The Art of Writing an Executive Summary

I would have written you something shorter but… Writing an executive summary is one of the skills that all employees who have a desire for management should acquire. Unfortunately, in these days of text, ChatGPT, email and Google search (aka cut and paste) the ability to create a compelling, short executive summary is a dying skill, writes Mary-Sue Rogers.
I was recently at a networking session that was focused on lessons learned and best advice to move from an executive C-Suite role to that of a non-executive director (NED) on a board. A NED commented that they received 1000’s of pages of material before a board meeting to read.

The worse thing an executive can do, when working with their board, is to drown them in large documents without an executive summary. The individual commented that executives that do not know how to summarise critical areas for action and review were not going to be the executives invited, in the future, to be a NED. Personally, I don’t know if this is true or not but I do agree that the art of writing an executive summary is a fading ability and if an individual can master this skill, they will stand out in a crowd.
What makes a good executive summary? You can Google this, and you will get many references. To me, the following creates an excellent executive summary: -
  • Less than two pages long in 12 point font and it is a word document, not a power point.
  • The first section should summarise the overall document, what is the report about, why am I reading it and what do you want me to do after I have read it. Is the paper for information only? Am I supposed to make a decision? What am I reading and why.
If the action from the reading the document is to make a decision then the next sections should contain:
  • The recommendation - the individual or team recommends X with the three to five primary reasons or data points that underpin the proposal.
  • The implications of the recommendation – if you agree with the proposal what else are you accepting?  Costs, people change, customer impact are examples of implications. These should be summarised to allow the decision maker to understand the consequences of his or her actions.
  • Risks associated with the decision – what are the top risks and mitigations associated with the recommendation.
  • Consequences of not making a decision.
  • Next steps after the decisions are made, which could include any future reporting or governance activities.
If reading the document is for information the next sections should contain: -
  • The three to five main points you want the reader to take away and remember.
  • Any implications or synergies with other actions or documents the executive may be reading. For example, a report for information could be a lesson learned from a completed project that is similar to one that is coming up for board approval. Therefore, the value to the board member in reading the paper is to help them prepare for a decision in the future.
  • Next steps or actions, especially if the document was created to educate and increases the awareness of the board on a topic that they will ultimately have to make a decision.
An executive summary should be written once the full report has been completed or very close to completion, to avoid re-work.  If you have time an excellent way to write a compelling executive summary is to have someone which is close to the content of the full report but not the primary author write the document. They usually can achieve a more helicopter view of the critical points and are less emotional about leaving things out of a summary that the primary author cannot bring themselves to exclude.
The most important trick to writing a strong, compelling executive summary that makes the reader want to delve into the full document is time. It takes time to write a robust executive summary. When I was a partner at PwC one of my senior manager's commented to me, just before a final report was due:-
“I would have written a shorter report if I had more time…”

This comment has stuck with me for over 20 years and is even more valid today. In a world of Google, cut and paste and a vast source of data and information to include (or not) in a report the ability to determine what is essential for the reader to know versus what is important is a highly desirable skill.

Mary Sue Rogers is a Non Executive Director of Women on Boards, Consultant and Coach. Link In with her at:
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