Writing a CEO Report That Delights Your Board + FREE Business Templates

February 12, 2020

November 13, 2019

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Templates

As a board member of an SME or Nonprofit, preparing for the upcoming board meeting, you have lots of information to review and want to get to the important stuff quickly!

You don’t want to be nine pages in and still wondering if the new marketing programme is delivering results. Nor do you want to be forced to search old minutes for the performance targets you agreed to. Unfortunately, with poorly structured and unfocused CEO reports this sort of scenario is all too common. . It’s frustrating!!

Wouldn’t it be great if the first pages of the CEO’s report provided a concise summary of the business’ performance and needs, then it clearly outlined the key areas you need to prepare for? It would certainly reduce some of your frustrations and make things easier going to the next meeting.

Good news for SME’s and Nonprofits! Producing a CEO Report that delights the board, is very achievable, with a few key principles:

Get the Meeting Structure right

Directors often think the main purpose of a board meeting is to be briefed by the chief executive about “what’s going on”. Whereas, the main role of the board is to ensure the organisation is achieving what it should.

The Agenda is the centrepiece of every board meeting and should focus on key discussions and decisions, with supporting papers laying out context and relevant information.

A CEO Report is the ultimate supporting paper, laying out the general business context from which the reader can drill into more specific information for key decisions. The primary purpose of the CEO Report is therefore to provide a context whilst the agenda and specific supporting papers provide the detail to drive decisions.

Be clear about governance-level targets and concerns

For the CEO to produce a report that provides real value, the board (in conjunction with the CEO) must first clearly define the targets and outcomes that mark “success”. These measures guide what information is needed from the CEO and stops the CEO heading down a side alley.

It also ensures the CEO Report is future-focused, enabling the board to be more effective in supporting the CEO based on what might happen, rather than reacting to what has already happened – which usually leads to ‘steering by looking in the rear vision mirror’.

Develop a CEO Report structure that works for your SME or Nonprofit

Once targets have been clearly defined, the CEO should be able to produce a report that clearly and easily gives the board the information they need. As a rule, the first two pages should be enough for board members to gather a broad understanding of the position of the business, without having to read any further.

The CEO Report template should cover all the main components, such as:

  • Key metrics (e.g. customer, financial and production)
  • Key discussions and decisions for the upcoming meeting (should marry in with the agenda)
  • Top of Mind for CEO- what’s keeping them awake at night
  • Big Wins & Learnings
  • CEO Summary (setting the scene for the board in a few sentences)
  • Additional Metrics

If your organisation can implement these principles you’ll be well on the way to efficient preparation, productive meetings, and a smooth relationship between the board and CEO.

Author’s Acknowledgement: Principles 1 and 2 above are drawn from the work of Graeme Nahkies. Graeme is an advisor to BoardPro and the content is used with his permission.

Download the free templates here

Download our free guide

How to Create a CEO Report that Delights you Board

Watch the webinar here

Or listen to the podcast here

Webinar Transcript

All right, OK. Well, we'll get started now. Hello, everyone, and welcome to our Governance Playbook Webinar Series. Our session today is "How to Create a CEO Report That Will Engage and Delight Your Board."

My name's Kim. I'm the COO and co-founder at BoardPro, and I'll be your host for the next 30 minutes. During our session, if you have any questions, please use the Q&A button at the bottom of your screen. We'll answer as many questions as we can during the presentation. My colleague [INAUDIBLE] will be manning the Q&A, and she can also provide you with technical assistance should you need it.

There'll be a few polls that we're also going to run during today's session, so please keep an eye out for those and respond where you can. Speaking of polls, here's the first one for our session. Let me just release it now.

All right, this is awesome. It's fantastic to see people coming in from all over, especially Australia and New Zealand, but also to have some people joining us from North America is fantastic. Oh, excellent, Canada.

All right, and if you stay through to the end of today's webinar, we'll have a one-minute survey. And if you stay through and complete the survey, you'll go into a draw to win a gift hamper from our friend Taken Care Of, worth over $400.

