December 2010 Issue 6
BoardWorks International
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Getting the Best Out Of Boardroom Presentations

Increasingly we hear board members questioning the time spent listening to presentations from both staff and outsiders. While these are valuable in many ways, presentations seem often not to hit the mark.

There is usually a genuine sense (on the part of the instigator) that the presentation deals with something the board needs to know and understand. Too often, however, it seems the presentations are on topics of interest and importance to the presenters but not necessarily to the board. Regrettably, also, we sometimes observe that presentations seem to be little more than a means of filling up the board’s agenda.  This implies a level of respect for the board’s time that brings to mind the remark of a former Australian State Premier who likened issuing press releases to journalists to “feeding the chooks”.

More often than not presentations are set up by management. Speakers are briefed (and often brought in from outside) and have put in the effort to be prepared. Invariably the presentation itself takes too long and board discussion of the material which should be the valuable part of the exercise is crowded out. Even if the presentations are relevant they are often dull recitations of material that has (or should have been) provided in advance. This is frustrating and the whole exercise is consequently a waste of time.

Just like every other item on the board agenda, a presentation needs to add value in terms of the board’s role and responsibilities. The first test of relevance for any agenda topic, including “presentations”, is always the question “what is the policy relevance of this?” In a broad sense this question forces us, for example, to judge whether or not the presentation impacts on the results the organisation is trying to achieve. How does it relate to the organisation’s raison d’être? Does it tell us something about changes in the operating environment and the relevance or achievability of the outcomes we are seeking? Does it relate to the way we approach risk management? For example, should we be amending, or adding to our risk management-relevant policies?

The chair has an important role in assessing whether or not a proposed presentation will answer these and similar questions. The board shouldn’t feel obliged to accept a proposed presentation onto the agenda just because someone else thinks it is a good idea. The board’s meeting time is too valuable to spend it on anyone else’s objectives.

Chief executives need to ensure that staff making presentations understand the board’s needs and that they are properly prepared. All too often boards suffer through poor presentations out of a desire not to be impolite to or demotivate a staff member who is not hitting the mark.

If the topic of the presentation does pass the policy relevance test, it may potentially be worthwhile devoting some board time to it but this need not be in the context of a normal board meeting. It may be more appropriate to hold over to a board strategy retreat or to a specially scheduled ‘workshop’.

When the presentation does proceed, make quite sure that it returns value for the investment of the board’s time. Ideally presentations should represent deep and fast communication. It is more likely that this will be the case if you can answer the following questions. These can also be provided to presenters in advance to help structure what they want to say to you:

  1. What is the presentation about?
  2. Why is the subject important to our industry or sector?
  3. Why is it important to our company or organisation?
  4. What are the three things we should understand and take away from the presentation?
  5. Will at least half (and preferably two-thirds) of the time scheduled be available for questions, discussion etc?

Instead of just being passive recipients boards should not shy away from inviting presentations that are relevant to their governance role. In fact, we encourage boards to go out of their way to bring outside views and perspectives into the boardroom. Do, however, ensure that presentations are valuable from a governance perspective and part of an on-going strategic conversation with owners and stakeholders about the direction and performance of the organisation.

 

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