It is important to make a personal connection when you meet senior people in your organization. This is especially true when presenting to an executive team or the board of directors. Below, I discuss three things to do.
One final note: When you present to your CEO or a high-ranking executive, you need to exude a degree of confidence. That means you need to demonstrate poise as well as self-awareness.
Act on that thought — and stay humble – and you will do just fine.
You don’t get medals for common sense — but perhaps you should get a pat on the back.
Edwin van Calker, driver on the Dutch four-man bobsled team, told his coach that he would not pilot the bobsled down the icy, treacherous track at Whistler Sliding Centre at the Vancouver Olympic Games. His coach Tom de la Hunty said, “I’ve never seen someone get to a major event and not compete because they’re scared. You keep your inner fears to yourself and do it.”
Not van Calker. He had crashed on the track during the two-man bobsled competition and did not think he could safely pilot the much heavier four-man sled. And he didn’t blame the track, which has seen multiple crashes and the death of a Georgian luger at the start of the Games. “[J]ust my lack of confidence at the moment.”
Perhaps there is a lesson for leaders in van Calker’s admission. The mettle of a leader is tested by adversity; history lauds those leaders who take on the odds and win. But savvy leaders are those who also know when to say no. Unfortunately, we brand folks like that as quitters, when it may be more correct to say they have the guts to know when they’re licked.
So how do you evaluate whether you should take on that challenge, or back down? Here are some thoughts.
Know the odds. Assess what you are up against. You can often quantify a challenge through the metrics you employ to manage your business. Weigh the costs of going forward against the costs of holding back. Try not to undercount the costs on either side. Remember, this type of equation is often used to justify mergers and acquisitions, where two businesses come together to avoid competition that will tear them apart. Yet most mergers end in failure.
One of the things that can befuddle managers, even experienced ones, is how to make small talk with the big boss.
When you are talking about someone who has authority over you, be it your boss’s boss or the CEO, the word “small” becomes relative. Anything involving a boss can have a big impact. Conversation with a superior can be fraught with peril but it can also be a great opportunity. Peril comes from the fear of saying the wrong thing; opportunity arises because you can reveal a new dimension of yourself to other.
You can increase the odds of success if you prepare. Yes, actually plan out what you will say to the senior manager. This works well if you know that the CEO is coming to visit your department or if you have the opportunity chat with him at an all-employee gathering. So here’s what you can do.
Do your homework. Learn the issues the senior team is focused on. Ideally everyone in the company should know the strategic priorities. Bone up on these so you know them, too. Think in advance what you will say to a senior person if you meet her in person. Work out a key message about your projects, your career and yourself. This is good practice whether you meet a senior person or not. Finally, if it’s a more social meeting, you might try to learn of a boss’s personal interests — hobbies, sports he or she likes, or their volunteer activities.
This is advice I have given to many senior leaders because it shows a sense of humanity and openness, even transparency. It brings people to them because it shows that the senior leader does not have all the answers.
But does this advice apply to those in middle management and below?
The answer is yes, but! Leaders who understand their limitations but know how to solve problems are those that senior leaders look to give greater levels of responsibility.
Many managers have received this directive from their bosses when preparing to present an idea. Ronald Reagan was famous for asking for one-page summaries and today many executives follow that example. It is good practice because it challenges the petitioner to reduce his idea to its barest essentials as a means of ensuring understanding as well as developing a platform for advocacy. This methodology is something that I have coached executives to ask for as well as to develop for themselves.
While it is good practice, it does have a serious drawback: In the effort to shrink the argument there is a tendency to reduce salient points as well as obstacles to neat bullet points. By doing so, we eliminate complexity and avoid nuance, both of which may be necessary to full understanding of the issues.
Let’s say two competitors form a strategic alliance to develop and market a new product. This occurs routinely in the pharmaceutical industry. On the surface it may look good because two companies can pool brainpower and resources and improve efficiency. However, a look beneath the surface we may uncover other issues related to customer satisfaction, vendor issues, employee collaboration, other competitors and perhaps regulatory issues. None of these issues by themselves, or even taken together, are enough to kill the alliance, but it is easy to see that reducing discussion of such an alliance to bullet points could be flawed because the context behind each point may be overlooked.
Striving for clarity in a summary memo is essential, but managers need to ensure that they are hearing the whole story. So when issues are significant enough to affect the outcome of the enterprise, you must take steps to take to ensure that the decision-maker receives a full picture rather than a side view.
Set the context. Make it known that you want your team to consider the big picture. Talk about the environment in which you operate and the competition you face. Make it clear that you want your people to consider multiple variables when they research their pieces of the picture. Stress that you do not want opinion; you want facts that support as well as disprove your argument.
Judgment, writes Schumpeter, the business columnist for The Economist, “is too often missing from leadership studies.” The reason is that it is a topic too hard to quantify with metrics but as the Schumpeter column notes, “[J]udgment is what matters most.”
The problem is that too much reliance on the facts can lead one up a blind alley, especially when the assumptions that generate the facts are faulty. As Colin Powell once noted, “Experts often possess more data than judgment.”
Judgment is critical for success so managers need to trust their instincts as well as well as the facts they evaluate.
Getting behind an idea means imbuing it with our conviction and our passion. Such commitment is vital when pushing for an initiative or suggestion that you think is important to implement. This enthusiasm also helps you bring others to your cause. But it can also be your worst enemy when someone, such as your boss, pushes back.
Since you are so enamored of your idea, your instinct is to protect it as you might a child. (Just think of the common phrase, “This project is my baby.”) Big mistake! This puts you on the defensive.
When you face criticism you need to defend yourself without being defensive. The latter opens you to additional criticism because very often defensive will provoke negative behaviors such as lashing out or shutting down. You become caught in the moment and the niceties of polite discourse go out the window. It is fine to be passionate but you want to avoid becoming overly passionate, that is, unwilling and unable to listen to others.
Maintaining an even keel in the face of skepticism or even hostility is a vital attribute to leadership presence, the kind of aura that you need to radiate if you ever hope to instill followership. And when people are whaling on your ideas it is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. The challenge is not to overreact and to separate personality from ideology. Here’s how.
That could be a lesson contained in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy when we see characters who find themselves in difficulty because they have strayed from their moral center.
Today, the term “bright shiny objects” is used in reference to organizations that cannot formulate a strategy, or if they do develop one, they fail to adhere to it. As a result such companies end up chasing after things that on the surface look appealing but upon investigation prove to be untenable.
Bright shiny objects are distractors. As such they belong in the realm of fables not in the corridors of management.
In times of crisis people always look for inspirational leaders. What makes for inspiration is subjective, but there is one common element when speaking about leaders who inspire: they have a strong leadership presence.
By presence we mean “earned authority.” That is, people follow your leadership because you are a proven quantity, whose credibility rests on your having gotten things done. Every leader must aspire to demonstrate presence in order to inspire; this is a theme I explore in my new book, 12 Steps to Power Presence: How Leaders Assert their Authority to Lead.
Let me outline a few key points:
Know the score. Executives who talk a good game may appear to have presence but what they really have is a silver tongue. If you seek to inspire, you need a deep knowledge of the situation. Communication that directs people to strive for big goals must be reinforced with a process and with information that support achieving those goals, otherwise it is just empty rhetoric. Leaders with presence know their business.
Radiate command. A leader with presence wears authority like a well-tailored suit. Others notice the good fit and feel comfortable in her presence. A leader who cannot radiate authority is one that will struggle to create followership. Authority stems from strong self-awareness; leaders with command presence are confident because they know what they are capable of achieving by themselves and through others.