How to discuss risks with decision makers?

How to discuss risks with decision makers?

When talking about the risks in a recent Board paper with two SLT members, one of them said something very interesting.

The risks section SHOULD make us feel uncomfortable.

The CTO's view was that if we highlight the things that are keeping us up at night and can demonstrate how well we have thought them through they will trust us more.

I found this interesting as I at times see risks being discussed in a ‘tick a box' fashion or alternatively being played down to reduce political rather than practical risk.

Given his view was so clear and strong vs what I so often see, I wanted to unpack his reasoning to help you too …

If we do share what keeps us up at night three things will happen. We

  • can be confident that the leadership will trust us
  • will enjoy a much more robust discussion that leads to a better outcome for the business
  • might just sleep better

If, alternatively, we are ‘gilding the lily' by only discussing the positives, leaders won’t trust us – and neither they should.

In his words: if we play it safe we would let both them and ourselves down as it demonstrates that we

  • haven't thought our proposition through deeply enough to be taken seriously
  • aren't ready to handle the inevitable risks we will face in delivering on our commitments
  • lack the courage to lead

This was food for thought to me and will push me to focus more intently on how risks are articulated in communication I help my clients prepare.

What about you?

How openly do you discuss the risks as you see them when lying awake at night?

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,


Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.

Transitioning Board Papers onto tablets is trickier than it seems

Transitioning Board Papers onto tablets is trickier than it seems

Many companies are moving away from physical paper for board papers in favour of tablets.

Directors seem generally grateful not to take phone-book sized packs away for their weekend reading and all would agree that less paper is usually better. However, transitioning to tablets is more complex than it seems.

Today's ‘Tips & techniques for board writing on iPads & tablets' session presented by Mary Morel of Write to Govern and hosted by the Governance Institute of Australia highlighted that point.

In coming away from that session, I realised that coming to grips with the technology is not as easy as it seems, macro structure matters most of all, visual presentation matters more than in the past and micro issues matter more than you might think. Here is some more on each of these points:

Coming to grips with the technology is not as easy as it seems

  • Directors often use different devices for different boards to accommodate each company's policy and platform, which adds unexpected complexity as they come to terms with each different technology as well as the content of the papers.
  • Page flipping is harder on a tablet than with actual paper. Consider inserting your charts and graphs within the body of your text rather than asking Directors to scroll to the back of the document to find the chart and scroll back to the place where they were mentioned in the text.

Macro structure matters most of all

  • Conveying the essence of your message crisply and near the front of the paper is the most critical ingredient of a good paper, otherwise Directors may misconstrue your purpose and meaning from the outset
  • Adopt a consistent structure across all of your board papers, and avoid having different templates for recommendations, noting papers, etc. This makes it easier for Directors to work their way through all of the papers for your organisation and easier for the writers also.

Visual presentation of information matters even more than in the past

  • Using photocopiers to scan the papers into PDF form can lead to ugly documents that are difficult to read. Instead, use a PDF writer to create your papers and then open your papers on the right sort of tablet to check their readability.
  • Many Directors find that rotating tablets mid-way to read diagrams is disruptive, and ask for a consistent orientation (either portrait or landscape) throughout the paper and appendices.

Micro matters more than you might think

  • Small things like grammatical correctness can be distracting for those reading the papers and present a poor image of the writer. Mary has written some excellent material on this point .
  • Active language (‘She wrote the letter' versus ‘the letter was written by her') is generally better to read. However some companies still require people to write in the third person, e.g., Management wrote the letter, which makes active voice harder to use.

Keywords – #board papers #deliver your communication #board communication


Boards at risk of missing material issues thanks to poorly written papers

Boards at risk of missing material issues thanks to poorly written papers

I went to a terrific lunch today hosted by Let's Connect Women, where two senior directors shared valuable insights about life as a Board Director.

Toward the end of the conversation someone asked how executives can help Board Members and the conversation rapidly turned toward board papers.

