For most executives, even at the highest levels, a presentation to the board of directors is the most difficult test of leadership communications. Few will succeed.
Interviews with more than 100 public and private board directors over the past decade reveal that dissatisfaction with presentations is almost universal. PowerPoint decks are too long, too granular, or too informative, they report.
Yet the feedback most senior executives receive — “Make it crisper,” “Fewer slides,” “Don’t get into operational details,” or even “More details, less headlines ” – usually generic and unhelpful. Operators are told they are not strategic enough; strategic leaders have been criticized for insufficient operational depth. The directors and presenters left disappointed.
Unfortunately, the advice offered by professional speaking coaches is just as likely to mislead senior executives. “Improve vocal delivery,” “Use fewer bullet points,” “Tell a story,” or similar well-worn teaching points rooted in the belief that a board presentation just a matter of stagecraft – a variation of a keynote presentation to a customer audience.
This advice reveals a misunderstanding about the purpose and value of board meetings. The boardroom is a different forum that requires a different kind of presentation and preparation. It requires long exchanges that utilize the knowledge of senior leaders and the authenticity of seasoned directors.
Having coached executives preparing board-level presentations for more than 15 years – including senior leaders auditioning to become the next CEO – I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important role of the executive is to share their thinking about the business they lead. The goal is not just to report the results of the last quarter. (Directors can read that themselves.) Instead, senior leaders should engage the board by discussing the most pressing challenges they face and how they can address them.
While every board has unique needs shaped by the company’s operating environment, below I suggest three practices that every business leader should adopt to improve their board presentations — and their own value in within the upper echelons of the company.
1. Bring a compelling message.
The senior executive who comes to the board room usually submits a set of slides that are carefully reviewed in advance by the CEO and the legal team. In most cases, directors have already studied the material, or at least regurgitated the main points. What, then, is the purpose of the 10 to 30-minute slot allotted to the nervous presenter?
Rushing through a slide review may be useful as a quick refresher, but it doesn’t deepen the board’s understanding of the topic or demonstrate the executive’s leadership skills. Instead, every presentation should begin with a guiding thesis: a big idea or perspective that captures the main point of the discussion. Presentations that begin this way leave the audience with a compelling message.
Anne Mulcahy, who has served on several boards, including J&J, Target, LPL Financial, and Williams-Sonoma, felt frustrated by executives who wanted to convey large amounts of data and information in a series of dense reports. slides. “It seems the purpose is to show what they know about their business, he said. “It has the opposite effect. The directors don’t know what the point of the presentation is. “
In contrast, a “thesis mindset” forces the presenter to face the future rather than simply reciting the facts of the past. A thesis-driven board presentation does not have to be an ambitious proposal or a request for additional funding. But this should create an issue that needs the board’s attention. At the very least, the governing thesis tells the directors: This is where I see my part of the company going. That idea cannot be put on slide 19. It must be stated clearly and boldly at the beginning. At the very least, it provides insurance against off-topic interruptions or falling asleep mid-presentation.
2. Understand that the CEO is not the target audience.
At the time they were asked to present to the board, a member of a senior leadership team had extensive practice leading discussions with the CEO. They may even feel comfortable updating their boss, informally, with little preparation. Unfortunately, bringing the same mindset and behavior into the boardroom is a critical mistake.
“I’m always amazed at how often business unit leaders go into the boardroom and direct their conversation to their boss, rather than to the directors gathered around the table,” says Scott Miller, who has served in public and private company boards for more than two decades. Miller’s point is not just a criticism of the presentation style, but an acknowledgment that senior officers rarely consider the needs of directors.
The board of directors is a unique audience compared to the groups that executives typically participate in. They are not customers that need to be sold to. And they are not true business partners, where strategy alignment and deep familiarity with the details of business operations can be assumed.
A public company board can be comprised of business leaders, academics, former CEOs, current financial officers, and executives who bring expertise from various industries. As a rule, their range of knowledge about the company and any given subject varies greatly. Some have served on the board for more than a decade; others may attend their third or fourth meeting. There is also an unspoken (and sometimes unknown) hierarchy on the board, with its own unspoken set of alliances and scope of authority.
Ron Sugar, the Chair of the Uber board who also serves on the boards of Apple, Chevron, and Amgen, advises that the presenter’s job “is to fly at the right altitude” in the boardroom: “Dumb it down so much, and it’s at risk you insult the directors. On the other hand, no board wants to be a working group. They want to understand what issues should be on their radar screen. He suggests planning to use half of the allotted time so that the main point is reached immediately and discussion can follow.
Sugar’s advice is good. A board presentation should provide some quick refresher on the operating environment and – more importantly – identify the biggest problems that need to be fixed.
These problems will be familiar to the CEO (which should not surprise the boardroom). Directors, however, need a reminder of the key issues in an executive’s portfolio (talent, operations, regulation, or a particular geography) along with looming challenges. Too many executives miss the opportunity to frame problems properly – and make their presentations less compelling than they need to be.
The purpose of presenting the challenges is not to intimidate the board but to enlighten them and engage them in the operational and strategic questions that concern the person presenting the material.
3. Manage the presentation towards getting valuable feedback.
In a 2022 study, EY’s Center for Board Matters found that public company directors feel confident that they add value to discussions on capital allocation and succession. But few feel that the highest value they provide comes in areas like revenue growth, innovation, or disruption. Surprisingly, these latter topics are what executives often ask to be discussed when they are invited to the boardroom.
Effective leaders help balance the value directors should get from a board meeting by setting up authentic discussions that invite reaction and input. Alas, too many board presentations come to an abrupt conclusion followed by a quick call for “any questions?”
After a presentation, many leaders of business units complain that they find themselves falling down a rabbit hole of technical details caused by an unexpected and often irrelevant asked a persistent director. In most instances, the blame lies with the presenter. They are the ones who fail to have the right conversation and miss the opportunity to guide the presentation to get valuable feedback from the board.
Randy Foutch, the former CEO of Laredo Petroleum, who sat on many small and large company boards, believes that many executives “don’t have the opportunity to ask for feedback from directors with relevant experience.” He saw many executives so wary of asking directors that they silenced the directors.
Yet driving a sophisticated conversation that promotes “good questions” is the unspoken command of strong board presentations. Instead of closing comments that restate key business results, a confident executive should share two or three key ideas that will drive future success and concerns that can benefit from director’s input. In other words, the presenter should sincerely seek the point of view of the board by asking questions that have not been resolved or business risks to continue. The goal: Obtain board validation or criticism of a proposed action. The result, often, is a mix of candid feedback and intelligent, probing questions that create thoughtful engagement with the board.
During an interview, Frank Blake, the former CEO of The Home Depot, described the typical tone of a meeting between an on-the-ground store team and chief executive who stopped visiting. “What the CEO always hears is some version of: ‘You’re great. We’re doing great. Now get out.'”
The same tone of forced kindness – and counterproductive feedback – has become an all-too-common pattern for board presentations given by senior executives. They represent missed opportunities to elevate a company’s board discussions and ensure that top teams and directors gain maximum intellectual value and leadership insight from each conversation.