How to present to an executive

Taking a left turn for a moment on the software talk.

I’m at a point where I have to vent on a topic, and no better place to do it than to the anonymous reader. For some reason I’ve been in a lot of these lately (usually the presenter or I am needed for some reason; not as the presentee), and I’m at a point where I just have to empty the chamber on the reviews that are failing for lack of experience / guidance on how to do them well.

With this and so many other things in my management career, I am compelled to teach people to avoid the same mistakes that I make / made. With my enthusiasm for developing people is combined a new perspective of "the other side of the table." I understand now what I could not understand before.

I used to be so bad at this. (Maybe I am still not very good at it.) At some point by design or by intervention, a meeting shows up on the calendar titled "business review" or something similar. These are the dreaded "tell me what you think is important enough for me to know" type meetings, they are common in large companies, where high-level managers don’t have great visibility into the daily lives of people in their organizations. I’m in my 11th year of practice, it took me quite a few to figure this stuff out.

I thought I would share my thoughts on what makes a good review. Having seen enough of them go the wrong way, and being on a streak of reviews that have been moderately successful, I can summarize what I believe the formula to be.

What you should do

Admit to yourself up front that it matters to your career, because it does matter. There’s no shame in wanting your exec reviews to go well, there is no shame in preparing. For most of us, interactions with your manager's manager and their manager are defining moments that are often repeated in your performance review.

Realize that your (executive) cares most about current/future problems and your role in solving them. One of the most common failures of exec reviews is the glorified "status report" where a person recounts recent history, particularly when it feels like a pose-down.

Demonstrate mastery by understanding the most important challenges in your area as your executive understands them. What makes you interesting to them is how you are helping address the larger challenges they face in running the business. There are many pivots here, many pitfalls. Not everything has a bottom-line impact, it's fine if your problems don’t; try not to force the connection. Most executives see through it and check out of those types of discussions. It is worth recognizing that most executives have span of control over much more than the P&L, including operational issues, budget, headcount, IT, etc. Not everything in a business is about bearing new revenue streams.

Know what you want to get from the meeting. Have a point. Steer the conversation to a specific outcome. If you weren’t given a specific question to answer or topic to discuss, then you have been blessed with the gift of trust in setting the agenda yourself. Even if you’re only seeking a nod of approval for your approach to solving problems relevant to your business, knowing that up front makes a huge difference. Not knowing, or (especially in our culture) pestering everybody with questions/statements in the vein of "you scheduled the meeting, what did you want?" questions only shows that you are not enough in command of your subject area to a) predict what is needed, b) structure a meaningful dialog around it. I have said on many occasions where I am the presenter that "My objective for this meeting is to get (X) to say (Y) so that the entire team can hear it." I have structured some exec reviews around my intent to have everyone in the room hear a VP say a specific thing. It is a good idea to be precise about what you want.

Structure the conversation around your progress on these problems and the things that are preventing you from solving them. In the end the formula is simple. A brief introduction, followed by a sequential discussion of key themes / topics, presented in a simple pattern (and ratio):

  • Situation (20%)
  • Progress we’re making/have made, (10%)
  • What we have left to do, (60%)
  • Where we have challenges (and may / may not need assistance). (10%)

Unless you’re building circuits or designing aircraft, you can fit all of that information onto a single slide for each topic.

What you should not do

Recite your recent history of achievements. Companies have performance reviews for a reason. Executive reviews are not performance reviews; it is not a time to recount past events. They don’t matter that much to solving present problems. It may also send a signal to your exec that you don’t view those issues as fully resolved (why else would you continue to talk about the past?)

Obsess over the "who owns what" questions (unless you’re talking about org planning). This is great evidence of the degree to which one has matured in their work approach. There is much written about the difference between managers and leaders. Managers obsess over rule-making and ownership. Leaders champion causes. Managers have subordinates. Leaders have followers. Dwelling on ownership (particularly in matrix-heavy organizations) is a pretty good sign that you’re not driving toward a result.

Overload with details; most of them don’t matter. This is related to a point below about how much information you choose to surface during the conversation. The more detail you add the more vectors you create for the conversation to go sideways. To the best that you can, keep the details constrained to those that are necessary to illustrate progress you’ve made, illustrate your plan to complete the rest of the work or to explain where you are blocked. Nothing else matters.

Speak of principles or topics with arbitrary labels. Ambiguity kills, be clear and precise. I was very bad about this one. I’d have super-detailed plans that I couldn’t easily reflect in a bullet point, so I’d give them a vague, cute label and get killed for it during the review. Admittedly I learned this more through teaching it than through doing it. In preparing my leads for meetings with my bosses I found myself asking them "what is that?" when I saw bullet points were I didn’t recognize the work. I kept pressing until a hyperlink to a plan / spec started appearing in its place. This turns out to be a good rule of thumb; if you can’t link to its description it might not be real enough to surface for a conversation. Having to decode concepts in meetings like this is a poor use of time.

Some hidden truths worth recognizing

Every bullet point in your deck can absorb the entire meeting. Be careful about what bullet points you put there. You have little control over the direction of the conversation, but you do have the power to influence the direction through the topics you raise. Bullet points are topics. Use them carefully and be prepared to defend each one as if it were the only topic on the agenda. Know your business.

Your executive is probably evaluating your long-term potential as they listen to you. The trick is in understanding how you are being evaluated. Rarely is the evaluation about the subject matter; the evaluation is how you explain the subject matter, how well you understand its relationship to broader business challenges or how well you can influence the thinking of people around the table by what you are discussing.

The advice feels a little basic, but it is wise to share the deck with everyone in the meeting before you get there. Know where you have agreement and where you don’t, and know what conversations will surface disagreement. Personally I don’t think it is necessary to avoid conflict in these conversations, most executives I have seen lament the anxiety over people having arguments in front of them. Executives like to be asked for their opinion on topics and to mediate tough topics from time to time. It’s what they are paid to do. I wouldn’t make a habit of starting fights in a forum like this, but it’s ok if everything isn’t perfectly aligned on your way in the door. Where it becomes a problem is when you don’t anticipate those disconnects.

In the end, knowing your business and knowing what you want the outcome of the meeting to look like will guide you to the right meeting agenda most of the time. You could bury yourself in the good advice of how to run a meeting, smelling good, dressing neatly and all that. But in the end this is all advice on how to get clear on your message, and to seek a specific outcome.

It isn’t that hard, right?


Zombies coming up the hill to get me? -- the view from my office (via my (not an i-Phone) mobile phone) this foggy morning: