In his fascinating autobiography, The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger, Chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Company, describes his experience interviewing for the top role as Michael Eisner prepared to retire:
By the end of the process, I would be interviewed fifteen times: that first all-on-one interview; then one-on-one interviews with every member of the board; then follow-up interviews with board members who requested them; then one of the most insulting experiences of my career… .”
He also describes the one time his patience ran out: I’d flunked my self-imposed test to withstand anything they threw at me with patience and respect.
Been there, done that.
While it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself interviewing for the top job at Walt Disney Companies anytime soon, anyone rising through organizational ranks will face their versions of Iger’s situation. Make no doubt; these events are tests of both your knowledge and temperament. In my experience, temperament is the tougher test of the two.
Of Executive Teams and Boards, There’s Always an Antagonist or Three
Regardless of your stellar performance review or even fabulous recent results, executive teams and boards aren’t there to revel in your past glories. Their focus is on the future with a “What are you going to do for me/us next?” perspective. I respect the future-focus, and it’s essential to be ready to describe and defend your plans from all altitudes—vision to details. It’s the approach of a few in every group that is off-putting and will test your temperament.
Sorry to break it to you, but in every group setting of executives or board members you’ll encounter in your career, the view on you will range from respect and value to guilty of something, and it’s their job to figure it out.
I know that sounds cynical. It’s realistic.
Disappointing? Yes! Get Over It and Prepare!
Some members will appreciate you. Others will wonder why you’re in the job you’re in. And others will make it their mission to discredit and devalue you and your perspective, in large part, out of a desire to show everyone what an expert they are in your vocation or function.
I recall being shocked at my perception of the hostility toward me of two board members in one volatile situation. My results were great, I’m a likable character I think, and after all, weren’t we supposed to be on the same team?
While it is disappointing when you come face-to-face with what feels like personal contempt and blatant disrespect, it’s part of the process of professional growth. The more ambitious or different your ideas are for the group, or, the more authority you are striving to take, the heavier the flak.
My late boss, Eric, used to say, “The flak is heaviest when you’re closest to the target.“
Instead of being surprised, shocked, and put-off by hostility in these settings, my counsel is to accept it, get over it, and prepare your message and mentality to win the moment.
After all, these tense professional settings are tests of both your knowledge and temperament.
8 Tips to Help You Succeed in High-Stress Board and Management Communication Settings
1. Prepare Your Attitude—This is an Opportunity
You don’t get invited to present to executives or board members unless someone—usually your boss—believes you have ideas worth sharing. Executive and board meeting agendas are typically tightly packed, and earning your way on, even for a short update, is a tremendous opportunity to gain visibility and experience. Of course, you need to prepare for this as if it’s the most critical next presentation of your career because it is.
2. Align With Your Sponsor
Whether it’s your boss or another senior manager or board member who invited you to present, make sure to tune-in to their objectives for your portion of the program. Your goal is to deliver value to the audience, support your sponsor, and gain support for your ideas and initiatives.
3. Know Your Audience
Your sponsor or your boss may have some insights, and of course, it’s reasonable to err on the side of assuming that the group is comprised of successful, smart people interested in facts, well-developed ideas, clear plans and how all of this will help the firm achieve its strategic and financial goals.
Ideally, seek out others who have presented to this group in the recent past and ask about the experience. Just a few of the key things I want to understand about this group include:
- As much biography as I can garner about each of the individuals.
- An understanding of their respective areas of expertise.
- As much as I can garner about the power structure of the group.
- Anything I can gain about their particular interests or pet projects.
- Which members are aggressive questioners?
- Their preferences for information consumption (slides, handouts, etc.)
Armed with the advance knowledge, I can tailor my message as needed, or simply be prepared for the questions and interactions.
4. Plan Your Message and Supporting Points with Care
Plan with the skill and effort of a successful serial entrepreneur seeking funding from tough-minded and cynical financiers or a trial lawyer fighting for a client’s life. Keep your message crisp, support your key points with examples and evidence, and be prepared to field some tough questions.
