Beware of Fog and Fear

    Fog at the top and fear in the middle is an organizational train wreck waiting to happen.

    If senior leaders are clueless about what is going on at lower levels of the company and with the customer base, they make bad decisions. One CEO said, “It is like flying a plane in the fog without radar. Very dangerous.”

    Mark Leslie, founder and former CEO of Veritas Software observed, “If mid-level presenters don’t feel comfortable in the meeting, they’ll tell us what they think we want to hear. Without accurate information, we’ll make bad decisions. I do everything possible to make the presenters feel at ease.”

    Unfortunately, not all executives do, and it’s up to the presenter to eliminate the fog and fear in the room. Here’s how:

    Find your confidence
    Speaking to the senior level is simply the most important presenting most of us will ever do. Ever. Think about it. Your job is on the line. The jobs of your subordinates are on the line. Your project funding is on the line.

    Recently I toured the world headquarters of a leading soft drink company. Our tour guide proudly showed us the boardroom with its long mahogany table and huge leather chairs. Then she pointed to the chairs in the hallway, and lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “During our quarterly board meetings, these chairs are lined with middle managers in black suits clutching their reports in their trembling hands.” She added, “At those times the fear and tension are so great, I stay clear away from this area.”

    Walking into that room to present in front of people who are very bright, very busy, very competitive, in a perpetual time crunch, are 20 years your senior, perhaps started the company, and have a net worth 100X yours… can be intimidating.

    Yet make no mistake; when you present to senior leadership to secure funding for something, you are competing with many of your peers who also need budget. The pool of money is limited. The person who is most confident, has less fear and gives senior leadership the straight scoop will get the nod.

    Eliminate the fog at the top by preparing the answers senior leaders need and confidently deliver those answers in a format that is easy to digest, and quickly. No more trembling in the hallway outside the boardroom as if waiting your turn at the guillotine.

    Facilitate, or in other words, IMPROVISE
    Your ability to facilitate a top-level discussion will build the trust that clears up the fog. CEO Steve Kirsch noted, “Eighty percent of your success at the top level is facilitation and only twenty percent is your content.”

    So what is facilitation? It is your ability to pay attention to what is going on in the room aside from your content: who is listening; who is nodding off; who is on their cell phone, etc.?

    Be willing to say out loud what you are noticing and ask for clarification. The skills involved here are listening and improvising. Your job as presenter is to listen, not just to the words, but also to the nonverbals. For example, noticing several people are on their phones, you might say, “I’m concerned that I’ve lost the group’s attention. Is this still a critical issue for us?” Then wait for confirmation and be willing to move in a new direction. This is where you improvise.

    Here we can take direction from stand up comedians and jazz musicians. Their art forms are known for being improvisational.

    Jazz player Eddie Harris (1934-1996) commented, “Jazz is a business. I have to read the audience. If I’m playing far out, and I see they want a ballad, I’ll change in the middle of the tune.” Similarly, business presenters at the top level must listen to their executive audiences and be able to change direction quickly as business needs shift in a heartbeat.

    You don’t have to tremble with fear outside the boardroom door if you know the rules and are confidently prepared. Remember, a boring PowerPoint slide-driven lecture won’t work at the executive level. They will welcome it when you show up prepared for a discussion about critical issues.

    Also be willing to improvise on the spot. You will do a lot to clear up the fog at the top and reduce the fear in the middle. Overall, this will help to make the company more profitable and enhance your career options.

    Frederick Gilbert is the founder and chairman of PowerSpeaking Inc.,, a speech communications company in Silicon Valley. His coaching of more than 200 senior-level executives led to the award winning program, “Speaking Up: Presenting to Executives.” Gilbert can be reached at [email protected].

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    Richard Blanchard
    Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.