Better board packs - a guide for writing and using board papers
Date: 15 August 2023
Author: Tara Granea, Independent Director - Governance, Tchoukball UK
The SGA posted a poll on the Huddle recently, asking respondents to rate the quality of their board papers. So far, 18% consider their packs to be very good, 47% feel they are good, while 35% find them to be variable. Chief among the factors cited in comments accompanying the responses were length, uncertainty as to what should be included, a lack of consistency in the format of papers presented to the board, and a need for clarity as to what is required of the board on any given paper.
Tara Granea, Independent Director - Governance at Tchoukball UK, has kindly shared a paper aimed at both those writing board papers and the board members who use them as the basis for their decision-making responsibilities.
Board Members – How to use board papers effectively.
What is the point of board papers?
Board papers are a key source of information for you as board members, alongside providing an audit trail to accompany the minutes. As board members, you have a duty and expectation to keep yourselves informed on business matters and direction, but relevant briefing material upon which to base decisions and discussions is vital from the management.
What information will be presented to me?
Management will begin with a statement of what is being asked of you as a board member, together with a short executive summary to grasp the key concepts before providing more in-depth information. The writer will draw out key messages and conclusions to inform your reading.
To guide your reading, follow these three questions:
- Can I understand what the management will achieve following this paper?
- What are my responses and thoughts to this request?
- Is there any further information I need in order to make an informed decision or discussion?
How can I use this information strategically?
To think strategically, begin by understanding the complex relationship between your organisation and its environment. There are multiple layers to every action affecting those internally and externally. Using that knowledge and perspective, you can then make decisions that facilitate enduring success.
Be curious, identify patterns and think creatively, using your experiences to connect the dots in novel ways. Try to avoid shutting down an idea simply because 'it’s been tried before’ or pursuing an idea because ‘that’s how it’s always been.’
Don't be afraid of constructive tension. Disagreements are inevitable. Therefore, be transparent and understanding in conveying your thoughts to support high-quality conversation and well-defined actions.
Research around the topic to ensure you have the most up to date understanding but be sure to collect your thoughts before the meeting in order to synthesise and share your knowledge.
Follow through on your ideas – strategic change only comes about by putting new and innovative ideas into action. Ensure you channel your energy and vision into supporting and guiding the organisation implement these ideas.
Contributors – How to write effective board papers.
What is the point of board papers?
Board papers are a key source of information for board members, alongside providing an audit trail to accompany the minutes. Board members have a duty to keep themselves informed on matters but relevant briefing material upon which to base decisions is vital from the management.
What information does the board need?
To guide your writing, follow these three questions:
- What do we want to achieve through this paper?
- What do we want the board’s response to be?
- What information does the board need from my paper?
Clearly present all key information and facts, indicating any actions required but avoiding in-depth operational details.
How can this be displayed?
- Begin with a statement of what is being asked of the board alongside a short executive summary so that board members can grasp the key concepts before reviewing them in greater detail. Make key messages and conclusions easy to find.
- Think visual – remember that everyone absorbs information in different ways. Would a graph, table or infographic be a better way to provide key information to board members?
- Think about using a question-and-answer format to structure your paper and thinking to break it down into manageable chunks.
- Include technical information or statistics in an appendix, with key points, metrics and information drawn out in the paper.
- Consider the ratio of information to insight – have you provided fields of information without drawing out conclusions for the members? What is the significance of the data you have shared with the board?
- Consider the risks of not taking the action recommended in the paper as well as the benefits.
Five Things to Ask Yourself
- Put yourself in their place. Imagine you know a limited amount about the topic area, or that the last update you received was a couple of months ago. What information would you need in 5-10 bullet points to be able to make an informed decision?
- Are you afraid of missing something out? Short papers demonstrate your knowledge on a topic to be able to write about it concisely. A clear brief enables you to cover all bases concisely without drowning in detail so ask for clarity where needed.
- Are you trying to write a story? Long narratives do not support the board – they need to know what is being asked and why, supported by topline details.
- Have I taken time to reflect? By making time to reflect on the contents of the paper, you can steer the boardroom conversation that follows on from it.
- Am I writing in plain English?
- Think and plan before you start to write.
- Keep a logical order to the points you want to make.
- Keep your sentences short – an average of 15 to 20 words about one main idea.
- Choose active verbs – ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done’.
- Use everyday English, where possible, choosing shorter, familiar words. Avoid jargon and legalistic words and always explain any technical terms.
- Avoid nominalisations – changing verbs or other words into nouns: e.g. ‘judgement’ rather than ‘judge’, or ‘development’ rather than ‘develop’.
- Imagine you are in conversation with your reader. Write sincerely in a suitable tone of voice. Read through aloud what you have written – does it flow, make sense, and support your request?
- Papers are written for the board, not for management.
- Do not assume the board members all share the writer’s in-depth knowledge.
- Consider the structure and presentation of your paper.
- Include both the benefits and risks for a full rounded view.
- Focus on quality and not quantity – the aim is to create better informed board members.
- Information can be highlighted, or questions can be asked during the board meeting itself for further clarification and discussion.
Tara Granea is an Independent Director - Governance at Tchoukball UK.
You can join in the conversation. Please help the SGA community by taking part in our polls on board packs and sharing your thoughts and observations in the comments on the Huddle.
- Poll 1 - "How would you describe the quality of the board papers provided to your board?"
- Poll 2 - "The main problem with our board papers is that they are..."
We will be adding more in the future.