Boardroom Presence

“Leadership is an Art.” Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller, captured this point in his excellent book with that title. The “art” part of leadership is much harder than the science part, because it depends on creativity, guts, self-awareness, and a keen understanding of the (often shifting) situation and the needs and expectations of others.

Nowhere is the artistry of the executive more critical than in the boardroom. “Boardroom presence” has become shorthand for what organizations look for in their senior leaders, above and beyond strategic insight, management and execution skills, industry knowledge, and business acumen. Boardroom presence is that elusive set of capabilities and styles that makes people say, “She has what it takes: she’s confident but not cocky; clear but not simplistic; and engaging and inspiring without being phony. This company is in good hands, and we’re interested in hearing where she plans to take us next.”

We could spend several newsletters exploring boardroom presence, and if our readers express interest we’ll certainly return to this topic. But for this issue, we propose that the most immediate and pragmatic way to develop your boardroom presence is to think more deliberately about your next board presentation. And if you’re not a regular visitor to the paneled boardroom, the principles we propose apply to presenting to your senior executive team and your boss as well.

One of our clients, a CEO who also happens to be a former military commander and public policy expert, and who is not lacking in either intelligence or courage, once offered the following suggestions for presenting to a Board: “First, stay calm. Second, get in and get out: make your key points as succinctly as possible. Third, don’t expect a standing ovation.”

Those are great suggestions, but to round things out a bit we’d like to augment his advice with five tips on how to give even better Board presentations:

Tip One: Know exactly what you want to say. This tip seems obvious, but when preparing for board presentations many people get lost in the weeds. They over-prepare or try to bring in too much detail on tangentially related matters, and as a result their presentation gets fat and unfocused. Ask yourself: “What are the key points (no more than five, and ideally three or fewer) I want to make? What do I want the board to take away from my presentation that would fit on an index card?” If your topic is slotted for 30 minutes, you should prepare no more than 10 minutes’ worth of “content.” Lay out your agenda at the beginning of your presentation (“What I want to cover today is A, B, and C, because Y and Z”). Then nail your points clearly and concisely (see the CEO’s advice above). Make the most of the Q-and-A and conversation that follow: it’s in the give-and-take that you will really shine. The best board meetings are dialogues not monologues.

Tip Two: Know your audience. Just as important as WHAT you are saying is WHO you’re saying it to. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes: Why do they think you’re here to talk with them? What are they most interested in hearing about? What are their concerns, hot buttons, or likely points of resistance? What sorts of questions are they likely to ask? If at all possible, speak with each board member prior to your presentation, and ask him or her, “What can I address that will make my presentation a good use of your time?” If you can’t speak with the board members, make sure to engage the person who’s arranged for you to speak to get some coaching on all of the questions above. Finally, ask yourself, “If I was a seasoned senior executive sitting in a room listening to me speaking, what would I be most interested in hearing about?”

Tip Three: Embrace and manage the flow. The great German field marshall Hellmuth von Moltke famously said, “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” No, your audience is not your enemy, but they may well decide to engage you in a dance that you hadn’t practiced for, which can make you feel like they’re out to get you! “Stay calm,” and avoid the temptation to force your presentation down their throats. Saying things like, “Please, just hold your questions until I finish” sends a message that you are not in command. Accept the apparent disruption, LISTEN carefully to what’s being asked, and (ideally) find a way to answer that underscores your original point. If you have prepared a short and compelling presentation, any “deep dive” requested by a board member is a chance for you to show your expertise and insight. “Less is more,” so resist going too deeply: answer the question directly and concisely; gauge whether the questioner is satisfied or wants to talk further; and then bring the group back to your main points, reminding them of your overall agenda. “I wanted to brief you on three things today: we covered the Topic A earlier, and now I’d like to continue taking you through Topic B.”

Tip Four: Choose your materials carefully. Nine times out of ten, the boardroom is no place for PowerPoint: projected slides create extra noise; they become a crutch; and they usually just get in the way of meaningful dialogue. If you absolutely require illustrations (e.g., financial models), bring them as brief, clear handouts. Design the materials to illustrate your key points, not as encyclopedic broader-context backstory that will steal your audience’s attention and give them unrelated things to ask or worry about. If you feel the audience needs a “take-away,” give it to them at the very end: never give a group something to read if you want them to listen to you! Once you have gotten comfortable speaking to a boardroom audience as a group and as individuals, you’ll never want to go back to PowerPoint again. And with no PowerPoint, your audience will experience you as a leader, not a reader.

Tip Five: Be a LEADER. Think like a business owner, bring the dialogue back to results and outcomes, and always take full accountability. At the end of the day, the board wants your insight, wisdom, and judgment, not just your technical analysis. What are the key issues, why should we care, and what should we do? At all costs avoid politics, melodrama, reasons why we “can’t” do something, and any hint of self-congratulation. Give credit to your team for ideas, but never blame them for anything. Resist being defensive, even if you feel you are being attacked. Remember the prayer of St. Francis: “Grant that I may not seek so much to be understood, as to understand.” Demonstrate that you are constantly learning, as well as challenging your own assumptions. And never try to BS your way through anything: if you don’t know, say you don’t know, and that you’ll get back to the group with the answer. (And then make finding the answer and communicating it back to the board the first thing you do when you leave the room: doing so will show your responsiveness, and it’s also a great chance to trigger further conversation.)

If you prepare for your next board meeting following the above tips, you’ll see much better results, and you’ll build confidence so that you do an even better job the next time. If you have other ideas or suggestions for how best to present to board, please let us know:

“If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.” — G.K. Chesterton