OK, so for those of you who don't know BoardPro, we're a board software provider that serves over 13,000 users around the world. We enable organizations to run their board meetings more effectively with less time and deliver more impact and value to their organizations. And as much as we're a board software provider, part of our wider mission is to make the fundamentals of governance free and easy to implement for all organizations, especially those who are resource-constrained, such as SMEs and non-profits.

Let me now introduce to you our panelists for today. So Brett Herkt is my co-founder and our CEO here at BoardPro. Brett's a serial entrepreneur, having built several high-growth businesses over the last 20 years.

Ruth Medd has been a professional director for over 20 years. She was the founding chair of Women on Boards and in this capacity has been instrumental in the growth of the business and supported thousands of women into becoming board members.

Steven Bowman is managing director of Conscious Governance and brings a great depth of experience facilitating board reviews and strategic planning. Steven's held numerous senior executive, CEO, and board positions in the USA and Australia. As well, he's authored and co-authored over 14 books on governance, strategy, risk, and executive leadership.

So our webinar series is centered around what we call the 3x5 Governance Playbook. So Brett, as the creator and author of this playbook, would you please explain to us what it is and how it delivers value?

- Thanks, Kim. [INAUDIBLE], and hello to everyone. The playbook is a simple model which aims to demystify the fundamentals of governance and help organizations to apply them. One of the reasons we're doing this is because we keep hearing stories like, there's a highly capable CEO. They become the new chair of a not-for-profit, and now they have to learn the job of being a chair. But they can't find a simple guide and checklist for that job. So we're simply filling that gap.

So we've really identified just what the absolute basics are that every board should do. Here's the five core processes. It's not rocket science. But for many new board members or inexperienced board members and chairs, there's new skills they'll need to develop. So we're producing simple guides, templates, and checklists to help people outwork them, and it's all free.

And here's what the primary inputs look like. And then finally here's the outputs. Again, simple, but there is quite a lot of depth to some of these areas.

- So Brett, Cambridge Business School did some recent research, and what they found is that board packs are getting bigger every year. And on average, a board member will spend up to just under four hours preparing for the board meeting and reading their board packs. And over half the board pack content is going unread.

So in that case, why are you advocating to add another paper to the board pack? And why on earth do you think it will delight the board? What's so delightful about the CEO report?

- Thanks, Kim. So as a CEO, I know that the board meeting is one of a small number of key accountability moments for me in my year, one per board meeting. I don't see the board that often, so my collective boss, when I see them, I want to get it right. So I want to project confidence that I'm across the organization's performance and any emerging issues.

Now, a well-crafted CEO report does a lot of heavy lifting for me. I've kind of won two-thirds of the battle before I even arrive at the board meeting. Just wonder, Ruth, if you'd add a perspective to that.

- Yeah, thanks, Brett. As a chair, the CEO report is sort of the highlight of the meeting, because it's toward the start of the meeting. And if it's a good report and if the CEO can give a good brief summary of what's in that report, it really sets the tone for the meeting. And it will really determine whether it's a good experience for the directors and the staff attending or a not-so-good experience. Over to you, Brett.

- Oh, well, I'll actually interject here. I think it's time for a question here. So a question from the audience is, my board like to prescribe the way in which I provide my summary report to them. And I find it a bit unhelpful. How should I tackle this issue? Brett, can you tell us a bit about this?

- I'm actually going to defer to Steven. I'm surprised he's been quiet for so long. Steven, would you like to take this one?

- I know. Thanks, Brett. It is a little unusual. I apologize.

Look, the thing we find with CEO reports-- and we see thousands of them every year-- is the vast majority of them have forgotten who their audience actually is. And their audience are the directors. And the purpose of a CEO report is to help the directors not only gain understanding but to think more strategically as well.

So if the board have a particular format that they'd like to see it in, that's going to help them in their role as a director, and it's going to help them focus on the things they need to focus on, please listen to them. If, however, they're more of an operational board, you as the CEO can work with the chair to actually develop up a CEO's report that really gets the board thinking. Brett?

