There are many external circumstances that can affect your executive briefing to senior leaders. While you may have compiled the best statistics, computations, and relevant facts for an Executive Briefing, this “science” part of an Executive Briefing could very well be undermined if you don’t pay attention to the “art” of conducting one. Be prepared to communicate your points under pressure by knowing the interpersonal dynamics in play. What are the leaders’ tells – the most effective way to brief them? How do they prefer to interact with their briefings? Who do they turn to for endorsement? These key aspects of the executive briefing will allow you to respond effectively to executive concerns/pushbacks and then pivot when needed while you are briefing. So, in this article we explore the art of the executive briefing… Enjoy!
The Case for Executive Briefings
I’ve been consulting with organizational senior leadership for nearly three decades. At the beginning of my consulting career, I literally stumbled upon the Executive Briefing. In my mind, the Executive Briefing is a skill that consultants should be skilled at, even under stressful circumstances. Briefing senior executives is a difficult task. They are skilled at compressing the right information in the right time. These skills are applicable to briefing any executive at the C-suite.
There are many tips on how to brief senior leaders: Keep it short, keep the message front-loaded, etc. These are great tips, but they don’t take into account the interpersonal aspects that are crucial to a successful executive briefing. You can make or break your presentation before it starts. Your chances of success are even worse if you neglect the personal aspects of who it is you’re briefing.
These tips were developed from my experiences as a consultant and as a teacher of briefing skills at seminars across the country. These tips are important, regardless of whether briefings are held in person or online. Let’s dig in and look at the art of the Executive Briefing in two sections — Executive Briefing Preparation and Conducting the Executive Briefing.
Executive Briefing Preparation
When it comes to successful Executive Briefings, the adage ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’ should be forefront in your mind. In other words, you’re going to have to plan!
Identify the “Crucial Ally.” Picture in your mind that you are conducting the Executive Briefing with an organization’s president and a few of their senior leadership team members. At some point during the executive briefing, the president will look for a facial expression from a member of their senior leadership team that affirms what you are saying at a crucial moment during the briefing. The boss needs that person to say “Yes.” This is a calm gesture that shows the boss that they are confident in your idea and that all the relevant people have been consulted. Without such supportive nod, as the presenter of the executive briefing you will be asked questions and reasons for doubt could arise. I’ve been both presenter and receiver of executive briefings, and I can honestly say that a non-confirming glance from a Crucial Ally is seen as non-endorsement which can be worse than death.
Before you present your idea, identify the Crucial Ally who will be in the briefing (It may vary depending on the issue, ranging from a single Crucial Ally or multiple people). Consult with the Crucial Ally in advance. Although the executive you are briefing might not have a Crucial Ally, there is a good chance they have trust in certain people more so than others. The Crucial Ally is essential to your Executive Briefing success.
Know Your Leaders’ “Tells.” If you spend a lot time with the leader, you need to be able to recognize the nonverbal cues such as “go deeper on this point” or “speed up.” Ask the leader what you should look out for in order to tell if he is upset and if there are any ways to determine if it is related to something you have said. Ask how to react to negative signals in order to change the mood. Understanding your leaders’ body language will allow you to keep cool and steer in the right direction during briefings.
Learn How Your Leader Interacts with the Material. Different people react differently to information. One senior leader whom I briefed would ask questions and push back hard on any point in any executive briefing, no matter how small or large (Perhaps because they were trained as an attorney – Fill in your favorite lawyer joke here!) This made some colleagues feel intimidated and they eventually became “Yes” people, losing his respect. Others jumped into fights every time, which made him appear closed-minded and agitated. This leader was respected by his colleagues who chose their battles well. They chose to accept the “Yes” when they could, and then pushed back when it was most important. This showed flexibility, but also confidence in their opinions. You’ll be more prepared to communicate information effectively and respond to criticism if you are aware of the leader’s style.
Plan for Both Success and Failure. Before you walk in the door, it is important to identify what you want from a meeting. Here’s an interesting twist. Don’t view it in terms of success or failure. Bring your “ask,” but also contingency plans to cover multiple outcomes, such as success or failure. You can offer a reduced version of your proposal if the conversation is moving toward “No.” If your idea is proving successful, you can offer additional ideas or ways to speed up the timeline. Think of how you can win a small victory rather than a complete defeat, keep your idea alive for another day, or go faster and bigger in implementation.
Conducting the Executive Briefing
Pay Attention to the Audience — NOT your Notes. You must be able to understand body language and cues from the crowd assembled, regardless of whether the briefing takes place in person or virtually. This will ensure that you are not paying attention solely to your material by the end of the executive briefing. Your mental energy should be focused on the room, finding openings and avoiding pitfalls. This rule has a corollary: “Take cues, but not notes” — In fact, if you are able, ask someone to take notes for you so that you can be fully present in the moment.
Focus on Your Task. You can be distracted by competing interests or time pressure during Executive Briefings, but keep your eyes on the goal. You are there to ask the right questions and to make it a priority. Pre-plan multiple ways to redirect the conversation to get the information you need. It is a rare ability to be persistent and deft all at once. And you don’t want your colleagues to think that you are a stiff or a robot. Meetings can be interrupted or cut short in a fast-paced environment. To reduce the chances of a briefing being interrupted, avoid introducing unnecessary details or deviating from your request.
Learn to be Silent. Now you have either posed your question or floated an idea during the Executive Briefing. You’ve started the discussion and you now need to be extremely strategic about when and how to add your voice. An executive engages others in the room, or thinks aloud. You could upset your leader or cause confusion by speaking at the wrong time. You don’t have to unnecessarily confirm or display your knowledge – Now is not the time. If the conversation is trending against your side, you can take your best shot at trying to bring things back on track. Many times though, I have found NOT speaking at the wrong time can be just as important as speaking at a right time.
In this post, we’ve explored the Art of the Executive Briefing, specifically looking at Executive Briefing Preparation and Conducting the Executive Briefing. Your Executive Briefing will be affected by circumstances outside your control. These could include a crisis unrelated to your presentation or the stress level of the leaders you brief. Although you can’t guarantee success, it is possible to focus on interpersonal dynamics and improve your situational awareness before you arrive in the Executive Briefing. It will make you more effective in communicating the right message when under pressure.
Sam Palazzolo, Principal Officer @ The Javelin Institute