A good board pack provides the foundation for a productive board meeting. In an ideal world, board packs are built and shared with directors well in advance of meetings. They contain succinct, insightful and up-to-date figures and commentary that delivers a comprehensive picture of the business, so directors are fully informed and in the best position to make the right decisions for the organisation. The world is rarely ideal, however, and often company secretaries are faced with having to incorporate board papers that are submitted at the last minute, are too long and do not clearly articulate the information they contain. As a result, directors struggle to extract key information and arrive at the board meeting with the clarity they need.
Fixing this situation should be a priority for board administrators and company secretaries, as it will ultimately improve board performance and efficiency, not to mention earning the gratitude of busy directors.
Here are five tips that will help to streamline and improve the quality of board meeting materials and make life easier for directors and board administrators alike.
1. Ace the agenda
The board meeting agenda is the foundation for the meeting and largely dictates the materials that will be needed. The annual calendar dictates the content of agenda items – such as financial reports, for example – and ad hoc items may be added as the business climate dictates.
The contents of the agenda should be agreed upon by the board chair well in advance of the meeting. Those required to submit board papers should be given adequate notice, together with a clear deadline by when they should be delivered. There will always be departments that require “wriggle room” when submitting their papers, so deadlines should be set with this in mind. This ensures that if materials arrive late there is still enough time for review by the Chair and company secretary before the packs are to be shared with directors.
Avoid adding unnecessary content to the board pack; if a paper doesn’t relate to an agenda item, it shouldn’t be included. Similarly, push back on requests to add appendix items. If it isn’t important enough to go into the main paper, then the question stands, should it be in the board pack at all? The exceptions are documents that are required for regulatory purposes.
2. Brief contributors effectively
When asked to report to the board, executives can often fall into the trap that “more must be better”. In today’s heavily compliance-focused environment, senior executives may be fearful of leaving something out, opting to cover their bases by drafting reports that are long and unwieldy and require directors to conduct their own analysis.
By providing a strong brief to writers and offering document templates, setting word counts and specifying maximum page counts, executives have a structure to follow that helps them understand and focus on what the board needs to know.
Contributors should be reminded that the board is not concerned with fine operational detail. The board seeks to gain insight and inform decisions that strategically position the organization for the future. Where are the risks and opportunities? What are the challenges that might prevent the organisation from achieving its objectives?
Encourage contributors to include data visualisation. Reams of prose are hard to digest and demand a lot of time and concentration from directors, when often a simple graphic can offer the same insight in a more impactful way.
3. Ask for executive summaries
In addition to the main paper, ask contributors to draft a one-page executive summary explaining:
- Why the paper is being brought to the board i.e. the material importance of the issue
- What the board is being asked to discuss, review, or decide after reading it
- The key data points that are presented and the conclusions reached.
This executive summary is a useful tool for directors in the meeting itself, who can consult it as a quick reference and aide-memoire during discussions. It keeps the conversation focused on what the board is being asked to achieve.
Adopting a more prescriptive approach to board paper format and executive summaries means writers know what is expected of them. This is also a benefit for senior executives, who are typically just as pressed for time as the directors for whom they are writing the report.
4. Use a template for board packs – consistency is key
There are two aspects to this, one related to format and the second to content. First, a consistent layout, format and navigation style for board packs helps directors by building familiarity. They know what to expect and how to navigate the pack, saving time both during preparation and in the meeting itself. If you are using board management software, the pack should be built around the agenda, with clickable links to the relevant supporting material for each item.
The second area where consistency is key is in reporting key performance indicators. Once KPIs have been identified, they should be reported in every board pack so trends can be identified. These KPIs should cover all aspects of the business including human resources, corporate social responsibility, for example, not just financial performance. This is particularly important right now, where ESG performance is having a visible impact on overall business performance.
The providers of these KPIs should be given standing calendar reminders that their data is due for submission well in advance of the deadline for sharing the board pack.
5. Evaluate and improve
If the board is not getting the right information, at the right time, in the right format, the business needs to know. Assessment of the quality and usability of board packs should be a standing item in the board evaluation schedule. This can be accomplished on an ongoing basis by including questions about board packs in post-meeting director questionnaires, but it should also be examined in more detail during the formal board evaluation process.
Board packs should help the organisation by providing the right information to the right people at the right time to enable effective decision-making. A successful board pack is one of the building blocks of good corporate governance, helping directors serve the organisation better and making the best use of their time and expertise. Getting it right will pay dividends across the business.
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