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The problem with board report templates (and what you should do instead)
Author : David Cameron
Posted : 21 / 12 / 21
Does this sound familiar? You’ve had a request from your board of directors for an update about something you’re working on. You go back to them for more information about what they want. But they’re busy and their support team just repeats the information you already have. How do you create something quickly that meets the board’s needs? If only there were a template …
Or you’re a member of that board, or part of that support team. You’ve had the reports for that month’s meeting through and once again they’re not up to standard. This is happening way too often. You need a fix – a way to ensure your incoming board reports are of a consistently high quality. Maybe what you need is a template …
Well, maybe a template is the solution. It’s an understandable impulse to consider one, whichever role you have here. But first let’s have a look at the problem – from both sides.
As the report writer, you’re probably not clear about what the board wants from you. It’s tempting to think that a template is a quick and easy shortcut.
But is the answer to this lack of clarity a template full of fixed headings? Do you have something pithy and relevant to write under all the headings? (Should you be expected to?)
As a board support team member, you may be frustrated by the quality of the reports you receive. And you’re thoroughly fed up with the negative feedback from the board: the reports are needlessly long but still don’t contain the information the board want. Or maybe you are a member of the board, and you’re looking for ideas to create a template to solve this problem.
But is the problem with the reports that they are not structured under a set of generic headings? Or is it something else?
I’ve worked with and for many organisations over the years, and they all had problems with report writing. Boards and their support teams frequently complain that the quality of the reports they receive is not good enough.
Almost all the boards ended up getting together to agree on a template for all reports. Frequently, this was linked to a requirement to keep the report length down to, say, four pages. The aim was to get consistently structured reports that were of the right length.
Report writers typically celebrated this development, hoping that years of report-writing misery were behind them. But when they first used the template, they often discovered that, sadly, this was not the case.
Let me explain why hunting for a board report template is the wrong way to solve any of these problems. You may find it helpful to understand this from both sides. But you can also just click to jump to the relevant part of the article, whether you’re a board or board support team member or a report writer.
Looking for a board report template? Read this first. @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
Generic templates are a problem because no two organisations are the same. They also rarely encourage the kind of thinking you want from your report writers: that is, to actively think about what the board really need to know or what might have changed since the template was produced. This can lead to more filler, not less.
Another common motivation for putting a template in place is to try and cram under one heading something important that really needs to be covered throughout. For example, you may need to remind writers to consider risk in their reporting or to include information that helps the board fulfil their legal duties. (In the UK, these duties include promoting the success of the company for the benefit of its members, as well as considering other interests and impacts, under Section 172 of the Companies Act 2006.)
But you won’t achieve this with a simple subheading in a template. You need to show your writers how (and why) to consider and cover these elements throughout their whole report.
And if you’re thinking about creating your own template, what would your process be for putting it together? There is the risk that each board member insists that their area of responsibility is covered by the template – even though not all reports will have something to say about that area.
Now imagine the report writer faced with that heading and nothing to say. They’ll find themselves writing text under a heading just to fill the space. And your board members will have to read it.
It’s also tempting to set word or page limits to save yourself from overlong submissions. But what happens when the report that’s actually needed is much shorter than the limit? A lot of writers will not see a word limit but a word target and will end up adding a load of filler. And board members will have to read that too.
And a template that works for one kind of report might not work for another. Perhaps you could have more than one template, tailoring each to a specific purpose. That’s a lot more work up front, though. And the matter of when writers should use which would need managing, and it could get confusing.
So, if not by creating a template, how do you make sure you get good quality board reports?
Put strong governance in place and stick to it. You’ll need to support this with clear guidance, procedures and, potentially, training.
The people writing the reports need to understand how critical their work is for enabling effective and compliant corporate governance.
Many of our delegates tell us they don’t actually know how the board uses the information they provide. This can make report writing feel like a pointless hoop to jump through rather than the vital task it actually is. Give them this context, and in a way that suits you: this could be written guidance, a checklist or even a video.
