Winning Over the Board

Thursday, July 1, 2010 - 08:55

As a manager, writing a paper for your board that is effective is a critical skill for successfully achieving your objectives. By Mark Rosenberg

Whether you've been invited or ordered to do it, the task is at hand: to write a paper for your board. How do you go about producing a good one?

An effective paper will enable you to get clear feedback and direction from the board so you can get on with doing your work. It will help take the board where you want them to go, while also leaving them thinking what a great job you are doing.

In contrast, an ineffective paper may result in a long, frustrating meeting for directors. It can leave members with a poor impression of you and will often result in the board directing you to do exactly what you didn't want to do. Here are 10 tips to make sure that doesn't happen.

1. Think like a director

The starting point is to think like a director. Put yourself in the shoes of a director and ask what you would want in a board paper? Most directors are busy people. They want board papers to be clear, concise and easy to read. While many will want attachments that will allow them to drill into the detail if they choose to, almost every director will want the actual paper to be short, sharp and to the point.

Remember that directors will be seeking to act in the best interest of the organisation and will, in most instances, be looking for a careful, low-risk approach to their decision-making. It follows that submissions will generally need to be couched in these same terms: incremental, planned, logical, and with the key milestones specified.

While the directors will publically base their decisions on rational thinking, don't forget that they are only human and have to be engaged at an emotional level if persuasion is to take place. Ask yourself what are the board-wide and individual hot buttons that have to be addressed?

2. Clarify the key questions

Before you start writing, you need to sit down and clarify what the key questions for consideration by the board are. Ask yourself what are the three to four critical questions the board needs to answer in relation to this topic at this point in time.

3. Clarify what you want to say and what it is you want the board to do

You need to think about what it is you actually want to say. What are the key messages you want to communicate on this subject? What is going to be the best way to make your point? Do you adopt the position of the solution provider, the petitioner, the questioner, or some other stance? What information will you need to support your position? You also need to think about what it is you want the board to actually do. They won't do what you don't ask them.

4. Canvas for support

Don't make the mistake of thinking that a well-written and argued board paper will inevitably deliver the outcome you desire. Engaging with key stakeholders is a necessary part of preparing the paper. Take time to explore the issues with key influencers. Directors don't like surprises. By canvassing and talking through the issues with key stakeholders before the meeting, you will get an understanding of what they see as being important. It's also the opportunity to educate them and influence their thinking so that they will be more receptive to your position.

5. Make the paper easy to read

Make sure the paper title is clear and easily understood. The title should enable the board to immediately get what the paper is all about. The nature of the paper should also be made clear. Is the paper for information, discussion or decision? A short overview spelling out exactly what the paper is about and what you want the board to do is often useful. It is also useful to spell out the key questions to be considered up front. This will keep directors focused on the real issues and reduce the risk of them getting sidetracked.

6. Spell out the options and the pros and cons

Directors like to understand what the options are. Make it easy for them by spelling them out. Go through each option and outline what you see the pros and cons to be. Identify the key decision-making criteria and note how each option performs against that criteria. Use tables and charts if this helps communicate the position.

7. Anticipate questions

Always anticipate the sort of questions directors are likely to ask. Do so by imagining you are a director reading the paper. What are some of the questions you would ask? If your paper makes suggestions or comments that logically beg a question, make sure you amend the paper so you provide an answer. Don't assume directors will accept a suggestion that seems obvious to you. They will want you to provide the rationale for your position.

8. Share your views

In most instances, directors want to know what the CEO's (or author's) view is. If you don't have a clear position and are looking for guidance from the board, that's fine, just make sure you tell them that. If you do have a position, let them know what it is.

9. Make the proposed actions easily understood

If you are seeking to have the board agree to specific recommendations and actions, make it easy for them to see what it is you are recommending. If there are a number of actions, use a table. Spell out the action, by whom and by when. If there is a cost associated with the proposal, address the issue of funding.

10. Ensure the proposed resolution is clear and unambiguous

Finally, make sure you specify exactly what you want the board to resolve. You want to walk out of the room confident that you and the board are crystal clear on what it is that will be done.