How to write a board report that gets results
Crafting a board report can be a time-consuming and frustrating task for many founders and executives. But investing your time in thoughtful report prep is absolutely necessary to keep investors updated and secure support from your board. It's also a great opportunity to step back from day-to-day business operations and reflect on your overarching strategy. When prepared thoughtfully, a board report can help you build a more impactful and valuable company.
If you've never created a board report before, it can be hard to even know where to start — which is where this step-by-step guide for executives and first-time board members at private companies comes in. We’ll walk you through how to go from blank slate to polished deck, and provide the tips and resources you’ll need to turn your board reports into a significant business advantage.
What is a board report?
A board report is a set of pre-read materials prepared by an organization’s executive team at regular intervals. The report includes important updates and an agenda for an upcoming board meeting. It’s usually sent ahead of time so that the board can use the meeting for productive discussions.
While a board report can be compiled in various formats, a presentation is commonly used so contributors can include text, images, and charts.
What are board reports for?
A board is the governing body of a company or nonprofit, and it exists to offer both advice and oversight. According to a 2020 study by Harvard Business School and Russell Reynolds, the most effective boards at high-performing companies (also known as “Gold Medal Boards“) demonstrate the ability to “refocus the board agenda.“ This is essentially what your board report is for: to help your board members perform their job more effectively by focusing on what matters most.
Before you start putting together your board report, keep these three objectives in mind:
1. Board reports should inform
Board members will only be able to help companies achieve their goals if they have a good grasp of the organization. To this end, the board report should provide all the essential information required to keep board members up-to-date about performance, progress, opportunities, and challenges.
2. Board reports should drive decision-making
An effective board report raises and frames the decisions that need to be made, and provides all the background required to help board members make the choices that drive an organization toward its goals. It lays the foundation for robust conversations and exchanges of diverse perspectives so that the meeting leads to better decisions for the business.
3. Board reports should create accountability
The board represents the interests of shareholders, investors, and other stakeholders in the organization. All senior executives are ultimately accountable to the board, which even has the authority to hire and fire executives — including the CEO. Board reports therefore serve as a key piece of documentation to drive accountability between these two groups. Board materials should provide transparency and visibility into the organization's activities, so the board can hold executives accountable for management performance.
How to structure your board deck
A 2022 McKinsey survey of board directors and executives revealed that despite spending 19% more time on board work since 2019, board members haven’t delivered a greater impact on value creation overall. Creating a well-structured board deck is the key to generating maximum board impact without requiring any additional time commitment from board members.
Here are the five essential sections you should have in your board deck:
1. Big picture
This is your TL;DR section — the first one or two slides that your board members will focus on in your report. Use it to tell the high-level story of how things are going, where you need support or advice, and which important decisions, if any, need to be made.
Typically, this section includes:
- A bullet-point overview of the information in the rest of the deck (often called the “executive summary” or “CEO update”)
- A summary of recent performance, which can be broken up into highlights and lowlights
- An agenda for the board meeting
“An executive summary at the start of the report is key,” says David Larcker, Professor Emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author of Corporate Governance Matters and A Real Look at Real World Corporate Governance. “List the important decisions you want to address in the meeting, and reference where in the report these will be covered. I find it strange when business and financials aren’t covered early on. Don’t wait to deal with the hard stuff until later in the meeting.”
Tip: Finalize this section last. You’ll only be able to create the best summary of all the content in your deck once you’re done assembling the rest of your report.
2. Key metrics
Get your charts and tables ready — in this section, the numbers do the talking. The key metrics you report on should be ones you’ve previously identified and agreed upon with your board.
These might not all be financial metrics like revenue growth, cash burn, or average deal size. Depending on your organization’s strategy, there may be other metrics that better reflect how things are going — for instance, new user signups, hiring rate, product data, or patent applications. And if there’s any manual work involved in pulling the data, be sure to plan around this.
Tip: Make the metrics easily digestible by writing slide headers that distill the main messages and pairing them with a high-level commentary. This text should give your board a good picture of recent performance without close scrutiny of your charts. Consider using color-coding or icons to highlight areas of success (green/check) or risk (red/cross/exclamation point).
3. Company updates
It’s time to move beyond the numbers and tell the story of how — and where — things are going. While metrics tend to put the focus on the past, this section allows you to look at leading rather than lagging indicators, and get advice on future initiatives.
Include an update on recent or planned hiring, current team size and morale, product roadmap and updates, upcoming feature launches, marketing campaigns, and other plans for needle-moving programs. You can also include any financial metrics not highlighted in the previous section.
Tip: Be completely transparent about how things are going. Startup founders often struggle with the transition from pitching their groundbreaking idea to acknowledging where their plans fall short. Recognize this shift and focus on building trust with your board, so they can help you address any blockers you’re facing.
4. Focus topics
Now that you’ve covered all the headlines, get ready to dive into your focus topics. This section is your chance to steer the board’s attention toward points that require further discussion.
