Being More Successful in Interactions with Senior Management
So, you have an upcoming meeting with someone in senior management, and you are scheduled to make a presentation or to speak formally to a group of executives. This may be your first time, or it may be that this is the first time that you will be a prominent speaker / presenter to a senior group.
In my career, I learned the hard way that presentations or speeches to executives were NOT necessarily like other presentations or speeches. For a time, I prepared the way I always did, doing a ‘dry run’ by myself the day before, then making the presentation the next day. After a few experiences, I began to realize that I was not doing myself any favors in the way I was preparing and the way I was presenting.
What went wrong? You name it!
Before discussing the areas that did not go well, I do want to say that executives truly are individuals, and like all individuals, they are unique both individually and from organization to organization. My comments below are based upon my experiences only, but I suspect that most of these experiences are fairly common to others who have presented or talked to executives.
Things That Can Go Wrong in Executive Meetings
First, I found out that a fair percentage of executives were sticklers for spelling, grammar, and presentation clarity and quality. The ones who were not probably noticed errors, but did not say anything. That only makes it worse because they likely made a quick decision about me, perhaps concluding that I was not capable of any better.
Second, they tended to ask questions that I had not anticipated. It was easy to get flustered when they asked questions that seemed, to me, to be off-point. It was also easy to panic and try to quickly come up with an answer, even if it was not a good one or one that was fact-based.
Third, they tended to question the assumptions that I had made more than the conclusions, and if I did not talk about the assumptions made, they would always ask about them. Usually, I was not prepared to discuss the assumptions, because I had not thought about them. I learned later that most executives are experts at critical thinking, and critical thinking always starts with understand the assumptions, and assessing if those assumptions are relevant or correct.
Fourth, sometimes the executives seemed disinterested or distracted, as if the subject was not of high interest. I found out later that this was not a correct interpretation, that in fact, most executives were paying VERY close attention, but sometimes did not appear to be for a variety of reasons.
Last, afterwards, I felt as though they missed the points I was making, or more likely, that I was not making the points in the right way.
However, I also began to learn that these sessions were not to be dreaded, in fact, some observed that these were opportunities for you to be seen and noticed, and could actually be levers for your future career.
One example of not thinking about the sort of questions I might get, occurred when I was presenting to our CEO about the value of identifying our core competencies as an organization. (I held a role in strategic planning at the time)
He asked me if there were other steps we should be taking first. I had no idea what he was talking about. He then instructed me to find out ‘what kind of animal’ we are. He used the example that if we wanted to enter a business that required gazelle-like speed, that we would fail if we concluded that we were more of a ‘plodding elephant’, or vice-versa.
That analogy made sense, but how in the world would I find out what sort of animal we were?
So, I started, on my own, to try to figure out how one would ever determine ‘what kind of animal we are.’ It was not easy and was, in fact, very confusing to me. So, I decided to go ask our senior leaders around the company, ‘What kind of animal are we, and why?’
That turned out to be a fascinating set of discussions, which really helped me to understand more about our history. What I heard, over and over, were what others refer to as ‘tribal stories,’ specific stories that demonstrated key turning points in our history, either good or bad. These stories seemed to be very well-known to our senior management, but I had heard of few, if any, of these stories before.
After interviewing dozens of executives discussing our history and what sort of company we were, a clear picture began to emerge, which brought many things into focus for me. I thought I had made some interesting conclusions, if not a major discovery, but when I related what I had learned back to our CEO and other executives, the CEO said ‘Well, we knew that, but we needed you to learn that for yourself!’ (I’m not completely sure he already knew that answer already, but at least he did not dispute my conclusion!)
Regarding other lessons I learned in this project, I found out that the standards for content in presentations was much different with our CEO and senior executives. Executives assume that your spelling, grammar, and presentations are clear, perfect, and logical. If they are not, they may assume that you had not done your homework or had prepared as well as you should have.
I found out that ‘getting the facts’ and doing some sort of analysis of the facts (i.e., turn data into information) was very important to them as they did not want to listen to my or others’ opinions about what we should do or what the solution might be. Rather, their expectation was that anything presented was supported by fact and logical analysis. Not only that, but the source of the analysis or facts needed to be reputable.
I quickly learned, just by reading hundreds of articles and publications about this and other topics, that the best industry research typically came from a specific set of sources. I reached that conclusion on my own as it became easy to see that some authors and researchers had short-cut their work or had an inherent bias in terms of what the answer should be. I learned well the skill of critical thinking, to read any article or research with some skepticism, and to be searching for invalid assumptions, invalid conclusions, or bias of the author.
In fact, looking back now, the skill of critical thinking is absolutely one that must be developed in order to perform well as senior executive. Why? You will find that later in your career, suppliers, customers, other stakeholders, or other employees may try to persuade you and others to see their point of view, and you need to be wary that those arguments are based in fact, have been well researched, and are logical. Some of these persuasive arguments, I found, tended to be flawed in a variety of ways, so if you do not have the capability to sift through the information and determine the solid cases from the ‘BS’ cases, you will quickly be investing dollars or resources in boondoggles, or projects that may not have the return of other investments.