It was fabulous to hear what they do and don't like, but particularly how they see poorly crafted board papers potentially putting them at risk.

Here is a snapshot of their comments organised according to what they do – and don't like – about board papers.

They DO like:

Encouragingly, Ann Sherry (Boards include Carnival Australia, ING, NAB, Palladium, Sydney Airport, Australian Rugby Union), commented that it is possible to summarise the key points from a 1,000 page report on a single page.

Both she and Patrick Allaway (Boards include David Jones, Fairfax Domain, Woolworths South Africa, Metcash), agreed that this was not only possible but also desirable and that they would like the purpose and key message up front in their papers rather than having to dig for it.

However, there was much more discussion about what they don't like.

They DON'T like:

  1. Being exposed to the risk of missing material issues because they can't untangle the papers to find them. This was a real concern and one we can relate to in many of the papers we see.
  2. Getting a brain dump of the month's activities. This suggests that not much thought has gone into the papers and raises the question about management's decision making processes, not just their writing abilities.
  3. Having to spend all weekend sifting through the papers to identify the core message buried ‘somewhere on page 25'. They would much prefer it to be spelt out up front and supported by the rest of the paper or pack.
  4. Listening to business leaders read through page after page of 40-page PowerPoint decks. They would much prefer the highlights only, given they have read the details before the meeting, and spend the time in a detailed discussion about the issues the paper raises
  5. Forcing themselves to stay awake as someone provides them with every detail they know about an issue. The word coma was used …

I thought you might like to hear it from the horse's mouth.

Keywords: board papers, leadership communication, design your strategy, understand your audience

One-page board papers: The Impossible Dream


That was management's view when the Chair of a major Corporation said they wanted board papers to be one page long with a maximum of 10 supporting “PowerPoint charts”.

But it has happened.

This Chair is not alone – other Boards that are sick of being inundated with massive, inconsistent and poorly thought out board papers are also moving toward one-pagers. They see this as a way of reducing the time and risks involved in untangling poorly prepared papers while supporting better discussion and decision making.

Here are the steps that this Chair took to achieve this “impossible” dream:

Got buy in

The Board needed to want to drive clarity and streamline board papers while ensuring all the corporate governance checks were met.

Built capability

We ran workshops for all the senior team and their direct reports who authored board papers about simple approaches to structuring problem solving (to avoid the rubbish in rubbish out syndrome), synthesising ideas into a clear and compelling argument and creating a clear board paper and supporting exhibits. One of our clients has had the board members come and talk to the board paper authors about what they are looking for in a board paper and what their hot buttons are.

Got the Board aligned

We also explained our approach and thinking to the Board so they would know how to “read” the new board papers.

Agreed ground rules

These vary by board, but the basics are the same:

  • Every board paper author must produce a “storyline” for their board paper.
  • Every board paper must conform to the agreed format and length. Some Boards include these in the board paper itself as an executive summary
  • The storyline needs to be signed off with the senior level sponsor

Shared the love

It's important to share the learning across all board paper authors and also to share examples of great board papers that others can use as a model.

The result – clearer board papers and more time spent of discussing the right issues!

Here is what a one-page board paper might look like:

Audit Story Storyline



Note. Since this was written a number of large organisations we work with have been whittling down the length of their papers. BHP Billiton, for example, is now working down from four pages to two. 

To learn how to build storyline one-pagers like this – and to cut to the chase in your own communication – explore the Clarity First Program.

This post was originally drafted by Gerard Castles, co-author of The So What Strategy and also a director with me at Clarity Thought Partners.

Gerard has helped clients prepare high-stakes communication for around 25 years in Australia, Asia Pacific, the US and the UK. His advice is highly sought after by senior managers large Australian corporates in particular, who appreciate his intense focus on logic, structure and clarity. He learned his craft as a communication specialist at McKinsey & Company.