The executive’s guide to working with boards

Would-be CEOs and other senior managers can make or break their careers in presentations to boards. So take the time to learn what directors need to hear—and how they need to hear it
By Beverly Behan

Being invited to present to the board of directors—or to work with the board on an ongoing basis—is often viewed as a hallmark of an executive career. It also has significant implications for anyone with their eye on the corner office. Boards make judgments about executives’ capabilities on the basis of their presentations in board and committee meetings. Yet most executives receive almost no training and little guidance about what boards are actually looking for. Here are some key points that can make all the difference.

1. Presentations begin before you enter the boardroom. Your presentation begins with the pre-reading material board members receive in advance of the meeting. Yet many executives view board pre-reading as something to get off their desks, often repurposing materials that were developed for internal meetings on the same topic or “staffing it out” to a subordinate.

Multiple acronyms and industry jargon that would be standard fare in an internal company presentation are inappropriate and often frustrating in a board briefing. There’s no need to dumb it down but there’s a great need to present this material in understandable language that any sophisticated businessperson—not a 20-year industry veteran—can readily grasp.

And don’t assume that “following a board template” will save you. When an executive who was struggling in her board presentations used this excuse with her chairman, he responded, “If you want to be our next CEO—and you clearly do—you need to know that we want someone who uses good judgment, not templates, in running this company.”

Board members frequently complain about wading through voluminous materials before finding the ‘Aha!’ moment. Put your key points up front in an executive summary or overview. The length of time and level of attention a director will devote to a 25-page deck/briefing paper is far greater than that given to a 100-page tome that appears to include “everything but the kitchen sink.” The key to the whole thing is to tell a story—your story—in an understandable and compelling way that highlights the salient points any board member wants to know; points that you would want to know if you were sitting on the other side of the board table.

2. Board presentations should be a dialogue, not a lecture. One of the key questions I ask the boards I work with is this: What is the balance of your presentation time versus your discussion time in board meetings? Far too often, the answer is 75% presentation time and 25% Q&A. But the Q&A is always the most valuable part of the meeting.

This practice also raises an obvious question: If you’ve got an outstanding team of directors with highly relevant backgrounds, why are you using them primarily as an audience? You need to engage them in a dialogue and frankly, that’s what most of them signed up for when they came onto your board in the first place.

Savvy executives realize this and focus on creating a robust dialogue rather than delivering a lecture when it comes to their boardroom presentations. Yet this is one of the most difficult transitions for many executives to make. CEOs and other top corporate officers are used to operating in “tell and sell” mode rather than “listening” mode. However, the hallmark of a confident executive in the boardroom is dialogue—and some of the best deliberately pose questions to the board to get directors’ views on some of the questions they’re grappling with. They come in with their own well-considered views on every issue, but use the board to “stress test” certain assumptions and gain the benefit of directors’ insights.

3. Smart presentations enhance board decision-making. While the implications for executives in raising their boardroom game are readily apparent, there are equally important implications for the board itself: Cogent board pre-reading makes better use of directors’ time in preparing for meetings; more dialogue in board presentations makes better use of their expertise. Yet the major implication is even more significant: The quality of an executive’s presentation can impact the board’s view on the issue or proposal itself. A weak presentation can result in the board being dismissive of a great idea; a great presentation can garner board support—which is the last and perhaps very best reason that executives should develop their capabilities in working with the board.

Beverly Behan is a New York-based board consultant who has worked with more than 100 boards of directors in the U.S., Canada and internationally in the past 17 years. E-mail: beverly.behan@boardadvisor.net.

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