Why and how my team built board reports instead of PowerPoint decks. Fifty pages, less work than slides, and more valuable.Image courtesy of Drew Beamer.
Board meetings are a critical time of communication and reflection for a company. You have to share enough information that the people in the room can make existential decisions about the business. Yet most CEOs I know share only slides (the “board deck”) with their board.
This is a huge mistake.
People who worked for me at Puppet claimed I hate PowerPoint or Keynote. Nope. I use them myself when presenting on stage in front of a large crowd. But they are a horrible choice for communicating without a talk track, and are incapable of conveying large amounts of information, or anything of detail.
Don’t trust me? Ok, how about Edward Tufte , The Godfather of information design, who partially blamed them for the Columbia space shuttle explosion:
These [NASA] review boards examined what is probably the best evidence available on PP for technical work: hundreds of PP decks from a high-IQ government agency thoroughly practiced in PP. Both review boards concluded that (1) PowerPoint is an inappropriate tool for engineering reports, presentations, documentation and (2) the technical report is superior to PP. Matched up against alternative tools, PowerPoint loses.
What’s that you say? Running your business is easier than shooting rockets into space, so you are fine dumbing down your communication? You’re not in great company.
Bezos revealed that “narrative structure” is more effective than PowerPoint. According to Bezos, new executives are in for a culture shock in their first Amazon meetings. Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a “six-page memo that’s narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns.”
There’s a much better option right in front of you.
For most of my time running Puppet, we prepared a board memo: A text document written in normal English, with supporting images and charts. It averaged between 35 and 55 pages in length.
It worked great.
It took less time to prepare, and conveyed the state of our company more effectively. I recently shared my last board report, from 2016, with a friend, and he protested, “This is an SEC filing, not a board report!”
I’m not sure if our process is a fit for you, but hopefully it will at least inspire you to find a better solution than slides.
I used to be like you. Well. I never walked through slides in the meeting. I always drove a short (3ish items) agenda. My goal was discussion, not presentation. But I did start out using a deck.
I still cringe a little at the thought. But one of my startup principles is “Innovate only when necessary.” Your business requires a certain amount of breaking new ground. But don’t add risk by doing something unnecessarily new. If I avoided everything I thought was dumb I’d never get anything done.
Everyone else did board decks. My team was used to them. 🤷♂️ Sure, we’ll give them a try.
I hated it.
We spent too much time, on the wrong work, and did a poor job in the end.
Wow. The team spent so much time on fonts. And arranging images. What, exactly, is this adding to the board meeting? I understand: An ugly deck makes us look bad. But it seemed like we were spending a third of our time prettifying something instead of actually communicating.
There’s a good reason it was so hard to make them attractive: We had a ton of information to convey. We had to include detailed information about sales, marketing, engineering, and operations. The reader needed to quickly gain a sense of what was working, what was not, and what the vectors were around the company. No amount of picking fonts and rearranging images could deliver that understanding with PowerPoint.
So one quarter we ran an experiment. It was early on, only a year or two after our first round.
I gave each member of my team a choice: You can produce slides, or prose (i.e., plain text, using full sentences and paragraphs). Unsurprisingly, sales and marketing picked slides, and engineering and services picked prose.
What a stark difference.
The prose was done faster, communicated more, and just felt so much better.
Experiment over, prose won, we switched.
I don’t remember exactly how the process evolved. I do remember where we ended up, six years into using producing what we called board reports.
We did all the writing in Google Docs. We could all work at once and not step on each other’s toes.
I would build a skeleton of the report: Write out each section heading (“Summary”, “OKRs”, “Product”, “Marketing”, “Sales”). Then I’d use a comment to assign each section to the relevant executive. They’d either produce the text themselves, or do so in partnership with their team. Sales, marketing, and finance would include a lot of charts and graphs; product tended to stick to prose with a couple of diagrams or screen shots.
As people filled out the document, I played a few roles.