My coaching clients learn quickly how maniacal I am about developing what I call Message Maps to help them crystallize their core message and the critical supporting points and evidence. A carefully designed and tested message map is your best friend in the most challenging of situations.
Armed with your Message Map, you are prepared to articulate and defend your ideas. Importantly, the map gives you a vehicle for answering practically every question by offering an entry point to your core message either at the detail (evidence), driver, or core level. Nothing is more critical when you’re being peppered with tough questions by hostile interrogators than not needing to scramble for answers.
(For more on the technique, check out my post: The Career Enhancing Benefits of Message Mapping.)
5. Confidence is Critical, Optimism is Infectious
Executives and board members are particularly attuned to confidence and smell “lack-of-confidence” in nanoseconds. They also are unusually sensitive to any attempt by presenters to dodge key questions or provide excessively sunny projections.
Confidence and optimism blended with transparency and authenticity are critical components that must be in attendance when you present to these groups. Get this right, and you’ll find mirroring breaking out all around you.
6. Passion is Positive and Contagious to a Point
If your passion for a topic is authentic, it’s priceless in my opinion. From long personal experience, I know that my passion for my work consistently works well with audiences. As an executive, I appreciated the enthusiasm of the engineers, project, and product managers who regularly presented to our group.
However, if you find yourself having to manufacture passion to suit the event, you’re in danger of being discovered. Also, beware of making your genuine passion come off as overly sweet. There’s a threshold when too much energy for a topic starts to work against you. Keep it real and balance your passion for the issue with your transparency for the risks and challenges.
7. If Confusion Breaks Out, Get to the Whiteboard
If you are at all comfortable with your hand diagramming skills, a picture may be just the lifesaver you need when confusion over a point threatens to derail your positive presentation train. A polite acknowledgment such as: “Yes, this is confusing. Let me try a diagram to clarify,” is all you need. This shift away from words or words on slides to an image is often a powerful method for regaining attention, drawing participants into the discussion, and ultimately eliminating confusion. And, frankly, it is impressive to the audience that you had the courage to adjust your approach on the fly with the skill of a practiced instructor.
8. Prepare Your Mental Circuit Breaker to Maintain Temperament
I may have mentioned that these sessions are a test of knowledge and temperament with the latter being the more challenging to showcase under pressure. All of the steps above will help. However, you’re still going to run into that individual who needs to put you in your place. When this happens, you need a circuit breaker that flips and derails your temper.
I write and coach on this point extensively. The essence of the challenge is to prevent your natural fight or flight system from taking control. You need to create a circuit breaker that stops the flood of adrenaline that either drives you to ground (flight) or causes you to lose your temper (fight). Regardless of your propensity for one or the other, both represent a loss of control from the part of your brain that you desperately need in this situation.
The short-form of a process that works for me and can work for you under pressure is a quick internal conversation that goes like this.
- This is one of those moments. I need to flip the circuit breaker!
- I wonder why this person is taking this approach.
- I need to breathe.
- I need to relax my posture
- I need to do something positive. I wonder what I should do?
- I think I’ll ask a clarifying question. And then I’ll return to my message map.
That might seem like a lot to do at the moment. In reality, it’s a matter of seconds. You can also look away from your antagonist as part of the process. The mind-body connection in this circuit-breaker routine draws control away from your fight-or-flight center and keeps control in the region of your brain responsible for logic and reasoning.
Practice your circuit breaker, so it’s second nature when you recognize the situation. This plus your well-developed message map is your best defense against the individuals who are trying to derail you.
(For more, check out my article: How to Win When You’re Under Attack in a Meeting at Work.)
The Bottom-Line for Now:
There’s no avoiding difficult communication situations, particularly as you grow your responsibility in your career. Showcase your knowledge by drawing upon the power of a carefully crafted Message Map. And when it comes to that test of your temperament, it pays to be ready with a circuit breaker routine that will help you save or win the day.