“I feel like I’m joining the middle of a conversation”.
It’s probably the last thing you’ll want to hear from a director reading your board report, but it’s one of the most frequent pieces of feedback we hear from board members. No matter your level of experience, it’s easy to make the mistake of writing an Executive Summary that simply “sets the scene” and does very little else. But a good summary has the power to do so much more than that...A good summary will bring everyone up to speed, signpost your key points, lead into a robust report, and ultimately, make a strong impression on the board. The good news is, there’s a secret formula for getting this right, and all on one side of A4. It’s called CQC (Context, Question, Conclusion), and here’s how it works:
1. Give some context
Start by outlining how your report links to the bigger picture – for example, your organisation’s growth targets or brand strategy. Also, explain the trigger for your report – why is this coming to the board now? Is this a ‘business as usual’ update, or has there been an external stimulus?
Keep this section to a few short sentences that simply outline the “why, and why now” element of your report. You’ll have room to dive into the detail in the report itself.
"A concise cover sheet should set out the key issues, the points of contention, and the reason for the paper being included. This helps ensure the board doesn’t get drawn into the weeds of the details or tempted into oversight.” - Jane Hanson, chair of the Reclaim Fund
2. Focus your questions
Next, outline which questions the report will aim to answer. Your best bet is to keep the number of questions you will answer to between three and five. Cognitive research found that the human mind can only retain about five ideas at once – and you don’t want to risk overloading your directors.
These questions should be mutually exclusive, that is, the answers that they prompt should fit into discrete subsections of your report without overlapping.
Lastly, these questions should lead to answers that provide all of the information, both good and bad – and present an accurate picture to the board. This principle is called MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive) and we embed this in our academy of training videos for report writers. It ensures nothing is muddled, and nothing is missing.
"Reports have a natural tendency to hide the warts. That’s not just counterproductive but also a fundamental misunderstanding of what the board does. We need the full picture to do our job and support you to find solutions." - Lynne Berry CBE, chair of the Human Tissue Authority
3. Share your conclusions
And now, it’s time to answer each of your questions, one at a time, with a short conclusion. It may feel strange to give away the ending, but your board don’t want to be sifting for answers. After all, they’ve deemed you the subject matter expert in this area – you’re best placed to analyse the information.
“The author knows far more about the topic than you ever will — so, why do subject-matter experts put the burden on the reader?” - Lord Victor Adebowale, chair and co-founder of Visionable
4. Outline any input received and input sought
Finally, mention the inputs to your report or project, whether it’s from a colleague, a department or an external expert. And think carefully about what kind of input you want to get back from the board once they have read your report – do you want specific advice, do you need them to make or approve a decision, or is the report just for their information?
“Papers need to be very clear - why exactly is the board seeing this? Is this for information only, or are you expecting a decision from me?" - Alison Munro, chair of TfL’s independent investment advisory group
As you can see, Executive Summaries have the potential to do so much more than simply introduce your report. Use this formula and you’ll write a winning report that not only engages directors on the issues you care about but also builds your credibility with your board.
Looking to put this into practice? Download your free Executive Summary template here.