I spent most of my time assessing when someone was done. I’d read through people’s work and mark something that was insufficient, unclear, or missing with a comment in Google Docs. These are easy to spot even when scrolling through a fifty page document. As people worked, they marked their progress as done or ready to review. A completed section was easy to recognize: All comments and suggestions were resolved.
In this way, I could scan a large document and instantly see where work remained to be done.
My second job was overcoming a shortcoming in Google Docs. Or maybe a lack of training of office workers. Docs has built-in headings, and if you use them, your document is visually consistent, and auto-generates a table of contents. However, most people who worked for me never used the headings. They’d make a headline bold and increase the font size. So I had to go through the entire document and correct the markup. This was probably a quarter of my time.
By the end, I delegated this to a senior copy-editor who we trusted to see the entire document in process.
My last major role, and the only one that resembled the work of a CEO instead of an editor, was to ensure we were telling a single, coherent story. I’d write the summary to set the key messages. Then as I assessed everyone’s work, I pointed out inconsistencies or gaps. Most of this simple editing: Ensure all of the text used the same voice (first person plural, usually). It involved plenty of strategic work, though: tying company goals to team performance, ensuring the whole story was told, and asking everyone to cover the ‘why’, not just what happened.
You can guess this process triggered a few tense side conversations as I dragged information to light.
That, in the end, is the real point of the board report: Make sure we all understand the true state of the business. The writing was more important than the reading. It was on me to ensure we did the real work, rather than just packing it with information without saying anything.
I usually spent about four hours on it. Again, on a fifty five page report. My team each spent 1-3 hours. I did have the odd executive here or there or spend more like four or five hours on their part. We also never invested enough in automated reporting, so I’m confident some parts of the org had to work harder than I’d like to admit to generate their charts.
We targeted completion at least a couple of days before the board meeting. I’d share it with the board as a PDF. A couple of times I tried sharing it as a Google Doc (copied, so they can’t see the edit history), in hopes they would ask questions that could drive the agenda. It never got much engagement so I stopped.
Without a board deck, what did we actually talk about? I mean, without slides driving every minute, don’t you lose track?
No way. I ran a tight ship. But we measured time in half hours and big topics, not individual clicks.
My board meetings were usually three hours long. I’d spend an hour with just the board discussing high level status of the business and team. Then we’d take an hour and a half to cover our agenda, usually with portions of my team in the room. Then we’d spend half an hour at the end again just with the board, discussing what we learned and what we expected to do about it. This is when we also assessed individual executive performance. By the end of my tenure we also had a few minutes set aside for just the board, with me absent.
This process created space for deep conversation in the meetings. Everyone who read the report (which was, well, nearly everyone) was caught up on the business. They were fully prepared to discuss the three topics. And we had no structured flipping of slides to get in the way of discussion.
After the meeting, I edited the report as needed then sent it to the whole company.
Usually this involved removing just a line or two. Sometimes it was larger surgery, and others no changes at all. Mostly I cut out discussion of personnel changes, or removed sentences that required more sensitive, political phrasing than I practiced in these reports.
The end of this cycle ensured everyone involved in the company was up to date on, well, everything. Goals, status, progress, weaknesses, strengths.
I don’t know if everyone should use this process. I know many people were raised by American business to think slides are the best form of communicating. That’s a hard habit to break. I won’t even judge you if you use slides during the meeting to display the agenda and schedule, and maybe key images.
Slides are perfect if you want to tightly control the message, and not leave much room for hard questions.
But if your goal is to do real work in board meetings, skip the deck and write a report.
Being an advisor to other founders is a contradictory affair: Be helpful, but do not give advice. That is, I want to help you do your best work, but I don’t think I can or should do it by telling you what to do or think.
I obviously think I have value to add or I would not sign up to help. Well, maybe it’s not obvious; our industry is rife with advisors who attach their names and little else to projects. It’s true I’m motivated to join partly by the possible long-term reward, but mostly I’m helping because I enjoy it and am learning a lot.