Have a clear procedure that everyone can refer to, including deadlines and the process for seeking and providing feedback. An effective feedback loop is vital. You’ll need to provide clear, constructive and practical feedback on submissions so people know what you want. Avoid merely saying ‘Try harder’ (or even just ‘I like this’, unless you’re clear about why).
Set a deadline for reports to be submitted before the meeting. I suggest three weeks ahead. This gives time to send the report back to the writer for clarification or edits if needed. And it gives support teams plenty of time to distribute the reports and for board members to send them to their departments for comments.
Provide clear guidance to report writers on what should be included. For example, when should they include an executive summary? And what exactly do you need from the reports? If it helps to get you started, when we spoke to board members about what they want from board reports, they told us they want report writers to make it clear:
And they also told us what they don’t want:
Explain your board’s requirements clearly to those writing the reports. Reject any reports that do not meet your standards and explain to the writer that their report will now go to the following meeting. They’re unlikely to submit a bad report again.
Provide report writers with examples of best practice: the kinds of report that the board want to see. Explain why these are good reports and why the board likes them.
If you are a manager and find yourself rewriting your team’s reports because they are not up to standard – stop. Send them back to the author with guidance on what needs to change (or point them back to the board’s guidelines). The quality won’t improve if report writers know they can rely on you to rewrite everything.
If you set high standards for your report writers and enforce them, the quality of your reports will improve.
You may have landed here when you went looking for a board report template. Maybe you’re new to report writing or feel under a great deal of pressure to write something perfect – and quickly. I get it. And there are some websites that will give you what you’re looking for.
But there’s a good reason we don’t here: templates are not the answer. Here’s why.
A generic template will not focus on the needs of your board members. It will just give you some generic headings to write under. That’s not what your board want and it isn’t what you need.
Ideally, the board would make it clear to you what they need from you. If they haven’t, and you’re looking for guidance on what to put in your report, why not ask for it? Try sending a succinct email to the relevant board member asking what it is they want from your report. They might not reply but, then again, they might. And it could be the helping hand you need.
If they won’t give you a brief, you need to come up with one for yourself. I wrote a whole article about this, but here’s a summary.
Put yourself in the shoes of the board member most affected by your update or most likely to lead on the decision you are asking the board to take. Then ask yourself:
Then write your brief up as a short outline and email it to the board member explaining that you’re writing a report, this is what you’re planning to include and does that meet their needs?
If they don’t reply, write a report that meets the requirements of your brief. And nothing else. Concentrate on what you want the board to do, why it’s important now and the reasoning behind your request. If you’re worried that it’s too short, don’t be. If it meets the brief, it’s long enough.
And if you’re not sure how to structure your board report, try following the suggestions in this article about writing the executive summary – and while you’re at it, remember to include an executive summary.
The first time I was asked to write a board report, I reacted like most people in that position, with a mixture of panic and anxiety. It took me a very long time to write and, in the end, was only about a page long. The board took the decision I wanted them to. And I got better – and more confident – at writing them after that. You can too.
In many organisations, writing board reports is regarded as a kind of dark art, its secrets known only by the wise ones. It’s not. Or if it is where you work, that’s something you need to address.
If you’re on the board, or work with them, make sure that what you need from the reports that come to you isn’t a well-kept secret.
And if you’re the one submitting a report, remember that board members are people too. They want to do the best thing for your company or organisation. Your job as a writer is to make sure that it is as easy as possible to take those key decisions. If your reports are clear and stick to the information that the board wants and needs, you’ll do just fine.
Main image credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock
David wrote his first organisational policy more than 25 years ago and wishes he’d known then what he knows now about creating them. After over 25 years working in the communications departments of international charities and large organisations, he now trains and develops learning programmes for Emphasis.
He has written for and worked with organisations including Amnesty International, the National Trust and the NHS, creating and implementing style and tone-of-voice guides, and developing and delivering business-writing training.
These years of experience have given David an understanding of the key role an organisation's culture plays in developing its people – and their business-writing skills.
Posted by: David Cameron
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