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5 steps for sharing complicated stuff with your board

Advice columnist Maynard Webb says start by asking: Is this even information the board needs to know?

5 steps for sharing complicated stuff with your board
[Photo: Pawel Chu/Unsplash; Amada44/Wikimedia Commons]

Editor’s Note: Each week, Fast Company presents an advice column by Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay. Webb offers candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. My situation is very complex. How do I communicate it in a succinct manner to the board?

—C-level exec at a public software company

Dear C-level exec,

You have to think about it from the board’s perspective. The first thing you need to ask yourself: Is this situation something that’s worthy of being on the board agenda? The fact is, there are only a small number of things that the board plays a role in deciding. Board meetings are getting longer, and while they usually last for a couple of days, the majority of the time is filled with regulatory and administrative responsibilities. Is your issue one that warrants being on the board’s agenda?

Okay, in order to be sure to address your question, we’ll assume that your situation is one which the board needs to be informed about—and one in which they’ll play a role as a decision-maker. Board members will think about the situation in a certain way, which is centered around how they can be of assistance while fulfilling their fiduciary obligations. Therefore, don’t think about what you want to tell them, but focus on what they need to know. The following steps can help you frame your situation in a way that the board will be most receptive to hearing it, and helping to solve it:

  1. Figure out who has responsibility for your area. Is it a committee or the full board? If you don’t know, check with the corporate secretary who will know.
  2. Get on the agenda and know the amount of time you have, so you can plan your presentation and leave enough time for questions and discussion. Don’t make the mistake of being so excited to be in front of the board that you spend all the time talking and not getting what you’re really there for—their input.
  3. When you are before the board or committee, crisply articulate what the situation is, what the implications are, and what the company is doing to solve it. Then, share what you would like to have them do or decide. (Are you informing them or asking for a decision?)
  4. Answer all of the board’s questions, and if required or desired, include an independent assessment, so the board has all of the necessary information to make their decision. Board members will listen to what you articulate and ask themselves, “Do I believe what I am hearing—and does it make sense?”
  5. Finally, make sure you did what is needed to facilitate the board’s decision-making process. Did the board get what they need? Did they get the context? Do they need outside help?

You will not have a lot of time to tell your story, so write your script based on the outline above and practice! The situation will need to be crystal clear with the board—so much so that they can all articulate back what you said and be able to come to a decision.

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