- Yeah, look, I'd agree with that, Steven. You've got a subtle job sometimes, in that the CEO is a key leader. Sometimes they have to lead the board on a journey, work collaboratively with the chair, and help the board do a better job themselves.

- OK, Brett, do you want to tell us about your CEO report?

- OK, thank you. So we really need to think about the CEO report within the context of the board meeting's purpose. So really it's the agenda that's the centerpiece of every meeting, and that should really focus on the key decisions and key discussions that help the organization achieve its purpose. So those items will have their own supporting papers, but they'll be very zeroed in on that specific context.

The CEO report is the ultimate supporting paper, so it lays out the general business context from which the reader, the board member, can then drill into the more specific information for decisions. So I really suggest that board members read the CEO report before the specific papers to get that broader perspective. And I think we were going to get a perspective from Ruth now.

- Oh, were we? Hello. Here I am. Yeah, I've had lots of experience with CEOs producing CEO reports. My first comment is, I think there is a bit of structure that is a good idea to be prescribed. And that's often a relationship between the CEO and the chair.

There's lots of traps with CEO reports that you need to try and avoid. And I think some of Brett's outline of what you put into it is very helpful. The CEO has got to introduce the CEO report succinctly, avoid descending into minutiae, and also highlight what the strategic imperatives for the company are, because as I think Brett said, board members come together 12 times a year, eight times a year, and it's actually quite easy to forget why we're here if we don't think about it each time.

So I think that might be a bit of a commentary from me. Brett?

- So we're going to move next to just to show you what the free CEO report template that we've produced and we've had in the market and on the cloud for several-- for a year or two now. So you'll get a copy of this template and an example just after the webinar. So really what I'm trying to do here is get all of the guts of the important things I want to say to the board into a single page.

So there's high-level metrics. There's one of the big cross-references, the big items on the agenda. I talk about what's top of mind for me and also any big wins and learnings and the summary that we've been talking about today.

So typically have maybe five or 10 pages behind this, just to add a bit more detail and a bit more color. But really I'm looking to deliver one or two papers that if the board members read nothing else, they understand what's happening in the business.

- OK, so Steven, what do you think about receiving a two-page CEO report?

- Look, I think one of the biggest issues with CEO's reports and board reports generally, particularly staff reporting up to the board, is that they typically focus on what has been rather than the strategic implications of what we need to really focus on. So I really-- I've seen some fantastic dashboard reports that have the key metrics in there. And the first question is, what are your key metrics? Now, there's a six-month project just in that, working out what needs to be measured, and then from there reporting against them. But also, as a director, I want to see something that says, here are the strategic implications of this, or here are the strategic questions that we want you, the board, to focus on.

So the CEO's report shouldn't be just about, here's all the things we've done. Look how busy we've been. It should be a brief update, but more importantly, what it is that's keeping me awake at nighttime. What are the strategic implications I'd really like the board to start getting their heads around?

- OK, that's fantastic. OK, let's take another question now. So spending a lot of time looking at a management report for the board is sometimes described as driving the car forward while looking in the rear view mirror. Why is it so important to look at management reports? And how much time should be balanced each month between looking at what's happened and strategic things? Ruth, perhaps you'd like to go first?

- Yeah, delighted. There's no absolute answer to this question, of course, like many things in directorship-land and board-land. But you clearly need to have some elements looking backwards, because you do have some legal obligations. And you have to have some elements looking forwards.

So the backward elements can be in part the CEO's report. The forward-looking items can be things like new products, new markets, review your business model, consider if your business is still fit for purpose.

So my rule of thumb is it's about 50-50 for an organization that's been around for a while and is ticking along nicely. If you're a new company, a start-up, and you invented the better widget, then you might spend a lot more time on the forward-looking things than the backward-looking things. That's traditionally how it happens. We talk more about the better widget than we do about the policy on whatever.

