Writing for the board? Here’s what you really need to know

‘What people don’t realise,’ Nick said, ‘is that I’m just like them. I get tired. I worry about stuff. I think maybe I should get to the gym more. And I have too much on my plate. I’m not superhuman.’

Nick is the European COO of a company that employs 130,000 people. He’s 46, and he joined the board two years ago after a steady rise to the top in a rival organisation. We were meeting in London’s Bishopsgate, I’d imagined just to talk about writing-skills training for his company. But it was clear from his whole demeanour that he needed to get something else off his chest – something that he’d been bottling up for a long time.

Because, while Nick is (of course) right that he’s only human, his job is not just like everyone else’s.

Inside a board member’s mind

Barack Obama once said in an interview that he only got to deal with problems that no-one else could solve. In some respects, Nick’s job is similar. If an issue has reached him it means no-one else has been able to deal with it. (If they could have, they would have.) And while, say, world peace doesn’t hang in the balance when he makes a decision, most of the solutions available to him do have a downside.

Often there’s no totally right answer. Each option usually has at least one negative side effect too. Increasing spend in one area probably means cutting someone else’s budget. Expand the size of one team and HR could find themselves opening redundancy talks with colleagues in another.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reports Nick has to read before the board meets in the second week of each month.

How many reports?

‘How many of those do you have to read?’ I asked.

‘Typically, about a hundred.’

One hundred documents. For one meeting. Every month. Many run to over 30 pages. Most contain questions for which there is no right or wrong answer. It can be exhausting, stressful work. I asked him how he coped.

‘Sometimes the only way to make decisions is with simple arithmetic,’ he explained. ‘I use the concept of expected value. I multiply the probability of something happening by the value of the outcome – negative or positive. Then I base my decision mainly on the number. Any other information is just commentary.’

Nick’s situation is far from unusual. I’ve heard other board members tell similar stories. Whenever they did, they weren’t complaining. They knew that’s why they were hired. But realising what they’re dealing with needs to be front and centre of the mind of anyone who wants to make an impact when writing for them.

These people are busy. Not busy in the way that they have too many things on their to-do list (though they probably have). Busy in that their brains are almost full of information and probably working to near-maximum capacity. And it’s with those same maxed-out minds that they need to make critical decisions.

What this means for you

And that’s where your report comes in. If you want to make an impact – a real impact – you need to step into Nick’s shoes. Understand how people like him think and what they have to deal with. You may have researched all aspects of a particular issue, but regurgitating every fact you’ve unearthed won’t benefit him – or your case.

It’s so tempting to put in all the information you have, but you need to be selective. Whittle it down. Structure it. Take the board through a logical thought process. Make sure the crucial information is very easily accessible and put it in context. Help them make the decision, rather than dumping the information on them. And have the confidence to use plain language.

When we recently ran another blog post on this topic, the first piece of advice we gave was to know your audience. But the feedback we’ve had from many of the people we’ve spoken with since is that they’ve never even met a board member. They have no idea what their needs are. Empathising with them can be very difficult. For them, board members are demigods.

Yet, in my experience, Nick is typical. His job may be different from most people’s. But he’s still just as human as the rest of us.

Image credit: Sunny studio / Shutterstock

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