While running Puppet, I was constantly confronted with a classic leadership struggle: How do I simultaneously help people improve their own answers, yet get them to do what I want? There are many who will say this is a false struggle, that I could have avoided it by focusing on empowering people instead of trying to get them to do what I wanted. Pfft. The literal definition of leadership is providing direction and getting people there, and that’s doubly so for a fast-growing startup where alignment is critical to execution. I spent a decade slowly, incrementally, getting better at this, but felt my incompetence as keenly at the end as I did at the beginning.1
Advising companies allows me to practice the empowerment-half of this skill without the other complications. Unlike when I was a CEO, I know I should not be setting direction or making decisions. My job is not to provide answers, but to help people do their own best work.
My only explicit training for this was when I was an organic chemistry lab tech in in college. My primary task was repeating questions back to the students: “I don’t know, which layer do you keep?"2 When I started dating my now-wife in college, she told me her friends were bitter that I would not give them answers. I knew my job. I was there to help them get an education, which required they did the work on their own. This has also been helpful experience for being a parent: “I don’t know, what is 12 times 9?”
Advising CEOs has similar constraints, but it’s a lot more open-ended, and has no answer sheet. In the lab, there was one right answer, it was always the same, and you could reason it out with the information at hand. Labs were also usually a day of work, maybe three days, and mistakes were pretty cheap, in the grand scheme of things. I don’t expect one of those students to track me down later in life and lay at my feet all of their struggles or successes. Most importantly, we were studying an objective space that I did actually know more about. When push came to shove, I knew the answers, and I could reason out anything that wasn’t obvious.
Helping CEOs is considerably harder. I’m rarely asked about questions that have a single right answer. No competent CEO would bother getting advice on an easy question, or one whose answer wasn’t important. Wrap into this the fact that I can’t possibly know the company as well as the person asking me the question.3 It’s inconceivable that I would often have answers available that the expert in the seat doesn’t.
That simplifies the challenge: Prod the questioner into getting to their own answer, no matter how much they complain. And they do sometimes get upset: I had a CEO exasperatedly demand what I would do, after a long session of forcing him to work through what he cared about, what he saw as the right answer. When I relented - only after he had already done all the hard work - he could see how thin and useless my answer was. By the time he’d decided what to do, he saw that what he learned from the process was at least as important as the answer, and my just providing a solution could never give that.
There is still some risk. I’m by no means a master of this technique. I know I have at times presented people’s options in stark ways, which sometimes felt like no choice at all. My own predilections, such as toward a consumer-style sales model, are hard to separate from any guidance I might provide. It’s honestly just hard to know sometimes whether you’re successfully getting someone to express their own implicit belief or leading them to agree with one of yours.
It’s a skill I expect to spend the rest of my life trying to master. But it’s worth doing, and I’m enjoying the learning process.
Helping CEOs instead of running my own company provides a kind of repeatable laboratory environment. I get to learn at the same time, though, because it’s much harder than being a lab tech.
It’s not enough to just parrot questions back. I spend my time listening closely and drawing out more information, then replaying back what I heard. Listening is a woefully underrated skill. I’ve been loving the opportunity to practice really hearing what people are saying, and trying to differentiate between the words they use, the meaning behind them, and their intent in saying it at all.
As you look for advisors, be sure you demand the same discipline from them. Don’t accept answers. They should hear you, understand your dilemma, and be able able to point out where you haven’t thought completely, or clearly.
A great advisor should provide light, not direction.
If this whole definition of leadership annoys or offends you, I’d ask how you differentiate between leadership and management, and also how you expect a company to align around a direction without someone picking the direction. ↩
Nearly every experiment in organic chemistry involves using liquids to separate chemicals, where part of the solution ends up in an aqueous (watery) layer, and the other ends up in another layer, like separated oil and vinegar in salad dressing. One of those layers is now waste, and the other one has the chemical you’re working on. Don’t throw away the wrong one! ↩
This is another big difference from when I was the leader; I knew Puppet itself better than anyone, even if I could not know your specific area as well. ↩
Managing a high-growth company is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. One big reason is that I only received problems that no one else could figure out. Some were organizational problems that should naturally route to the CEO, but a lot were functional issues that I was no more capable of solving than anyone else.