If you're a moribund sort of organization-- and this is sort of a guide-- you might spend all your time looking backwards and very little time looking forward. That's usually a red flag. So on balance, I think 50/50 is a good answer.

- [INAUDIBLE] chime in, Steven, on that? We got time, Kim?

- Yeah, yeah. Go for it. Yep. Go for it. I'd like to hear your perspective, Brett, as a CEO.

- Yeah, look. I feel an obligation as a CEO to keep the board up to date with how we're progressing along, how we have executed on initiatives we've promised to do, whether we're hitting the metrics and the targets of the business. So by nature, that's to a degree backward-looking. But I fundamentally agree with Ruth. I want to always be leaning myself back into the forward-looking view and painting the picture forward and giving confidence that I can achieve what we want to achieve going forward.

- OK, great. What are your thoughts on this, Steven?

- The key thing the board should be looking for for any report is a little bit of information, but more about, well, what are the implications for the future? I mean, the purpose of the board is to create the future. It's not to make sure everyone's busy.

So giving directors a bit of a heads-up, but then if there's something longer you want to provide them, for heaven's sake, give them a link, but don't add it into the actual board pack itself. Otherwise, you get your typical 800-page board papers.

And the key metrics, including the financials, should always answer the question, so what? So what do I need to know about this? And that's really the key thing in your CEO's report-- little bit of an update, but also a heads-up of, here's the so-what that we need to keep our eyes on. Back to you, Kim.

- OK, great. All right. Brett, you want to talk about designed for your audience?

- Yeah, let's dive a little deeper into the idea of right-sizing or customizing your report for your audience. We'll get some tips from both Ruth and Steven in a moment. So I really just recognize that some board members are at their best when they see a narrative. Others prefer data. Some prefer graphs.

So really, what I'm trying to do in the template is just accommodate those different styles to allow different board members to grab what they wanted and be able to come on the journey with me. So yeah, so that's how we've laid out the template. And I'll hand over to Ruth for her perspective.

- OK, this is the sort of touchy-feely bit. I mean, you can think about a board event and the CEO's report and other reports as a bit of an artistic performance. It's choreographed neatly to suit your audience, as Steven mentioned much earlier. So some people really understand material when it's presented in pictures, graphs. Others require written material for the way they receive information.

I've got my funny story. I'm on a board that used to present its financial report in all words. And I did say to them, well, a few graphs might be nice. So now we've got a nice balance of a mix sort of thing. So really, that's my take on how you present your CEO report.

And it's really important to chat to the chair and perhaps some of the other directors to get a response to what they think about it. Does it suit their style? Not everybody's the same, and you have to just really accommodate your audience. Just remember the board members are your audience in this context. So that's my little two bobs' worth for the moment. Brett?

- Someone-- it's Steve here. Someone asked a great question before. Should the CEO's report be at the start of the meeting or at the end of the meeting? Well, it's pretty simple, I think. If it's a report on activity, stick it at the end, because it's less relevant. If it's actually going to start some really good strategic conversation, put it at the front, because that's where it should be.

So any CEO's report is only as good as the understanding of the audience, which are the directors themselves, and what it is that they require. Either they've said what they want, or you as the CEO know particularly what it is they should be focusing on, and you can structure your report around that. So is it at the start? Yes, if it's strategic. Is it at the end? Well, it probably should be part of your papers for noting rather than spending time going over it. Back to you, Brett.

- Thank you. So the perspective I'd add is that boards hate surprises. So I rigorously avoid hiding things. I like to get bad news on the table as early as possible. Sometimes that helps you, in that if the bad news evolves and gets worse and worse, they've been warmed up to it early in the piece. I can then use the board as a resource to help me solve the problem or just take them on the journey.

I always have to be aware of how far away from the day-to-day context they are. Ruth mentioned that earlier. So I always remember that. Often those board members, I'm just one of multiple boards for them, just a small fraction of their mental focus, versus my 100% on what I'm doing.

- All right. OK, thank you. So let's open it up now for questions that you can enter down in the Q&A section. And I'm going to ask my colleague [INAUDIBLE] [INAUDIBLE] to just introduce some of those questions. And panelists, feel free to answer as you wish.

- OK, cool. Thanks, Kim. So this one is a really good one. Troy, you've asked, how do you deal with a board where each director says, well, I want to see this. And another one says, that sounds good, but I also want to see this, and so on.

- Steve here. Can I have first crack at this one? This happens all the time.

So one of the best things that you can do as a staff member is you can actually say to the director, OK, I get that. What's the strategic issue that you'd like to know about this? Oh, I'd just like more information. OK, what particularly would you like to know that's going to help you understand better the business of this organization? I'd like to know this. OK, I'll send you a link.

The chair's job in all of this is to make sure that the rest of the board directors don't go down the rabbit hole of operational detail, particularly if that's their day job, and to ensure that the conversation is always focused around the strategic issues, but that's supported by the data. But don't take the time of the board with all of the minutiae of the data. Ruth?

- Comment from me-- I actually occasionally-- as a board member, I'm a bit mischievous, and I ask questions about, how is the toilet block at xyz coming along in its renovations? Now, that's not in the least bit strategic. But sometimes I do that on purpose to sort of alert people to some of the things that they might need to think about.

So that could be a proxy for health and safety, for example, across an organization. But I agree with Steve. You've really got to put people on the spot a bit, because us directors can be a bit wild and diversionary if given the opportunity.

- And I'm so glad that Ruth has given me permission to be mischievous, because I've got a tip for you, Troy, if you're a CEO. I have a little revolving door policy.

So it's hard to fight a board member who's got the bit between the teeth and wants something added. So sometimes I add it on, but then I drop something else off that's of little value to me now and there's no attention. And I'll put a little note in the fine print, we're going to drop this off next month. Nobody ever raises that. I'm not sure if they notice it. So one comes in and one goes out.

- OK, fantastic. Have we got another question there, [INAUDIBLE]

- Yep, we sure do. So let's have a look at-- yeah, here's a good one. So Jackie-- there's a lack of sector knowledge around the table. That can be challenging to a CEO. Any thoughts to stop board members getting stuck in the weeds or the operational details?

- I can start that one off, too. One of the things that many boards don't recognize is they can actually bring in independent people to sit on the board, or in fact on subcommittees, who've got specific sector knowledge, as long as your constitution allows it. The other thing that you can do is to invite stakeholders to come into your board meetings to upskill the board a little bit on some of the sector knowledge and also ask, what are their big strategic issues? What do you think the implications for us might be?

And then the other thing you can do is hold out-of-board meetings to upskill the directors in some of the sector knowledge, like a two-year induction program to get them up to speed. So there's many ways that you can deal with that. The key thing is not to leave it as it is, where you've got people with no sector knowledge asking questions that maybe shouldn't have been asked unless it was to collect information, which should be done outside of the board meeting. Ruth?

- Yeah, I consider that board members have a responsibility for professional development. And when you join a board, there's some form of inauguration that runs them through the operations. They do site visits and all that sort of traditional stuff.

But there's an ongoing obligation for board members to be up to speed. Now, they don't need to know how to do the details of the business. But it really is-- the onus is a bit on them. So how you can manage that is there might be a professional development timetable for the directors for the year, that the chair puts together and gets agreement. And then perhaps the organization organizes the registration to these events or whatever.

Or some people like me have got an ongoing obligation of-- for certain amounts of professional development that I have to do off my own bat as well. So it's a mixture. But don't feel that you can't ask your directors to sort of step up to the plate a bit.

- Yeah, I wouldn't mind adding a perspective to that, because it's particularly relevant for us as a start-up at a certain stage. And the requirements change so rapidly as we scale our business. So I really actively work with the chair to just keep the conversation going about getting the right sort of talent around our board table. And it's an evolutionary process. But I take the initiative to try and work with the chair to engineer that we've got the right sector experience around our table.

