Why communicating with the board is all about balance

Why communicating with the board is all about balance
Nathan McDonald, Group CEO at We Are Social, explains how to ensure the essential practice of board communication stays open, honest and transparen

In today’s unpredictable and ever-changing business environment, dominated by economic uncertainty, geopolitical instability and rapid technological advancement, leaders cannot be blamed for focusing heavily on ensuring the smooth running of core operational activities.

But this may be to the detriment of other key considerations, such as establishing a clear, honest and open stream of communication with the board, which can often prove the difference between a company functioning effectively and slipping into a negative spiral. 

Nathan McDonald, Co-founder and CEO at We Are Social, goes as far as to call this practice “essential”, and emphasises that a two-way channel of communication is in the best interest of all parties.

“In my opinion, the key to success is getting the right balance between meetings and spending quality time together – separate from day-to-day operations – to build a strong and trusting relationship,” says McDonald. 

“Facilitating this dialogue starts with regular communication to educate board members about the intricacies of the business, ensuring they have a clear picture of how things work and your vision for the future.

“The board needs to understand the most pressing challenges facing the business, while executives need clarity on the board's objectives so they can deliver on the strategy and execute effectively. In order to communicate this, everyone needs a shared language and perspective on the company and its operations.”

Communication with board members re-energised

One might imagine that maintaining a clear stream of communication would have become more challenging over the past few years as companies switched to remote or hybrid working.

McDonald, however, believes the opposite to be true, highlighting that the need to adapt has re-energised such communications.

Despite regular, in-person meetings remaining invaluable when it comes to building relationships, the new normality of virtual conferencing means executives and board members can connect more often, in a more convenient fashion. 

The big issue here is balance. There is a very real danger of over-communicating, which should be avoided, but the board must still be kept up-to-date on critical matters. 

“Content is everything,” McDonald continues. “Executives need to concisely summarise updates and data to inform strategy and finances, without oversharing minor details.

“Gut instinct plays a role in judging what to share, but it's vital to communicate issues that may substantially impact the business. And the makeup of the board matters, too; more involved directors may require more regular updates, for example. 

“Ultimately, open communication – both in person and online – enables executives to keep the board aligned while also respecting everyone’s time.”

The board communication playbook

McDonald has amassed his fair share of experience in the area of board communication, having co-founded We Are Social in 2008 and witnessed it grow into a 1,300-person organisation spanning four continents. These days, it forms part of Plus Company, a unique partnership of forward-thinking creative agencies.

This, inevitably, means McDonald has developed his own methods for communicating effectively with members of the board, including the parent board at Plus Company. 

“It's important to go into meetings with a clear, focused story and key messages in mind,” he explains. 

“My modus operandi is to identify the most critical issues and construct a compelling narrative around them. Thinking through how to convey the importance of each topic helps me effectively direct the discussion.”

Other key entries in McDonald’s board communication playbook include:

  • Lead board members through the logic and analysis behind recommendations, rather than just presenting data
  • Tell a cohesive story to help the board grasp why certain actions are being taken and why they matter
  • Make an effort to anticipate questions and concerns, so you are prepared to address them
  • Follow up with concise summaries and relevant materials to help reinforce key takeaways after productive discussions

Setting an example  

Clearly, in numerous aspects of business, from company culture to overall productivity and performance, the buck ultimately stops with the CEO. 

The same applies to quality of communication, for which leadership figures should be the ones inspiring model behaviour among fellow executives and the rest of the organisation. 

There are nuances, of course, and interactions with each group of people will be different. 

McDonald, for example, varies his approach depending on whether he is communicating with We Are Social’s global leadership team or the parent board at Plus Company. Broadly speaking, however, what remains integral to every conversation is openness, transparency and respect.

“Broadly speaking, transparency from the CEO sets the tone for communication going forward,” says McDonald. “It builds trust and enables the board to best advise, make informed decisions and reinforce good governance.

“It’s down to the CEO to know what information – and how much of it – to share, versus what to keep in confidence. But setting an expectation of transparency, and modelling openness in your own communication, are necessary examples for the rest of the executive team to follow.”

Beyond the boardroom

Notwithstanding McDonald’s earlier observation with regards to the increased ease of communication thanks to technology, organised interactions between executives and board members can be few and far between. 

It’s little wonder, then, that some members might choose or be encouraged to meet informally outside of the boardroom. 

This practice has the power to strengthen relationships, enhance team spirit and bridge any divides that might be emerging. 

“Connecting outside the boardroom builds rapport and trust,” McDonald goes on. “Going off-agenda opens up valuable perspectives and experiences that can broaden everyone’s thinking, so it’s a critical part of the C-suite narrative.”

On the other hand, care must clearly be taken when it comes to matters of sensitivity, as well as ensuring smaller groups and factions do not develop. After all, boards must make decisions as a cohesive unit. 

“It's important to listen carefully, even when your views may not fully align, to foster greater mutual understanding and establish collaborative leadership teams of partners rather than overseers,” concludes McDonald. 

“Within We Are Social, our executive leadership team is extremely collaborative in its approach and this helps promote openness and creative problem solving. 

“My role as a leader is to inspire, rather than act as the sole authority, so I have to be able to trust the people around me. Successful governance relies on collaboration, especially in creative services where it’s very much a team sport, rather than just about the individual.”

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