Speaking in front of an executive audience can be high stakes. Many people fear speaking in executive meetings, and yet with the right preparation (and a little structure) you can crush your next meeting and build your professional brand.
Most of us, at one point or another, have to update an executive on a project. Having first been at Bain & Company, and now at LinkedIn, I’ve had my share of executive updates. I’ve built a simple six step framework that has served me well.
But before we get to the framework, first, put yourself in the right frame of mind. Executives care about simple questions… Is the project on track? Do I believe in the leader and team? Do I need to get involved and if so, how? Executives don’t care about small project details, minor issues or risks that are not holding back progress, or hearing that every little activity was performed on time. Answer the questions that matter, and skip the stuff that doesn’t. The best updates are short and to the point.
FRAME THE MEETING:
1. Set the stage. Most execs are running from meeting to meeting, switching from context to context, and often don’t remember what you do or what your program is about. First, (assuming they don’t know you well) introduce yourself and your team, remind them what the goal of your project is, and explain how it fits into the broader company or business unit strategy. If you’ve met on this topic before, then remind them of that prior meeting so they can more easily connect to the content.
“Hello, I’m Dan Shapero and I’m responsible for the re-launch of our eCommerce website. Our goal is to increase sales by 20% through the launch of a simpler interface. We met back in June to kick off this project, and now we’re here to give you a 3 month update.”
2. Set the objective of the meeting, including what you want from the executive. The goal of the meeting is rarely to just provide an update… an update could be done over email. If you are asking for support, funding, advice… state it at the opening.
“Beyond providing you with a general update, we’d like to get your thoughts on a new color scheme for the website, and ask for additional funding of $250,000 to translate the website into Spanish for our Hispanic customers.”
IMPORTANT: Before moving on to the content of the meeting, ask the executive if they have any specific questions, objectives, or areas of concern.
DELIVER THE NEWS:
3. Answer the most important question in their minds – are you on track? Right out of the gate, say very simply how things are tracking relative your goals. Great leaders cut to the chase when presenting their performance.
“We are executing on schedule and our initial tests have shown that users like the new design. We see a clear path to increasing sales by 10% and have six additional features in development which we believe can get us to the 20% project goal.”
DIAGNOSE THE SITUATION – FIRST POSITIVE, THEN NEGATIVE:
4. Describe up to three things that are working well. Give the area, explain the success, and give rationale.
“There are three areas where we are seeing clear success. First, we see that our most frequent users are staying on our site longer during each visit, and buying more items. In particular, they are purchasing an average of 3 items instead of 2.5, spending an average of 10% more than previously. Second …”
5. Describe what is not working well. Don’t sugar-coat the story. As clearly and simply you described what is working, bring the same clarity to what is failing. The executive should expect that most projects have challenges… the question is whether you know the root cause of the problem, can focus on the things that really matter, and can respond. Also, don’t give a laundry list of challenges. Focus on the 1 or 2 things that truly risk keeping you from reaching your objectives. The goal is not to be comprehensive, but to pinpoint the things that at the heart of the project’s challenges.
“Our biggest challenge is in our international markets. The changes have not led to any substantial gains in purchasing and we have found that customers in Spain are purchasing less. We believe this is due to translation issues.”
6. Explain your plan going forward. Explain, in order of priority, your key activities with delivery dates. In particular, explain what you are going to do about the things that are off track, and explain how your recent insights have impacted the project plan.
“Our most important next step is to further analyze our website traffic and purchasing behavior by country and to interview users in Spain to understand what is driving their reactions. This will be completed within four weeks. We are also kicking off an initiative to translate our website into two additional languages – French and German. This should go live in December.”
At the end of the day, the executive wants to how things are going and whether you can be trusted to guide the project to the right outcome. You can give them confidence by being clear and specific, pinpointing the issues that stand in the way of the project’s success, and providing a clear road-map forward.