How To Wreck a Career at the C-level

    Tom walked into the boardroom to give the company leadership his quarterly finance report from manufacturing. It was his first time presenting to the C-level. He had 45 PowerPoint slides for his 30-minute talk. As he went by the credenza, he helped himself to a Danish then took a seat at the head of the table and turned on his computer. His boss, the CFO, seemed distracted, paying attention to her email. Clueless as usual, Tom failed to see the expressions of displeasure on the executives’ faces even before he started.

    Finally, his boss looked up from her computer long enough to give Tom a cursory introduction before diving back into her email. Tom’s first five slides went into excruciating background detail.

    At the three-minute mark, the CEO interrupted Tom abruptly and reset the time constraints of his presentation. He now had just 10 minutes. Tom frantically reshuffled his slide deck. After regaining his composure, he addressed the issue of labor cost reduction in their offshore manufacturing facility. Suddenly the vice president of R&D became quite animated about wanting more acknowledgement for his efforts to show how R&D directly effects shareholder value. Several sarcastic remarks flew back and forth. In the blink of an eye, the focus was off Tom’s presentation as a royal executive food fight between manufacturing and R&D got under way. Tom looked for help from his sponsor, the CFO. She continued to work on her email. Tom made a feeble attempt to refocus the group, but to no avail. A moment later, the CEO stepped in, dismissed Tom and refocused the group onto the next agenda item.

    Walking toward the elevator, Tom realized how bad this had been for his career and wondered to himself, “Just what the hell happened in there?”

    While this is a fictional account, scenes like this take place every day throughout corporate America. As speech communication trainers and coaches, we hear about these career train wrecks all the time. Like the fabled cavalry of the old western movies coming up over the hill to save the day, we are called in to help companies avoid these expensive communication disasters. A one-hour meeting with the top five executives of a midsize $6 billion company costs about $30,000 an hour. CEOs have told us that 67 percent of their meetings with first time presenters are total failures. The impact on productivity, competitiveness, and careers of these bad meetings, week after week, month after month can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. What can be done?

    To find out, let’s revisit Tom, our hapless finance presenter. Tom’s story can be a cautionary tale for any of us who present to the top level. If Tom had known just a few simple truths about life at the top, he might have received a promotion rather than an abrupt departure.

    Tom should have known the answer to this question: Who are these people at the top? A: They are very bright, time pressured executives with little job security. Their average job tenure is 23 months. They are under huge financial performance pressures. At the end of the first year on the job, if the stock price goes down, there is a 73 percent chance the new CEO will be fired, according to a report in the Harvard Business Review. If Tom had known all this, he might have reduced the unnecessary detail in his slides and gotten to the point faster.

    Everything is different at top-level presentations because of the people who populate this corporate Mount Olympus. In contrast to everyday presentations, at the top level there are certain non-intuitive behaviors that may save your presentation and your career:

    1. Get right to the point in the first 30 seconds. Tell them what you want; specify the dollar amount and the ROI;

    2. Reduce or eliminate the PowerPoint slides. They hate slide shows, and want a discussion instead;

    3. Be flexible with your content and ready to make a change on the spot without warning;

    4. Be prepared to be a good listener. They will talk at least two thirds of the time and your ability to understand and reflect back to them the issues they are debating will help them to trust you. That trust can lead to approval of your request.

    Specifically, here are seven ways Tom could have prepared:

    1. Done homework on the people in the meeting to anticipate the level of conflict and / or issues between manufacturing and R&D that could flare up.

    2. Started the presentation by confirming with the group the topic and the time. This reduces the surprise of a time cut and / or a sudden topic change.

    3. Developed a plan of action with his sponsor, the CFO, in the event that the meeting went off track.

    4. Prepared himself for the inevitable time cut that is so typical at top-level meetings. Tom could have had two presentations, one for 30 minutes and one for five minutes. Additionally, he could have been ready with an “elevator pitch,” a 45-second summary of his presentation.

    5. Anticipated the food fight. With his sponsor’s help, Tom should have developed a plan in the event things spiraled out of control. A junior-level presenter is virtually powerless to intervene alone in a top-management argument.

    6. Stand, don’t sit at the table. Executives find it an insult if the junior person sits at the table. It implies a peer relationship.

    7. And of course, the biggest blunder of all — don’t eat their pastries!

    Middle management lives in a tough, ambiguous environment with lots of responsibility and not much power. There is no rule book about how to do a top-level presentation. Awareness and preparation are key. These strategies drawn from Tom’s meltdown should help.

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