Beware the Phone-Book-Size Report

My 84-page PDF landed with a thud.

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

There is one quality needed in the board leader’s essential toolkit:
“a capacity for complete candor and a willingness to ask
the same of others.” [1]

Ram Charan, Dennis Carey, and Michael Useem

 

 

This boardroom blooper cost me an expensive dinner.

Here’s some wisdom from a board expert. I knew the wisdom. I preached the wisdom. I just didn’t practice the wisdom. In his Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes Great Boards Great,” Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld warns against “phone-book-size” board reports.

“What kind of CEO waits until the night before the board meeting to dump on the directors a phone-book-size report that includes, buried in a thicket of subclauses and footnotes, the news that earnings are off for the second consecutive quarter? Surely not a CEO who trusts his or her board. Yet this destructive, dangerous pattern happens all the time.”[2]

Fortunately, my phone-book-size report did not include bad news. But the size—84 pages—was bad news enough.

Worse, the inexcusable tardiness and size of my report, prepared at the request of the ministry’s CEO, made him look bad. The committee members received the email with the 84-page PDF just an hour before the scheduled conference call.

I rationalized my tardy behavior:

•   Even if I sent it sooner, they wouldn’t have opened the email until 30 minutes before the conference call.

•   My cover note clearly explained: “No need to read this in advance. We will walk you through the highlights. Background info only!”

Well, the 84-page report landed in the email inboxes of each committee member with a thud.

The committee conference call started on time with all members present. But before the CEO could ask the committee chair to begin the meeting with prayer, an irritated but courteous committee member sounded off.

“Can I just say that receiving an 84-page report less than an hour before our conference call was not appreciated? I didn’t have time to review it in this last hour. Can we be sure this doesn’t happen again?”

The CEO and committee chair immediately agreed and apologized. They were people of high character and graciousness. They didn’t blame me, but they could have.

The committee meeting eventually did go well. Some leaders are very gifted at changing the tone of a meeting from negative to positive. This CEO saved my bacon. Whew.

After we exited the conference call, I immediately called the CEO and apologized. “I owe you lunch or dinner—on me. I’m so, so sorry. Will you forgive me for not serving you well?”

He did. We invited our spouses to join us and had a memorable dinner together. I picked up the check and charged it to the line item in my budget titled “I Just Learned Another Expensive Lesson.”

Today, reflecting back on that stinging but well-deserved rebuke from the committee member, I was reminded of another insight in Sonnenfeld’s article: the soft side of board governance that distinguishes high-quality boards from the rest of the governance rat race. He calls it a “virtuous cycle of respect, trust, and candor,”[3] but, he warns, even that can be broken at any point if there is no authentic appetite for candor.

He adds, “Almost no one wants to be a skunk at a lawn party.”[4]

Board members “are, almost without exception, intelligent, accomplished and comfortable with power. But if you put them into a group that discourages dissent, they nearly always start to conform. The ones that don’t often self-select out.”[5]

The committee member on our conference call gave a gift to all of us that day—candor. He took a risk, but he reasoned that a Christ-centered board or committee meeting should be a safe place to take a risk. It was. Praise God!

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Delivering voluminous board reports with inadequate time
for board members to read and review is not only inappropriate,
it’s disrespectful to board members.
Establish policies that articulate the timing and frequency
of board meeting materials and reports.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Avoid: Never, ever deliver agendas, reports, and recommendations at the last minute!

  2. Schedule: Agree in writing on the board’s preferred timetable for receiving board agendas, recommendations, and reports. Example: “All materials for a board meeting shall be emailed (or mailed) at least X days before the board meeting.” This policy, including the frequency of reports, can be stated in the Board Policies Manual.

 

Prayer

Lord, thank You for board members who speak with graciousness
but also candor. Amen.

 

 

 
[1] Ram Charan, Dennis Carey and Michael Useem, Boards That Lead: When to Take Charge, When to Partner, and When to Stay Out of the Way, (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), 93.

[2] Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, “What Makes Great Boards Great,” Posted September 2002. Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2002/09/what-makes-great-boards-great.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 6.

 

From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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