The chief executive officer of a company or organisation is also chief spokesperson to its various audiences. A CEO's report typically provides factual information about strategies, results, and challenges. But a CEO's report is not merely descriptive. It conveys top management's perspective - what the facts and circumstances mean and why they are significant to shareholders. Follow an orderly process of gathering facts, identifying audiences and what they need to know, planning the contents of your story, and writing it in "plain English."
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Confirm Context, Requirements Consider how your report will be published and distributed. A CEO report is a letter to shareholders and may be intended for inclusion in the company's glossy annual report. In that case, your letter might establish the annual report's theme and provide perspective on strategic and operational matters detailed in other sections. In some organisations, a CEO report for practical purposes IS the annual or periodic report, and includes more information to be provided to board members, contributors, and other constituents. All companies and organisations are expected to be honest and accurate in their communications, so that shareholders from investors to contributors may rely on them. If you do not know already, find out from legal and accounting advisers if particular securities, financial reporting requirements, and recommendations apply to you. A simple example: you should not make representations contrary to what the external audit report shows.
Identify Audiences Make a list of the intended recipients of your report. They might range from the general public and media to board members and donors. Imagine an individual reader in each category. What does that reader want to know, or should know, and how do you hope she will react? This exercise will be important later in the process, when you are choosing what to write and how. Most of us naturally want a positive image for our organisation and its management and the confidence of shareholders. But to hold that confidence, a stakeholder may "need to know" that you are forthrightly dealing with a business challenge, not minimising it with "everything is just great." Consider unintended recipients as well. Your employees, news media, and customers are among those who may receive copies indirectly of a report intended for another audience. Later in the process when you are choosing topics to write about, you will be more sensitive to double-edged messages that affect audiences differently and couch them in such a way the needs of all are met. Example: when you write of closing the money-losing branch office, making investors happy, you will tell how employee termination and relocation were handled.
Gather Facts, Thoughts Look internally. To refresh your memory and prepare to write, review the artefacts of the period. Examples are prior CEO reports, financial reports, board and management team meeting minutes, materials for major events, media releases, and ad campaign summaries. Compare strategic and operational plans, goals, and objectives to actual results. Look at period-to-period trends for key indicators of performance and process effectiveness. Look externally. You most likely know the economic and social circumstances affecting constituents such as customers and donors. Or whether new regulations or competition are affecting your organisation. For significant influences, get facts, so that you can write precisely. Not just "sales were down" but "the sales decline in building materials reflected a 75 per cent drop locally in new home construction starts...." Arrive at a personal working assessment of how your organisation fared during the reporting period. Think of it as the period's main "headline." As in: we grew beyond all expectations. We held our own despite the economic challenges. We retooled the company for new business and competition. We expanded to serve more needy clients. We overcame a big unexpected event. Now assess what meaning your organisation record has for your shareholders. What is "in it for me," as a stockholder, contributor, employee or volunteer? Finally, look forward. What plans and activities are in place for the upcoming period to increase value, hold your own, or recoup from losses? An example reflecting sound assessment is the chairman's letter in the 1998 Annual Report of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., in which its chairman and CEO Warren E. Buffett notes "We want to give you the information that we would wish you to give us if our positions were reversed...." Although Buffett's style may be inimitable, his stakeholder-oriented approach is worthy of practice. Unless another theme is already prescribed, your working assessment will become the basis for your report's summary opening paragraph. And it will guide your choice of supporting topics.
Outline Think of the outline as scaffold for your report and its "roof," main theme, held up by the strong two-by-fours of your following points. Although CEO reports vary to reflect differing circumstances, they often include the following: - Lead summary paragraph, establishing theme and tone. - Most important accomplishments, stated if possible as outcomes. Include not only the what, but the why and how and impact on shareholder interests. ("Contributions grew 35 per cent to provide food for 100 more families...") Outcomes might be posed in context of goals and strategies you reported earlier. For example, list effects of your company's entry into new markets, changes in products and services, or distribution channels. - Significant challenges particularly affecting or likely to affect your operations. You can omit the challenges most organisations face, such as maintaining a qualified employee base, and focus on those unique to your or your organisation sector. - Financial performance overview, consistent with separately issued financial reports (if not included under accomplishments or challenges.) Typically, shareholders want to get a sense of the CEO's assessment of performance and factors contributing to it. - Acknowledgment of groups contributing significantly to progress, without gushing. - Focus going forward, in terms of key goals and strategies for achieving them. Briefly, what significant initiatives are underway and planned for the next period? - Conclusion, typically relating back to the theme.
Write For your first draft, visualise your reader and "talk" to that person as if across the table. Use "we" and "our" in speaking of your organisation. Tell the story according to your outline, adding relevant details and using plain language (not "corporate speak.") You are looking the reader in the eye here - be accurate, confident, sincere. Hype and vague generalisation offend and bore. Then polish, using your best editing skills (and those of others you enlist) to choose the best words and eliminate the unnecessary ones, improve flow, and ensure your messages are as intended. Consider how unintended audiences will respond to what you say. Collected research (Hynes and Bexley, 2003) tends to associate plain, confident language in a CEO report with credibility in investor's eyes and suggests high-performing companies speak the most plainly. Prepare by reading "A Plain English Handbook: How to Create SEC Disclosure Documents" published by the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Available for reading online, downloading, and printing at no cost, the handbook's recommendations are applicable to CEO reports and many other organizational communications.
Tips and warnings
- If you must report negative developments, tell forthrightly how your organisation is addressing them.
- Test any generalisation you make by evaluating whether you have the facts to back them up. When space allows, include your "proof points."
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