I eventually discerned a repeated pattern in solving these problems. At first I would just get a few issues. I’d muddle through - do a bit of research, ask for help, and sort things out. As we grew, more and more of my time would be spent on this one kind of problem. I’d become better and better at handling it, and just about the time I’d start feeling like I knew what I was doing, I’d realize, “Oh: There are people out there who specialize in this”. I could just hire someone to do it full time, and they’d be better at it than I ever would. Duh.
I’d then spend three months, or six, or twelve, hiring for the role, and bam, suddenly my time is freed up and I’ve got an actual expert in charge. Well, kind of. At this point I’m a self-taught semi-expert who does not buy into the orthodoxy of the role, and we’ve got a year of my weird solutions, so there’s a lot of friction as we sort out just how to add this new skill set to a growing org. But the point is, my time spent on this problem drops precipitously, and I no longer have much opportunity to put my new-found skills into practice.
Usually just in time for something new to come into focus.
This pattern - gain just enough expertise to hire someone - played out again and again, for me and for other founders I’ve talked to.
In some ways it’s thrilling. You get experience with all of the key areas at the company, and you’re always learning something new.
In other ways, though, it is soul-crushing. Over the eight years I managed Puppet while in fast hiring mode, I rarely got to spend time doing anything I was good at. Humans have a psychological need to feel competent, to feel like they are in control and know what’s going on. I don’t need this all the time, but please, just a little? Sometimes? Nope. Pretty much the second I started to feel like I understood something, I had to hire for it, and my problem changed from doing to managing.
After years of this, I knew just enough about everything to suck at it, but not enough to actually be useful to anyone.
Only as my tenure as CEO came to a close did I begin to see what I uniquely added to the organization. I began being comfortable not delegating certain problems, and felt justified in spending hours on something as an individual contributor, rather than seeking leverage in everything I did.
Only once this happened did I start to feel comfortable as a CEO. I wasn’t just routing problems, I was actually solving some of them. I was not spending 100% of my time in areas I was incompetent; just most of it.
I know the advice as well as you: Great leaders delegate, they empower. If you’re doing the work yourself, you’re not a real leader.
Yes, building and running a team absolutely requires that you empower the team. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to do anything yourself, that you hand everything off and have nothing left.
Just like everyone else, you, too, need a reason to show up, to stay engaged. You have to hold on to your own why.
If you don’t remember why you, personally, are in the job, then you’ll look up in a few years and realize it’s not there any more. You’ve moved too far from what gets you up in the morning, and suddenly you can’t do it. Or worse, the company has developed but you haven’t. You’re no better at the thing you want to master than you were when you started, because you haven’t been spending time on the problems you care most about.
Some of this is that you need a place of safety. I am a highly fireable person, and raising venture capital made for downright tenuous tenure. The less confident I was about my own strengths, my own value, the less safe I felt. And humans need to feel safe to do great work.
More than that, though, I needed a platform for learning. I was pursuing mastery, but of what, exactly? Of not mastering things?
I know other leaders really are master delegators, hirers, organizers, etc. But that was never going to be me.
I had to peel things back, really understand why I was there, what I cared about, what I wanted to be the best in the world at. And, really, what I was good enough at that I ended up in this place, running this company. Then, as the problems rolled by, I could be sure to push that forward just a little bit, even if my focus was on the organization’s needs, not my own.
The times I lost this sense of why I was there and what I was getting better at were some of my most depressing days. But the days where I could connect what I felt good at, what I spent my time on, and what the company needed from me were the best days.
I don’t think that’s any different for me, or for other founders, than it is for anyone else.
