Among the many things that I wish I’d known when I was younger is: wait for it…how to write effective reports for the board.
Okay, I realize that’s not a tantalizing subject for most young men, but in my earlier career it certainly occupied more of my time than it deserved. I reported to the Executive Director in a non-profit organization and I was tasked with writing reports for the board regarding my program responsibilities. By the way, this was not a board using Policy Governance®.
During the 20 years that I worked in that organization, I observed an interesting phenomenon. At one point, we were instructed to provide the board with more detailed information in our reports. Some years later, when there had been some turnover on the board, we were instructed to provide less detail in shorter reports. A few years after that, the board wanted more information; and so the cycle continued.
It was a curious dance, especially if one considers that, regardless of preference, sufficient information to enable the board to fulfill its duty of care should be the same regardless of who is on the board. But how does a CEO determine what is sufficient? I suggest trying the “Goldilocks test” – is it too much, too little, or “just right”?
Let’s start by recognizing that boards need only three types of information:
- Information to inform board decisions. For a board using Policy Governance, these are predominantly policy decisions. However, there will be times when the board is making one-off decisions which will not become policies, but could be significant nonetheless.
- Monitoring data. Most of these reports will come from the CEO or someone under her authority, but if the board so requires, these reports might come from some part of the board itself or an independent external source contracted directly by the board. Such reports should always focus rigorously on evidence demonstrating compliance with the CEO’s reasonable interpretation of the policy being monitored.
- Incidental information: This is information that fits in neither of the above categories, but which the board would typically like to be apprised of.
So, let’s test this out. Suppose the board is scheduled to receive an internal monitoring report for Treatment of Staff policies at its next meeting. These policies include a specific statement which directs that: “the CEO shall not allow retaliation against any staff member for non-disruptive expression of dissent.” The CEO reports that she has implemented a training initiative which, in part, is designed to teach supervisors how to appropriately deal with dissent among their team members.
However, training is not an indication of compliance. It is the method by which the CEO prepares her team to achieve compliance. Indeed, none of the reports of training sessions would indicate the CEO had not allowed retaliation. Therefore, the Goldilocks test indicates “too little” monitoring information.
Instead, a proper interpretation should focus on what will demonstrate compliance with the required condition. For example, “Compliance will be demonstrated when x% of staff on an anonymous confidential survey agree with the statement: ‘I am confident that if I were to raise a disagreement about a decision made by management or the board, internally and respectfully, in a manner that does not disrupt normal work processes, I would not be penalized in any way.’” Rationale would also be included.
With such an interpretation, evidence should present survey results (e.g., date of the survey, what proportion of staff responded to the survey, and what the results were). Nothing further is needed. For Goldilocks, the report is “just right”.
However, our CEO is particularly proud of the innovative training she has implemented for her supervisors and wants to add that information to the survey results in her monitoring report. After all, this training helped to achieve the compliance which was demonstrated by the survey.
This time the Goldilocks test indicates that it is “too much” information. Reports of training in the monitoring report confuse the reader: “Why is this included? Is it a demonstration of compliance? Hmmm, it doesn’t look that way and I can’t see anything in the interpretation that indicates it should. So, how shall I assess this evidence?”
Let’s face it, monitoring is a demanding task for both the CEO and the board. Superfluous information doesn’t help the board in its work; it simply obscures what should be assessed.
In applying the “Goldilocks test,” too much information adds confusion and additional work. Too little does not allow the board to conduct a proper assessment. Aligning tightly with a proper interpretation should be “just right”!
As for reporting on the innovative training program, as we’ve shown, it is not monitoring. And it is not information to help the board make a decision. Consequently, if the CEO wants to report it, she should place it in her Incidental Report to the board. By doing so, she is signalling that the board is not expected to do anything with the information; it is only presented to keep the board informed.