I’m just back from an intensive week in which our Bates team coached 23 top leaders of a Fortune 50 company on their strategic recommendations for the organization. There was a lot riding on it for each of them, since the Chairman and CEO of the company and members of the senior leadership team would be evaluating their presentations and providing feedback.
What the SLT was looking for were clear, bold solutions to significant challenges facing the business. They wanted to see how effectively the groups worked together, defined the challenge, analyzed the data, developed strong solutions, and answered tough questions. The final exercise was an outstanding way to see how these leaders think and how they show up as leaders. Here are a few things I learned that I want to pass along to anyone who is presenting to their SLT.
1. Clearly define the problem: If you have not correctly decided what to look at then everything you propose will be for naught. Remember, most senior leaders have already looked at issues you’re raising and they demand and expect precision. Clarify the issue by thinking through the real issues and using precise language.
2. Tell them why it matters: Why is it important right now for the company to address this issue? You must make a compelling case for the company putting its time and attention on the matter at hand. Explain what the market opportunity is, or what is at stake, or what is at risk, if they do not address it, and conversely what the positive results might be if they take action now.
3. Prove it: How do you know what you know? You need rock solid facts and analysis. You data should be impeccable. You also need to be intellectually honest when presenting it; data can be ambiguous and interpreted many ways. There can be flaws in the gathering of it, as well. Senior leaders will see right through any attempt to stack the deck in your favor, and they will consider you junior if you try to do so. They also will insist that you apply rigor to your own process and will pounce if you have not proven your case.
4. What’s the action step: Be prepared to get to the bottom line quickly with a set of proposed next steps that the senior leadership team might take. If you’ve already sold them on the what and why you need to be ready to move on. However, don’t tell them what to do; propose. Avoid phrases such as ”have to” or “must,” and instead use words like, “we strongly recommend,” or “the most prudent action would be,” because trust me they’re going to make the decision. Be bold in what you recommend, just don’t be presumptuous in the way you address the top leaders of the organization.
5. Watch your tone: A good leader balances confidence and humility. Leaders recognize high potential leaders when they do this effectively. Don’t presume that your senior leaders don’t know a lot of what you know; that’s why they have the top jobs. What they are really looking for in you is someone who cares about the company, in fact, loves the company, and wants to add value.
6. Focus on the highest priorities for the business: Business priorities change constantly so you need to be on top of what is most important for your senior leaders and your CEO RIGHT NOW. Understand the business strategy thoroughly before you start proposing new programs, solutions or spending. It may be a great idea but if it isn’t perfectly aligned with what the CEO wants to accomplish right now the SLT will have no bandwidth to listen. And, stay current. Don’t assume what mattered last week matters this week. When crisis arises, everybody focuses on that until its resolved.
7. Look at the challenge from the top down, not the bottom up: Don’t come in with a littany of complaints about how people see a problem or what the naysayers are yapping about. Imagine you’re the CEO and look at the challenge the way he or she would look at it. Solve the business problem first and then worry about how it gets implemented, including how you’ll work with people on culture or change management. Change is difficult but it follows big strategic decisions; get the strategy right and then work on the rest of it.
8. Work as a team and make the presentation as a team: Work out your differences among your team prior to making the presentation. This is hard work but it will pay off when you have a unified front. This isn’t to say that you might not have minor differences in how you would approach the issue but if you look like you’re arguing in front of the CEO, he or she will tell you to go back to the drawing board. CEOs and senior leaders value team work and want to see how you make it happen.
9. Socialize your idea before you present it: Your idea will probably go through several iterations during the process of gathering data, analyzing and developing recommendations. Talk with other senior leaders, influencers and experts to be sure you are on track and answering their questions. Find out whether there are third rail issues you shouldn’t touch until you understand them better. Get feedback and accept feedback from people who are in the know.