Reading aloud in the Boardroom
I’ve observed several public Board meetings recently where the Executive Lead for the issue being discussed read out much of the board paper they had already circulated to members. Why do they do this? Could it be:
- They don’t expect Board members to have read the papers in advance.
In which case do the papers arrive with Board members in plenty of time for them to read and digest them? Are the Board members failing to take their responsibilities seriously by not preparing themselves for meetings? Are the papers so long and detailed that Board members’ hearts sink when they receive them?
- They don’t trust the Board members to pick up the salient points from the papers.
In which case, is the information in the paper clear and comprehensible? Is it at the right level of detail or are Board members being overwhelmed by data? Do the papers lead with a succinct summary of the main points?
- They have spent so much of their executive time writing Board papers that they want to be sure their efforts are recognised and acknowledged.
Senior managers spend a lot of their time preparing papers for the Board. Of course this is helpful in clarifying their own thinking and setting the organisation’s performance in context but where the Board meets monthly this can be quite a burden and might take them away from the equally important tasks of leading the businesses, fostering innovation, improving quality and identifying and managing financial savings in an ever tightening public sector funding environment.
So here are some brief suggestions:
- Executive teams could think about the areas where they would most value the perspective of non-executive Board members and shape some questions/discussion points that might form the basis of a conversation.
- Chairs could invite each of the Board members to start the meeting by briefly stating what items in the Board papers were of most concern or interest to them and use their answers to determine the time allocated to each agenda item.
- Board members could take more responsibility for specifying the information they need for the purposes of governance and leadership, and determining how it could be presented to them in a way that enables them to make sense of it. In doing so they need to weigh up the cost in management time versus the value to the Board of having the information.
I should stress, none of this need necessarily mean providing Board members with more detail. Indeed, it may mean quite the opposite. Providing information that is too detailed encourages Board members to fall into the trap of straying into the territory of senior managers and often leads to a Board that is focused too much on operational rather than strategic issues. Instead, the emphasis must be on providing members with the necessary information in the most appropriate form to enable them to fulfil their governance and leadership functions.
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