Get boardroom ready: five ways to improve executive interactions with the board

Engaging with the board is not the same as engaging with other members of senior management. Directors’ expectations are different. Board members, company priorities, and presentation preferences change over time. Here, we share the differentiators that will turn executives from good to great in the boardroom.

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Turning executives from good to great in the boardroom

Invest in your relationships

Executives often have just a handful of meetings with the board a year. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an ongoing relationship with those directors. For example, investing time in a pre-meeting update with the board (or committee) chair could help you understand what is top of mind for the board and ensure your presentation is tailored.

If you are new to your role or to speaking with the board, set a pre-meeting with the chair to understand his/her impression of your functional area and its value to the company. If you’re already regularly presenting to the board, periodically ask for coaching to assess your effectiveness. Setting aside time with the chair can strengthen your relationship and make you more effective. You might also ask them whether you should meet with other board members for their feedback. Demonstrating your receptiveness to this type of coaching will help develop your relationship with the committee.

At the same time, don’t forget to tend to your relationships with other members of senior management. Demonstrating that your function partners well throughout the organization can alleviate any negativity and provide a united front to the board. Sometimes, you may have to communicate sensitive or unpopular messages, and the strength of your relationships with the board and management can go a long way in making those tough messages easier to deliver.

Tailor your pre-read materials

Pre-read materials play an important role in setting the stage for your presentation and shaping the dialogue at board and committee meetings. While pre-read materials are separate from your presentation, they directly impact your overall effectiveness. If your pre-read materials aren’t thoughtfully prepared and carefully reviewed, directors could be focusing on the wrong areas or have a negative impression before you even have the opportunity to present.

Most executives who present to the board are tasked with condensing lengthy reports, background information, and often technical and complex data into a handful of pages. Because the board reviews volumes of information, consider what length and format for the pre-read package is appropriate. Seek feedback from the board on what they want to see and how they want to see it, and standardize that content into a reporting package. The most effective format and level of detail will vary from board to board and finding it might take some trial and error. Consider giving a few different options or introducing new content gradually and seeking feedback on what works.

Know your audience

Directors are a special audience—a group of individuals whose backgrounds are varied, but generally have a common thread of experience as a senior executive. The messages you convey to them need to have the right level of detail, insight, and impact without being too granular. A key element to effectively engaging the board is understanding members’ backgrounds. For example, those with a finance or audit background likely understand the intricacies of the role of internal audit or tax. However, there may be other board members with less direct experience. Specialized and complex areas like oversight of cybersecurity risk may also involve varied levels of experience. Carefully reviewing the professional backgrounds of each member will help you tailor the level of discussion.

In addition to board members’ backgrounds, it’s helpful to understand their other board responsibilities—on which committees do they serve? Beyond your organization—on what other boards (and committees) do the directors serve? By knowing what challenges and topics are relevant to those other organizations, you can gain perspective on the types of questions you may receive or views your board may have. Knowing board members’ individual styles is also helpful. Does one member get impatient with too many details? Does one want all the details? Does one frequently dominate or derail discussions? Often, there may be conflicting preferences on a committee. Developing relationships with the board/ committee chair, as well as talking with the CFO and other members of senior management about their experiences, can help you address these challenges.

Be strategic with your time

You do not want to use your limited time with the board to review in detail what they have already learned from your pre-read materials. Highlight anything noteworthy in your verbal commentary without a detailed walkthrough of every slide. Your presentation should put the pre-read materials into context and provide a unique forward-looking perspective. Depending on your role, the highlights and focus areas will vary. No matter what, though, your job is to bring insights to this group. “Connect the dots” for them—between projects, risks, etc. and distill complex data into meaningful connections to strategy and risk.

Communicating your main objectives up front, and anticipating the board’s reactions is a great place to start. You have an allotted amount of time on the agenda and will need to accomplish your objectives. However, remain flexible should the board want to go in a different direction.

If the meeting agenda is running behind, your allotted time may shrink. Be prepared for this by knowing your key messages and how to communicate them in less time than set out on the agenda, if necessary.

Always be prepared for private sessions, if applicable to your role. These sessions typically take place between a committee’s members and a specific executive or function (e.g., internal audit, external audit) without the senior leaders of the company in attendance. Private sessions are generally unstructured and set for a specific amount of time—generally 15 minutes or less. The board/committee may lead the private session by simply asking, “Is there anything we should know about?” Have impactful points prepared for such circumstances to make the best use of the time and to take advantage of the opportunity to add value.

Focus on your message

Excessive use of jargon, reading straight from notes, and avoiding eye contact during your presentation will all take away from your key message. To get your point across, communicate in plain English.

Using notes to guide your presentation or as a reminder of key points can be a helpful tool. However, if you start to read from notes and are not engaging your audience, you will quickly lose their interest. Similarly, avoiding eye contact could make you appear unengaged or lacking in confidence. Be mindful of how you present your message. Both the verbal and nonverbal cues can create more effective interaction in the boardroom.

Virtual meetings pose unique challenges. Participants may not be as engaged and it can be harder to read your audience if you aren’t in the same room. In this setting, make sure to stop for questions and consider ways to make the session more interactive, if possible.

Bringing it all together

Engaging with the board is an opportunity to build your relationships and professional brand. You have the chance to share your ideas and concerns with an audience that is deeply invested in helping your group and the entire company succeed. Each board is unique and its directors’ collective experiences differ. Learn more about your board and invest the time upfront to prepare your written and verbal presentations. It could make the difference in how your group is viewed.

Contact us

Maria Castañón Moats

Maria Castañón Moats

Leader, Governance Insights Center, PwC US

Paul DeNicola

Paul DeNicola

Principal, Governance Insights Center, PwC US

Catie Hall

Catie Hall

Director, Governance Insights Center, PwC US

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