There’s a way to talk to the senior executives in the boardroom that gets results—and there’s a way to get asked to leave. The CEO and members of the board aren’t likely to clue the inexperienced in on the proper way to handle them in a conference, but there are a few tricks one can employ to better enable communication success during these all-important, and frequently brief, meetings.
Rick Gilbert, founder and president of PowerSpeaking Inc. probed what kind of behavior leaders expect in his DVD “Speaking to the Big Dogs,” which includes responses from interviews with 17 top executives of companies in the Silicon Valley. The consensus is that you have to figure out the answer on your own.
“When you’re working at that level, you’re being watched for your leadership capabilities and potential,” Gilbert said. “The people around you are watching to see how savvy you are, how well you pick up the cues, how well you can be political without looking political so you know where your sources of support are and so forth. One of the people we interviewed for ‘Speaking to the Big Dogs’ had an anthropology undergraduate degree and he looked at it as an anthropologist. He said people at the top levels of management are, ‘exquisitely disinterested in studying their own processes.’ What he meant by that is first of all, they’re very busy. They don’t have time to sit around and, you know, look at their navels and figure out what the meaning of it all is. They’re moving. They’re making decisions. But in addition to that, there is a culture that says, ‘How well can you figure it out? Because we’re not going to give you much guidance.’”
People looking for budget or project approval should definitely appreciate how important it is to do homework before the meeting. “First line, bottom line is the way that we say it,” Gilbert said. “There will be very little fluff in meetings at this level because you’re presenting to people who have been called analytical drivers. In other words, they want data and they want it fast. They’re usually under a lot of time pressure, time constraints and so they really want you to get to the point.”
In order to get what you want or make the best impression with analytical drivers, fancy speak for “type-A personalities,” when called on for your input, you must get to the point and use data to support your information rather than stories. You’re not doing a presentation, Gilbert said. “It’s a discussion. That means there’s going to be a lot of interaction. A person who comes in with PowerPoint expecting to do a presentation where they deliver a monologue with slides is going to be very disappointed. But if they go in being sort of loose on their feet, willing and able to change at a moment’s notice, they’ll be much more successful.”
Gilbert advocates the 10/30 rule. If you have a 30-minute talk, prepare only 10 minutes of material and expect about 20 minutes of discussion. That means know your stuff, present your data succinctly with little embellishment, and be able to respond.
“Be prepared to ride the bull,” Gilbert said. “Think of one of these mechanical bulls like in a bar or something. They’re going to go in any direction they (the bull and the executive in charge) want to. You’re a guest at their meeting. They’re expecting a discussion, not a presentation. So you may walk in and the first thing they do is cut your time. This is extremely common. People say, ‘Well, I’m planning to do a 30-minute talk.’ They walk in the room and the executive says, ‘Gee, a lot has happened. Sorry, Bob. We only have 10 minutes. Get to it. What’s your point?’
Another death knell in a meeting is to go in seeking approval. “It’s not about approval,” Gilbert said. “Another way to say that is, the CEO ain’t your dad. A number of the people we interviewed said, ‘I get so tired of junior-level people coming into the room and trying so hard to please us authority figures. We work so hard, we really have all the data. It’s like they’re looking for approval.’ The executives are saying, ‘This isn’t about approval. We know you’re good. We want your recommendations on an important business decision we’re making.’”
Therefore, Gilbert said it’s silly to take it personal if you are occasionally treated in an abrupt manner. “They come in. Their time is cut from 30 minutes to 10 minutes. They give them the data, and then the CEO says, ‘Thanks, Bob. Next!’ And the poor guy walks out and says, ‘I’ve only been at this meeting once in my entire career, and they treat me abruptly. They’re disappointed, and they’re hurt, but it’s not personal. It’s simply, ‘Give us the data, the information, so we can make a decision. We have lots of other things on our agenda. Thanks for coming. Boom. Goodbye. Next.’”
Top executives aren’t exactly keeping secrets here. It’s more a case of the top leaders in the organization quietly evaluating ideas, leadership potential and conduct in a high-pressure business environment. “They’re looking at how well you manage the situation,” Gilbert said. “Are you somebody they would like to give more responsibility to? There’s a fair amount of pressure. At this level, I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but presentation skills are the booby prize. Presentation skills are not that important. What is important is the content. Do you have content that’s strategic in nature that will help our organization be more successful? If you’re a good presenter, that’s great. But a number of executives told us, ‘I don’t care if the presenter looks at his shoes and reads PowerPoint slides. If the ideas are powerful enough and strong enough for the company, it’s fine. They’ll stand on their own, and the person will be a big hero. But if you had to choose between good idea and good presenter, always go with the good idea.”