- OK. We have another question that actually I'd like to have you answer first, Brett. So this is from Amber. We're a start-up and only have a very small team. Sounds familiar. We have a lot going on but not a whole lot of metrics at this point in time. Our business is also based on our stakeholder engagement. Do you have any good ideas on how to represent this information to the board?

- Oh, that's a good question. So early on-- so for a start-up, there's tremendous material out of Silicon Valley around moving through the product-market fit stage and on into the scaling stage further on. So problem-solution, product-market fit, and then scaling.

So I think if you draw down on that material, so in the very early days-- and you're welcome to ping me afterwards. I could dig out the old CEO report, which was pretty skinny way back in our beginning. Kim will remember it.

We were really just focusing on things like, can we attract 20 beta trialers to use our product? And then, will the 30 beta trialers do what we expect them to do in the product? So we just focused on very simple metrics that were appropriate for our stage.

- Awesome. That's great. Have you got another question ready, [INAUDIBLE]

- Yes, I do. I really like this one from Gary. Have you found that the summary CEO report is well taken up by boards? Some boards I've come across still like the massive monthly reports and seem to think we are hiding things by trying to trim the reports down.

- Go on, Ruth. You want to do this one.

- OK. You've got a bit of an issue of confidence between the executives and the board members, which can become corrosive over time. So you really need to do something about that. And an out-of-session session, or the old whenever we can the board dinner, meet the executives. It's all about building trust between the executives and the board members. Once you do that, you can then work on the matters of what actually does perhaps go into the board paper, et cetera, et cetera.

- If I can add to that as well too, I think one of the things CEOs really need to work on with the board is to keep reminding the board why they're there. The board is not there to meet. The board is there to make the choices that create the future for the communities they serve. And if they're going to make choices that create the future, they'd better have their eye on what the future might be, what it could be, and not just there to monitor staff. That's only a small part of what they do.

So one of the things I've always found useful as a CEO is to remind my board of why they're there. And that's why we always have the vision statement on the agenda. And I, as a CEO, will always use that to help bring back the conversation to, here's our purposes. So this conversation, how's it going to help our purpose?

- Yeah, just to butt in again, I mean, yeah, I agree with Steven. Absolutely essential that you always remind people of what the purpose of the organization is, because we forget really easily as we talk about the minutiae or whatever of day-to-day.

- And I would just chime in there as well and totally agree with all of that. It is the job of a good CEO to help the board get on to the right direction, because all of us drift on, and likewise the board will auto-correct the direction for a CEO. So it's obviously much more subtle when you're managing up, but it's a job that needs to be done.

So we've recently, in our own business, Kim and I initiated a meeting with our foundation shareholder-- not that I had any particular concerns, but I knew we were coming up to big decisions around funding and capital structure, so I just want to get the key stakeholders well aligned early.

- Awesome. Well, that's it for questions, so thank you. Now for those of you who've asked a question that we haven't answered, we will be following up later on with you.

Please feel free to connect with our panelists today on LinkedIn, and I'm sure they'll look forward to your connection. As a quick reminder, so Brett is a co-founder and CEO here at BoardPro, and he's passionate about bringing board management software to SMEs and non-profits around the world. Steven's an expert in his field of governance and board reviews, strategic planning, and governance training. And Ruth is the founder of Women on Boards and has made a significant contribution to increasing women's participation on boards and in leadership positions. She's also an accomplished chair.

So please feel free to reach out to them if you have any requirements in these areas. And so thank you again, everyone, for joining. And we hope to see you back for our other webinars in our series over the next few months.

If you had any questions that weren't answered today, or if you think of something afterwards, please feel free to email these to hello@boardpro.io, and we'll turn those answers around for you.

Now, you will receive an email from us soon after today's session where you'll find a copy of the CEO report template and also a link to a recording of this session, as well as the slides that were used today. Now, as you leave the webinar, don't forget to complete our one-minute survey, and then you'll go into the draw for our gift hamper, worth over $400. And we'll shortly announce the winner after our webinar.

Thank you so much today, everyone, for your attendance, and we'll see you next time.

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