Maybe there’s an area where the organization is struggling, and you want help. Or conversely, an opportunity is presenting itself and you’re wondering how to make the most of it. To keep things focused and manageable, include just one or two of these topics in your report.
“Depth before breadth,” says Katharina Wilhelm, a Partner at Index Ventures. “In the best board meetings, everyone has already had a chance to read through the business update beforehand, and you can focus on the 1–2 strategically most important topics where a collective discussion is key.”
Rather than simply listing the topics to discuss, provide context that can inform the discussion. Anticipate the board’s potential questions, and gather as much information as you can to answer them.
Need an introduction from your board's network or want to have follow-up meetings with specific board members? If you have ideas of how your board can help, state your request for support here — including clear owners and timelines.
Tip: To know which topics to prioritize, make a list of every issue on your (and your team’s) mind. Create a 2x2 matrix with axes reflecting the topic's urgency and its impact on your organization's mission. Plot each topic on the matrix, and prioritize those that score high for impact and urgency.
5. Question and answer
At the end of your meeting agenda, schedule in a Q&A section. Typically, there’s no need to prepare extra slides or talking points here — these should emerge organically during the meeting.
One thing you can do is add a blank slide where board members can jot down questions and comments prior to the meeting. It’s also a good idea to include a slide for action items, which can be reviewed in the next board meeting.
Tip: It’s common for non-board members to skip the Q&A, leaving only the board members and CEO or founders. This allows the group to freely discuss the most sensitive topics.
Now that you know how to structure your board report, let’s look at a few actionable tips that’ll help you optimize the success of your meeting.
10 essential tips for successful board meetings
1. Keep your presentation short and action-focused
Board decks should highlight important topics that drive decision-making and action. To do that, you need to cut through the noise and get the board to focus on what matters most. Indicate which slides or sections are more for informational purposes by using standardized “read-only“ labels.
2. Keep the group small
While it's important to seek out diverse opinions, having too many people present in board meetings can make the conversation unwieldy and unfocused. Consider who really needs to be there. If someone’s input matters for a single phase of the meeting, you can save everyone time by inviting them to join just that one section.
3. Ask yourself, “So what?”
A study in Harvard Business Review found that knowledge workers spend about 41% of their time doing things they don't enjoy, or that someone else could do better. The same can probably be said for topics covered in board reports. Those handful of hours per quarter when you have your board’s full attention are precious — so ask yourself which discussions will truly move the needle, and zero in on those.
4. Ask the board for help, and track action items
Your board is there to support you, but they may not have as much information to work with as you do. Help them help you by including a clear set of requests in your board report. During the meeting, make a list of action items and assign responsibilities. Be sure to follow up afterward by appointing one team member to track requests and action items.
5. Share the deck ahead of time
Share your board report at least 48 hours before the meeting. Public or larger company board reports are typically sent out for review at least two weeks ahead of a board meeting. This gives board members time to review the content and agenda beforehand, so the meeting’s focus can be on discussion rather than information-sharing.
Encourage your board members to drop comments directly into your deck so that everyone involved can prepare for the discussions. If you’re a Pitch Pro user, you can even see which board members have viewed the deck to get a sense of how to best steer the meeting.
6. Appoint a timekeeper
On your agenda slide, allocate a specific amount of time for each section of the report. This’ll help you use your time efficiently and avoid unproductive discussions. If the chairperson of your board isn’t doing it themselves, assign a timekeeper to keep the meeting on track. That way, other attendees can focus on participating in the discussion, taking notes, and voting on decisions.
7. Enlist your team in deck-building
It’s unlikely that you’ll have all the information you need to build the board deck by yourself. Collaborate with your team by assigning slides to the people closest to a specific topic. Then keep track of what’s completed, and what’s still a work in progress.
8. Encourage the entire board to participate
Mandates for board diversity are becoming more common. Studies have shown that boards that collectively represent diverse lived experiences are more effective at steering organizations. But board diversity is only a benefit if all members contribute. You can help everyone participate by asking quieter members for their perspectives on focused topics, and encouraging all members to speak up during meetings.
9. Keep the information accessible
If your business operates in a technically complex or acronym-heavy industry, consider adding an acronym reference resource in the appendix of your deck. This can also be useful if you measure your business using specialized or less commonly used metrics. Include clear definitions for each metric, which your board can refer to as needed.
10. Collect feedback
Board evaluation is a hot topic for public companies. But even early-stage startups can take inspiration from these more formal processes, and integrate feedback rounds into their board reports and board meeting cadence.
At the end of your board meeting, conduct a lightning feedback round where every participant has a chance to name one thing that went well and one that could be improved. Alternatively, you can also send a quick post-meeting survey to collect suggestions on how to improve materials or processes. Then, iterate on your approach to make your next board report and meeting even better.
Elevate your next board report with custom templates
Ready to start collaborating with your team on your next board report? Save time by using one of Pitch’s tailor-made board report templates, which you can easily adapt to your company’s brand. Once you’ve created your branded board deck template, you can use it to jump-start every board report in the future.