I also found that making reference to specific studies as a way to support my analysis and conclusions always helped my credibility. At times, I would even make the point that a few studies which I thought were flawed, would lead one to conclude ‘A’. But better research that I found helped me to conclude ‘B’.
Our CEO actually talked to me one-on-one to suggest the proper ways to frame problems or issues or to state a conclusion. His best advice was to be very careful about choosing the correct words to make sure that my meaning was heard very clearly.
I also found out that iteration, both in reviewing my work and in altering the content, was a must to improve the quality of any presentation. The hours I invested on preparation for those meetings was significant but necessary.
Another Learning Example
Later in my career, I was asked to make a fairly lengthy presentation of 45 minutes to our board of directors about the business that I was leading, and to inform them about the dynamics of the industry and to explain why our business was growing and profitable.
I thought I had created a very effective presentation, and had iterated and rehearsed many times. The week before the meeting, a high-level executive on the board came into my office to discuss my presentation that he had reviewed. “I want you to give your presentation to your mother over the weekend, and see what her reaction is.” My reaction was a bit incredulous. “You know, my mother has no idea what I do, let alone what our business is about. She won’t understand this.”
“Well, just do it, I think you will get some valuable input.”
I had time to think about his suggestion, and could guess that he wanted the presentation to be higher level and more understandable to someone who was not at all close to what our business was about.
After presenting this to Mom, I revamped the presentation to bring it to a much higher level, almost starting at square one. I sent it to the same executive to get his reaction. He walked into my office the next morning, and said “I reviewed your new presentation. You know, it almost seems like you are presenting to a bunch of fourth-graders.”
I was dumbfounded. I sat there thinking that I had done a lot of work for nothing and perhaps insulted him. Then he said “That is exactly the right level for this presentation! Our board knows nothing about your business, you need to start this at a very basic level, which you did. Nice job!”
The presentation a few days later was a solid success, our board members were very complimentary on the content of my presentation as well as the day’s agenda I had created for them.
So, in summary, what are the lessons for you as you prepare for a session with senior leaders?
1 – Over-prepare. Both the content as well as your oral presentation are critical to get right and to memorize as much as possible. Spelling and grammar must be perfect.
2 – Know your audience. As much as possible, spend some time thinking about who will be in the audience and what their perspectives may be given their responsibilities, backgrounds, and personalities.
3 – Iterate. Get others to review your presentation and even listen to your speech. All outside input is very important to help you improve the content and structure. Ask them if the flow of your speech makes sense to them, or if there is a better way to convey the message.
4 – Anticipate questions. Think about what questions others may have, and document what your answer may be.
5 – Stay flexible. Be prepared to change course if your audience is not understanding, or is confused. Don’t panic if you have to abandon your presentation and speech. I have seen others that are intent to present what they prepared even if the audience tells them to stop, or is struggling. It is fine to say ‘Look, I am getting the message that I may have misunderstood the request and what you need to know. Let’s save everyone the time and I will re-schedule this meeting once I prepare the right information for you.’
6 – Don’t wing it. If you get a question that you do not know the answer to, do NOT make something up. It is perfectly acceptable to say ‘I don’t now the answer to your question, but I will research this and get you an answer afterwards.’
7 – Stay high-level. Do not assume the audience knows anything about the topic you are discussing, in fact, assume they know nothing. Start at a very high level and slowly work your way to the relevant detail.
8 – Make the conclusions very clear. This is your chance to make your point. Think about what you want the audience to do after the meeting, and then be very clear with that point at the end. Consider creating a ‘leave behind’ to hand out at the end which contains your ‘call to action’ if there is one, or consider handing out copies of your presentation at the start or end of your meeting. There is always a risk in handing out materials or copies of your slides at the start of a meeting, as I have seen instances where audience members will stop paying attention to you and spend all their time paging ahead reading the slides. However, there are cases where this may still be effective. The key is to consider your options before the meeting.
In summary, when you get the assignment to meet with senior management, the most important conclusion you should reach is that your preparation needs to be VERY different than any of your more normal meetings. From there, using the points above, you should have a better chance at success.
The other point to understand is that with all the proper preparation in the world, things can still go wrong. Executives can be difficult to deal with, and have a different perspective. Sometimes, you will just have to ‘take your lumps’, respond as best you can to issues that arise from the meeting, and move on. In those situations, have the confidence that you did your best, have learned from the experience, and will do better the next time.
Parts of this article were excerpted from several chapters in my new book “Changing Collars: Lessons in Transitioning from Blue-Collar Roots to White-Collar Success”.
(Daniel Muller is a business executive, expert on white-collar culture and soft skills, and author. To learn more, to contact him, to purchase the book, to read his blog, or to sign-up to his subscriber list, visit his website.)
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