(Note: While this posting describes my experiences as a CDO or CDAO, the action steps I’m suggesting are relevant to all functions.)
Upon completing my Ph.D. in 2018, my career took me overseas to Thailand, New Zealand, and Bahrain. I observed many business practices that were culturally different from that with which I was familiar. I want to share my experience in Commonwealth countries (the UK, New Zealand/Australia, and others) and highlight a practice that I believe would enhance alignment, transparency, and speed-to-decision between management and the board.
With primarily U.S.-based experiences, the business culture shift I saw in the Commonwealth was very apparent. Regularly (this was not a one-off), the board actively engaged with additional levels of business managers rather than being “gatekept” by the CEO. In the U.S., as a direct report of the COO, I presented to the CEO but never to board members. It was rare that members of the C-suite regularly did so, except for the CFO and a few select others. My experience in the Commonwealth has been those various levels of management—general managers, other C-level execs, “Heads of,” and sometimes even those in the lower ranks—presented papers and updated the board.
In my view, this transparency and collaboration increased the sense of being heard throughout the organization and ensured that critical strategic business issues were raised and understood. The board’s engagement gave a sense of importance to the work and was connected to the larger organizational vision, a problem often raised in employee feedback surveys. CDAOs (and others) want to feel connected to the broader picture and serve the business. The linkages to the board and top management are often the glue that makes the role successful. Further, as a CDAO, this is an essential experience—as ever more investment is needed in AI, big data, and the technology that enables data analytics, more interaction with boards, will be required, as many readers of my posts have alluded to.
So, How Did The Board Increase Its Engagement With Management?
To have engagement, all parties must speak the same language. As a CDAO, I had to understand how to communicate with the board and educate them in my functional area. To do so, I attended training (entitled How to Present to the Board of Directors) which included how to present to the board, how to write a good board decision paper, and what was called a “paper for noting,” an updating document for the board on critical initiatives.
My initial reaction was that this was just an academic exercise—but no, I soon realized that it created a higher level of business transparency and helped engender more trust across the business, knowing that strategic concerns and observations could be discussed and calibrated with the board. What a refreshing change from my previous experiences!
How To Present To The Board
1) All general managers and executives had to undergo this training. Importantly, this session was held by the chairman of the board and the CEO.
a. When writing board papers, assume no content knowledge by the board of the paper to be presented; therefore, provide context on the problem frame.
b. Decide up front if the paper (primary way of communicating in addition to in-person meetings) was for updating/education (paper for noting) or a decision (decision paper).
c. The board also conducted education days, where presentations and progress reports were given on critical initiatives that were part of the firm’s strategic plan.
d. The board also hosts The Board Unplugged informal meetings over drinks, where they actively encourage feedback on what is working and how to improve the business. BTW, the managers of the participants were not invited! From my POV, this was an excellent way of behaving and mirrored the ‘servant leadership’ role that experts like Simon Sinek and others suggest.
[If this level of interaction and transparency exists elsewhere, I would like to hear more about it from my readers.]
e. Several times a year, the board invited both C-level and non-C-level executives to board meetings to receive updates, indeed an inclusive approach.
Tips When Presenting (Especially To The Board!) – Remember To Be Brief, Brilliant, And Gone!
1. Bring the audience, i.e. the board, along the journey from the beginning of an initiative.
2. Give the problem statement and context for what you want the board to know.
3. Avoid using technical jargon(!) and explain things in simple business terms.
4. Know where you stand: If you mention any numbers or KPIs in a paper, be prepared to be asked about the status of these metrics. No theoretical KPI discussions; if you say a KPI make sure you can discuss your KPIs, define them, and present them, and they are consistent if the same ones are referenced multiple times in the same document.
5. Quantify the benefits and outcomes. Come with impacts and discuss the results.
This training is outstanding, especially for CDAOs. We, as domain experts, need to learn the language of board members, especially that related to running the business and P&L drivers. The board can also benefit from data analytics literacy programs, which will be the subject of a different post.
I hope this post outlines tips on how CDAOs and others can communicate with the board of directors to increase transparency, alignment, and speed-to-decision.
I look forward to your thoughts.