Board papers are the key source of information for directors. They supply the data and information necessary to ensure the discussion and decisions at meetings are as productive and effective as possible. It is important for board members to feel confident about the quality of the papers, as the framework for the board’s decision-making processes.
However, the writers of board papers often see this task as secondary to their ‘real’ job. Put simply, paper writing is seen as a chore. Board’s fail to understand more effective board papers achieve a more favourable outcome.
Managers have different needs to directors, who do not need the same level of detail or operational focus. If a director is drowning in detail, they may miss the key message. Further, paper writers may not appreciate that directors don’t have their depth of understanding on a specific topic. This can be compounded if the writer uses unexplained abbreviations, technical jargon and financial information in graph or table that is not summarised.
Writing board papers is difficult as papers need to be both concise and comprehensive. Within a few lines the writer needs to clearly state the issue, outline implications for the business and make a recommendation. They need to anticipate questions and answer them in the paper. From a writer’s perspective, it is important to consider:
- What do directors need from my paper?
- What do I want to achieve by writing this paper?
- What do I want the board to do in response?
Board paper templates can help with consistency, particularly when using templates for the three types of board papers:
- papers for decision or approval;
- papers for discussion; and
- papers for noting.
Managing the flow of information to the board is critical. The board needs to ensure the volume of board papers is appropriate, that key matters are highlighted, and the information is comprehensible to all board members. Further, the provision of board papers well in advance of meetings allows directors to save valuable time at meetings by being prepared for discussions. It also allows them the opportunity to seek clarification in advance on ambiguous items.
If the board is not happy with the contents of the board pack, the board must advise management and work out what is needed, how it should be presented and the timeframe in which it should arrive. As such, to guide board paper writers, we recommend that boards develop a board paper policy. This can be a separate policy or can be incorporated into the board charter or handbook. We can help organisations develop this policy. The benefit far outweighs the cost in terms of management and director satisfaction.