Originally published July 14, 2017 in Forbes Magazine
By Diane Craig
Most senior executives know that an invitation to speak to the board of directors is a rite of passage. It signals the board’s desire to hear details and question people directly and acknowledges the presenter’s authority. For first-timers, it can indicate a change in status. In many organizations, however, both people new to the experience and seasoned executives are often ill-equipped to meet board directors’ expectations. Board presence is the ability to fulfill those expectations.
When Leaders Lack Board Presence
Sometimes, the red flag warning comes too late, as one presenter I’ve worked with realized: “As soon as I started, I knew I was operating in the dark. I had come to the board unprepared. I was clueless about the rules of conduct and protocols. There I stood before the most powerful people in the industry and I started to tremble. I realized I was wasting their time and they knew it. I had lost my golden opportunity.”
The reality is, presenters shoulder full responsibility for their personal state of readiness. Although they are usually C-level executives and senior managers, with hours of presentations behind them, this is uncharted territory. It is unlike any other presentation in their experience.
An invitation to present to the board typically generates one of two reactions:
- Stress and anxiety, based on fear
- Smug self-assurance, the classic know-it-all outlook
Apprehension and nervousness can be overcome with extensive preparation. Complacency and confidence, on the other hand, are destined for missed opportunities. When people underestimate the significance of an invitation, they face a slippery slope.
Board presence, like executive presence, demands a combination of finely-tuned communications skills and engagement expertise along very specific standards and guidelines.
Achieving Board Presence: Six Essential Steps
Meticulous preparation is the prime factor that makes or breaks a presentation. The specifications are as exacting as media interviews or facing a full auditorium, but very different, indeed. For starters, there is a code of conduct. Although conscious of strict courtroom behaviors, like rising for the judge, many executives are not familiar with the conventions of meeting with the board. This is the starting point for preparation.
1. Understand the protocols as a guest at an exclusive club.
Every senior executive is a visiting guest of the board — not a member of its elite, private club. The atmosphere is formal but friendly, where directors exchange comments among themselves. For presenters, any suggestion of familiarity is out of line.
2. Be aware of how the board’s responsibilities may impact your future.
Managing succession planning is one of the key functions of boards of directors. They actively monitor high-potential people for future leadership roles. Directors are on high alert for promising candidates. Prospects for advancement are seriously impacted by board recommendations.
3. Study every director’s bio.
This is an eye-opening opportunity, yet many people overlook its benefits. Bios provide information about individual directors’ areas of expertise, which is crucial to developing content. Boards rich in IT acumen, for example, expect to be addressed at a level reflective of their knowledge. Equally as important, these insights enable presenters to anticipate and prepare for the pivotal Q&A that is part of every presentation. For first-timers, a meeting with their CEO offers greater perspective into the board’s expectations.
4. Construct clear, concise advance reports; avoid tech-speak and jargon.
Prior to the meeting, every presenter must produce advance reports for directors. The point of these pre-reads is to provide an accessible toolkit, not a dissertation. Advance reports are the roadmap to the presentation content. Long, technical narratives obstruct the distinction between routine items and true issues.
5. Use a three-part presentation framework.
Board meetings have serious time limitations. Very often, the allotted time for a presentation may be reduced significantly, so be prepared:
- Structure the presentation for the allotted time
- Build a condensed 10-minute version as a safety net
- Anticipate questions and prepare clear, careful answers
Unlike any other corporate function, boards of directors make decisions collectively. They actively share the role of examining presenters. With a full agenda, directors have reviewed advance materials and will have questions about the pre-read and presentation. Preparing a compressed 10-minute summary is prudent, in case of time limitations.
Directors are also profoundly experienced in asking questions. In a heartbeat, they spot evasiveness, defensiveness and fakery. Anticipating questions and preparing accurate answers is crucial. Every board expects a swift follow-up of unanswered questions.
6. Manage stress.
The single best way to deal with fear is rigorous rehearsal. There is no substitute for practice, notably with non-threatening third parties. Even seasoned professionals may continue to use third party resources for rehearsal feedback.
Part of this process is catching potentially negative body language. Too much swagger or the slightest hint of a smirk, unconsciously delivered, have the power to instantly reverse the door-opening opportunity of a presentation.
Board presence, the ability to meet and fulfill every board of directors’ expectations, is an acquired skill. It demands far more than recognized accomplishments and distinguished credentials. Determination and the perseverance to prepare rigorously, scrupulous attention to accurate, clear reporting and careful rehearsal, combined with the ability to keep one’s ego in check are achievable with practice and are the benchmarks of board presence.
For more information about Board Presence training for members of your organization, please contact Diane Craig.
Tel. 1-416-967-1221 ext 101