elements or off on tangents. A good “rule of thumb” for presenters is planning to devote only one-third of the budgeted time to presenting. That will leave plenty of time for questions and discussion without running over.
Make a Good Impression
Consistently providing your directors with high-quality materials and conducting effective meetings are critical components of your obligation to them and will leave direct impressions of your levels of commitment and preparedness.
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