The metrics you should present to execs: 5 tips

The magic metric executives want to see? Doesn’t exist. They want information that moves the organization forward.

Please allow me to get on my soap box for a minute.

Why do rational, intelligent PR people insist their clients or board want a single number that will magically sum up a quarter of work?

  • When at the doctor, do they think their blood pressure sums up their health?
  • When they buy a car, is mpg the only variable that decides which car they buy?
  • When they decide whether to date someone, do they only consider the person’s age?

This train of thought was chugging through my brain when I checked my Map My Run numbers. I realized my definition of a good week doesn’t just include how fast I ran, but how many calories I burned and miles I got in. Which statistic is most important depends on whether I’m feeling fat, lazy or slow.

In fact, this obsession PR pros have with one number (worse when it’s advertising value equivalency) is even sillier because the CFO doesn’t present one number to describe the company’s health. In all the board meetings I’ve attended, board members discussed profits and losses, income, revenue, and sales forecasts. In smarter meetings, I’ve even seen a risk-and-reputation number derived from stakeholder surveys.

The reason PR pros demand one number has nothing to do with the board’s expectations. I’m convinced the reason PR pros obsess about one metric is that it’s an easy sell to clients who think they are allergic to math. The fewer numbers on a page, the better.

“OK, then,” you say. “How many numbers should we present?”

I’m sorry. I can’t tell you. It depends on your situation.

But I can give you some general guidelines based on the role those numbers play for the board. The numbers should help the board (or client) understand what has happened and make good decisions. (That’s what CEOs need to do.)

Here are my guidelines for numbers you should present:

1. One and two are too few. Three is about right. More than five is probably too many.

2. Boards want outcomes rather than outputs or outtakes—numbers that relate to business goals.

3. Boards want to understand numbers in context. Identify a trend, or compare your organization to the competition or a benchmark. For more about writing great reports, read “10 things every measurement report must include.”

4. Use numbers to tell a story: obstacles you overcame, heroic deeds, that sort of thing. Use numbers to give them an “Ah-ha!” moment.

5. Boards use numbers to make decisions, so give them what they need (even if you’re helping them decide you’re doing your job). If you know what they’ll decide—budget, new programs, staff—give them what they need to do so.

A version of this article originally appeared on Paine Publishing.

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