But all the discussions of leadership I hear leave this bit out: You’re a human, too. You have to provide the why for the whole organization, but every individual deserves to be able to translate that into what they do every day. Even you.
My experience growing and fundraising for Puppet was full of inspirational-sounding phrases that cut like a knife. Aggressive goals got praise for wanting to “build a real product” and “really scale this thing.” These are some of my favorites. And when I say “favorites,” what I mean is, I hate them. Deeply.
The one that I heard most often made me want to walk out of the room. I’d pitch an investor while fundraising, and he (always he) would say: “So you’re going to try to turn this into a real company, eh?” As if being my full time job for years was somehow not real. As if you are the arbiter of truth, not my customers. Or me.
If you want to make an entrepreneur feel small, you really want to piss them off, try to inspire them this way. I assume most people who used it thought they were complimenting me, impressed that I was taking this big step or something. But it was a sure fire way to trigger my defenses. When you diminish the work I’ve done so far, it’s hard to see you as a potential partner. I quit my full time job five years ago, and have missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings, but asking you for money is what shows I’m serious?
I’m convinced at least some investors did it on purpose, as a form of negging - trying to position themselves as an authority and me as someone who needed their help and wisdom. “That’s pretty cute. Why don’t you get some help from the professionals?” I’m good, thanks.
I know most people didn’t mean it that way, though. Their worldview is just so skewed that if you haven’t raised a ton of money, you’re not really trying. They can only conceive of success if it looks a specific way. You literally cannot succeed unless you do what they do, what all their friends do.
If you’re an investor, advisor, or executive, take a deep look at how you talk to founders. Are you truly complimenting them, or actually diminishing their work? Are you presenting yourself as the arbiter of success, even while you think you’re saying the other person has done so well?
If you’re a founder, know that you don’t have to take it. No one else gets to define success for you. There’s always an in-crowd, but by definition the best results come from being outside of it. Even if you decide you need their money, you don’t have to accept their framing.
I did more writing in 2017 than I ever have before, probably more than I had done in my entire life. I stated at the outset my desire to write in order to learn, and publishing regularly has delivered. More importantly, it forced me to capture and share many of the results of my R&D. The writing topics were primarily venture capital, the software startup ecosystem, and founder optimization, but one of my weaknesses is a drive to the meta, spending time on the tools and systems rather than the work itself. Unsurprisingly, this ground is as fertile in prose as it is in code.
I have done all of my writing on Ulysses, which has been a good tool. I do miss much of the power of Vim for managing text, but the usability trade-offs are usually worth it. Plus, Vim is not exactly strong on wrapped text. Ulysses’s most important capability for me is that it transparently syncs between my phone , both of my iPads, and all three of my computers (yes, I know). I can open any document on any device with no worries (given my iPads are on LTE, and thus can always download updates). Second to that is the ease of getting data out. I was able to text a 5k word document directly from Ulysses on my phone to two different people, because it converts anything to PDF and can send out via the share sheet. It publishes directly to most platforms, so I used it to post everything to Medium. I do wish its backend storage was more visible, so I could version control everything in git, but you can’t have everything.
The only time I ran into troubles was publishing my travel writing - I was copy/pasting photos from Apple’s Photos app into Ulysses, then publishing into Medium, and it turned out that no part of this process downscaled the photos, meaning each was about 20MB. This is fine when you’re on solid wifi, but not so good from a campground in Yellowstone. The primary reason I did not write during the second month of my trip is it was just too painful to publish. Ulysses really fell down here, because when it works, it works great, but when it fails it is miserable. I’d just sit and stare at my iPad for ages, with no visibility of failure or success until the very end, and it would often manage to upload the text but not the photos. The only fix for this was to delete the draft from Medium and try again. Not so great.1
Over the year I became concerned, though. I heard about Andrew Chen, who built a following on successive publishing platforms (e.g., Blogger), each popular and well-funded, only to have the companies disappear (because that’s what Silicon Valley does to most companies). He eventually realized that the only way to consistently reach those who were interested was via email; it’s never going away, subscriber lists are easily portable, and of course everyone knows how to use it. He had to move from letting a platform own his audience to taking control directly, and email was the only real way to do that.
