Board effectiveness and writing culture: a match made in heaven

Collective intelligence

4 min read

On 20 March 2024, we hosted a networking event for governance professionals that explored the connection between board effectiveness and writing culture. Here are our key takeaways.

Thanks to our panellists, Jennifer Sundberg (co-CEO at Board Intelligence) and Charlotte Woffindin (lead product manager at bp and former doc bar raiser at Amazon), and our chair, Megan Pantelides (executive director, research at Board Intelligence).

Charisma is a mask — you need to lift it and focus on what’s underneath

It’s no surprise that charming people find it easier to get to the top. When they stand in front of a crowd — at a town hall, an investor pitch, or a board meeting — they get people onside and rooting for them.

But charm can be as dangerous as it is useful. Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizabeth Holmes weren’t the first business leaders to charm their way into a prison cell, and they certainly won’t be the last.

The issue is not just that charm provides a smokescreen for criminality. Charismatic people seem to be able to skate around tough questions and get hired for jobs they aren’t entirely qualified for. They can get projects signed off with little more than a few slides and gut instinct, while the rest of us labour over detailed business cases.

The irresistibility of charisma is one of many reasons why good governance matters. Effective boards provide a much-needed check and balance on charisma.

But what does a writing culture have to do with all of this?

“Effective boards can be the antidote to charisma — the check and balance on a smooth-talking CEO.”

~ Megan Pantelides, Executive Director, Research, Board Intelligence

Writing is thinking — and more thinking means a more effective board

Cats are born knowing how to swim, but they’ll do anything to avoid it. When it comes to thinking, people aren’t all that different.

Our jobs require us to think, but in the busyness of the day-to-day it can be difficult to pause for long enough to break a mental sweat. And we’re so overwhelmed with data and detail that it’s hard to see what matters when we do.

This is where a writing culture can make the difference. By asking people to write more, we introduce opportunities into their daily routines that force them to stop and think. And by equipping writers with the right skills, frameworks, and processes, we help them to do that thinking better.

“Great writing is the result of a lot of thinking. And you need both to be able to make good decisions at pace.”

~ Charlotte Woffindin, Lead Product Manager, bp; former Doc Bar Raiser, Amazon

But the impact of a writing culture extends far beyond operational documents and tactical decisions. It goes all the way to the boardroom, helping boards to work more effectively and empowering individual directors to add more value.

How? Because a writing culture helps organisations to produce better board packs. And better board packs help boards to see more clearly — which is something that many organisations need, if Board Intelligence’s ongoing research with CGIUKI into the health of company board packs is anything to go by.

“You wouldn’t stick Lewis Hamilton in a beaten-up Volvo, put a blindfold on him, and then expect him to win a Grand Prix. It’s the same with boards — you can’t govern what you can’t see, and boards need better tools for the job.”

~ Jennifer Sundberg, Co-CEO, Board Intelligence

High-quality writing acts as a catalyst for high-quality thinking, bringing structure and clarity to the information that boards rely on. A writing culture equips the board to have the productive conversations that matter.

Writing cultures are innovative cultures

Amazon embarked on its writing culture journey in 2004, ditching slide decks for good and introducing six-page narrative reports to stimulate sharper thinking.

For the e-commerce giant, developing this writing culture has brought two key benefits: inspiring autonomy and accountability in staff and driving high-quality decision-making at pace.

“The speed of innovation at Amazon comes down to its writing culture. Across the business, people have a real sense of autonomy and the freedom to go out and do what’s best for their customers.”

~ Charlotte Woffindin, Lead Product Manager, bp; former Doc Bar Raiser, Amazon

Well-crafted six-pagers give management greater confidence in the thinking that’s being done on the ground. Decisions can be made closer to the customer and more quickly, avoiding the bottlenecks that plague so many businesses.

Amazon’s writing culture has also improved its ability to spot and respond to risks and opportunities. By bringing a level of transparency to internal reporting, it’s easier for the organisation to capitalise on what’s working and ditch what’s not.

What Amazon’s experience has shown is that a writing culture isn’t just for academics, and it doesn’t slow you down. In fact, deep thinking helps you move faster.

Building a writing culture isn’t easy — but it’s worth it

“The really hard skill is getting to the nugget of truth that will help to unlock a problem. But the more you do it, the better you get at it. Over time it becomes a learned habit.”

~ Charlotte Woffindin, Lead Product Manager, bp; former Doc Bar Raiser, Amazon

Creating a writing culture isn’t easy. First, you need to show people what good looks like. And then, you’ve got to make it easy for them to deliver it.

That’s why Board Intelligence developed the QDI Principle, a methodology for injecting critical thinking, great communication, and focus into board and management reports.

It’s also why Board Intelligence built Lucia, an AI-powered management reporting platform that can help you put this methodology into action. Think of it as a thinking and writing guide, an always-on-call critical friend that nudges management onto the right path and helps them stay there.

“If you can build this culture at the very top of the organisation and get your C-suite to endorse high-quality written communication, it becomes a lot easier to cascade through the organisation.”

~ Jennifer Sundberg, Co-CEO, Board Intelligence

When it comes to building a writing culture, the C-suite and the board are the perfect place to start — and governance teams are best placed to lead the charge. By building a writing culture, you can give your board better tools for the job and support directors to add the value that’s expected of them. You might just find you have a more innovative and empowered organisation too.

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