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Serving the Business and Professional Community since 1983! 

N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.

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The Executive Coaching Corner:  Now in Session

August 7, 2012: Making Presentations to the Board--Less is More!

Gina had been in her role as a Sr. VP of a $2 Billion International manufacturing and distribution firm for about six months when she  hired me as her executive coach.  Prior to that she functioned in a director role for a large European-based international service firm.  Gina was highly respected for her broad industry experience and technical knowledge.  Amongst other things, her recent 360 feedback revealed that she needed to improve her board presentations.  The comments provided by her boss and some board members indicated she spent too much time justifying her case and gave far too much detail. 

In prior management roles Gina had been known for giving excellent presentations.  She was surprised by the board's reaction and wanted help understanding why she had to change a style of presentation that had served her so well in the past.  The following conversation took place:

Gina I think it's interesting that board thinks I'm giving too much detail. Detail is critical so I can justify any initiatives that require funding.  Without the detail, they can't make an informed decision. In the past, all my bosses insisted  that I build a strong case and back it up with data.
Elizabeth What level were the bosses you presented to?
Gina Primarily VPs or Sr. VPs
Elizabeth Gina, did they ever give you the opportunity to present directly to the board?
Gina No.
Elizabeth You are not alone in this type of feedback. It's very common for new Sr. Executives to go beyond what's necessary when presenting to the board.  Generally there's a a couple of reasons for this.  First, they want to make a good impression, so they over-prepare by being very data driven.  Secondly,  in their prior manager or director roles, new executives, like yourself are used to fighting for approval of every nickel of their projected budgets.
Gina Well, essentially, I am fighting the same fight.  I need to get funding for my group's planned initiatives.
Elizabeth I understand that.  And what you are saying is true to a degree.
Gina What do you mean "to a degree"?
Elizabeth Well, your past bosses needed to have the detail from you so that they could be adequately armed when they presented their staff's  "fight" to the board.  However, when making these presentations, your bosses didn't give the board the same level of detail in terms of justifying their position.  They had  the backup data handy if they needed it, but they gave a much more scaled down version.
Gina But how can the board make a good decision without being presented with the backup data?
Elizabeth They trust and recognize that the leader making the presentation is competent.  They only need the high level information delivered in the presentation.  The executive can provide them detail if they ask for it orally, or in written form for them to review prior to or after the meeting.
Gina So basically they just want a 30,000 foot view with bullet points.
Elizabeth Yes, that is typically the case.  As the saying goes..."They only want to know what time it is, not how to make a watch."
Gina How would I know if I'm giving too much or too little?
Elizabeth Do you have any peers whose presentations have been well-received by the board?
Gina Let me think.... hmmm...yes, Frank Johnson.  He always does great work in that area.
Elizabeth What is your relationship like with Frank?
Gina It's great.  He has always been helpful and supportive in other areas.  (Gina paused and thought for a moment.) I could ask him.  And I do trust him.
Elizabeth Wonderful.  When is your next presentation to the board?
Gina In three weeks...I'm working on it now.
Elizabeth When would you be ready to contact Frank to show  him a draft?
Gina I'm not sure...
Elizabeth Would you be more comfortable working with him in the early stages of your draft or final stages?
Gina (Gina paused for a moment to ponder while I remained silent.)   Rather than to spin my wheels, maybe I should ask Frank to see a couple of his presentations so I could get a feel for the style and design...these presentations can act as a template of sorts.  My content would be different of course, but that might save me a lot of time in the long run.  Then after I applied the template to my content, he could help me refine it. (Gina's face  lit up as she realized that earlier was better because it would allow her to shorten her learning curve and lighten her load.) 
Elizabeth That sounds like a plan.  If it's due three weeks from now, we will be meeting in two weeks and can discuss your progress.  Will that work for you?
Gina Yes, and I'd like to get your input as well.
Elizabeth I'll be happy to help in any way that I can.  I'll look forward to it.

Key Points: 

Gina could have become very defensive about the board's comments, since she had had such success in the past making presentations.  I told Gina that her issue was common among new executives.  Essentially, I "normalized" her performance problem.  This statement helped to reduce her potential defensiveness about this issue.  From a neuroscience perspective, this tactic helped quiet her amygdala--a part of her brain's emotional center that sends message for  fight or flight.  Once calmed down, she could now use her executive brain (prefrontal cortex) to open her mind and seek solutions.  This allowed her to develop the  insight to use Frank's presentation as a template to save herself time.

For board presentations, "less is more."  Modeling the success of other peers is one way to speed up your success.  Look for trusted colleagues or hire someone to help you with your presentation design and delivery skills.   You can use the modeling technique for any number of areas in which you seek improvement.

For additional one to two-minute sessions on other topics,  go to the Executive Coaching Corner Archive.