I think Medium is pretty good, and at least for now it has no shortage of funding. Even last year, though, it made well-publicized efforts to retool its business, a clear sign that whatever it was doing before wasn’t working. It seems unwise to bet that a follower on Medium will have any meaning in a few years.
It just so happened that I ended the year with an experiment in their new business model. My series on Venture Capital, in partnership with NewCo, was published behind Medium’s paywall. While the experience was positive overall, and I got paid more for those pieces than I have for, um, all of my other writing ever, earning money isn’t my real goal in writing. Yet, paying writers is exactly what Medium has to figure out in order to attract the content and audience it wants. I appreciated the extra attention working within their paywall provided, but I came out thinking it’s unlikely to be the right path for me in the long term. My goal is to maximize the reach of my writing, and it’s more about the arc of all of it rather than a couple of heavy-hitting pieces getting the most attention, which means our respective goals are orthogonal at best, and in direct conflict at worst.
While I have not written about it, I spent a lot of last year fascinated by email, inboxes, and how we consume content. I’ve been a deep fan of RSS from the Bloglines days (Unread is my reader of choice these days), but RSS is mostly dead (thanks, Google!). The kinds of sites that produced great feeds back in the day grew too big for a hobby. They became either wildly profitable for a small team and thus got destroyed with ads and shitty content (hi Boing Boing!) or people had to back away because it was just too much. Mainstream publications like the NYTimes might still publish RSS feeds (I literally have no idea), but RSS is a poor fit for how much content they produce.
When I look around, it seems that the RSS feeds of ten years ago are now awesome newsletters. See how often your favorite sites talk about their newsletters vs their feeds. I’m pretty confident I’ve never heard a podcast ask me to sign up for a feed, but many casually mention their newsletters. (Well, to be fair, podcast feeds are just RSS, so in that sense it’s survived, but I think we can agree it’s a very different use case.) The market has moved.
This shift is not all peaches and cream. The superiority of email as a publishing mechanism has not brought with it a superior reading experience. Long form content from writers I follow does not belong in the same inbox as requests for coffee meetings, yet that’s where we are. (I asked the Feedly CEO if they would please please add newsletter subscriptions to their platform, and he could only say they were considering it. If you want to build the newsletter reading app, hopefully with an index of great letters to subscribe to, count me in as an early contributor.)
Even with its downsides, I’ve decided to move my writing to my own site via a newsletter-first publishing model. From now on, everything will be published first to that site and the newsletter (sign up now!). There will be exceptions, when publications offer enough exposure that I give them some period of exclusivity. I will also indefinitely duplicate each piece to Medium on a delay, to take advantage of the audience I already have there.
There are enough examples out there that I’m pretty confident this is the right long term answer, but it’s early enough that it feels like an unstable experiment. Like most, I love and hate email, and I am a bit bummed about the extra infrastructure involved in this system.
If you’re still an RSS person at heart, you can always just subscribe to the feed, and if Medium is your bag, at least for now you’ll be able to see everything there, too. Of course I can’t promise how this plays out in the long run - else it would not be much of an experiment - but you can bet I’ll work hard to find the right way to talk with the people most interested in what I have to say.
One note before I go: I could not have made this transition without the help of Mike Julian. He helped set up each of the services, mediated the hiring of a consultant to modify the site, and connected all of the services together. He’s got a great book on monitoring, and is available for consulting on monitoring and observability. I can’t recommend him enough.
Thanks for following on so far. I’m excited about another year of writing.
It’s worth noting that Apple’s iCloud Photo Library did wonderfully here; I could upload every photo to my iPad, and it would sync when it had good data, and sit quietly when it did not. I love asynchronous protocols. ↩