Darth Vader Week: Part 3 – How to Brief Senior Leadership

Thomas Fox
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Compliance Evangelist

As most of you all know, I can get carried away with one blog post and turn one post into a five-part series. Especially when it has to do with Star Wars. To honor the passing of David Prowse, I decided to dedicate this week’s blog posts to the numerous and varied lessons Darth Vader provides on both leadership and compliance. Of course, that meant I had to rewatch the original three Star Wars movies plus Rogue One but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

Today’s blog is inspired by the Darth Vader line “Apology accepted”. It comes from the movie Star Wars IV, The Empire Strikes Back, where Captain Needa has lost contact with the Millennium Falcon and goes to personally to tell Lord Vader he has lost the prey. Captain Needa seems to think that by showing loyalty and initiative by telling the truth, Vader may decide to let him live. Alas it did not end well as Darth Vader accepted his apology by killing him.

As a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) not all meetings with senior management need be quite so terminal in nature. In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, entitled “How to Brief a Senior Executive”, Grant T. Harris said that “Briefing a senior executive is an art and adept White House staffers do it every day under the most stressful of circumstances. They’re masters of compressing the right information into the right amount of time, no matter how complex the topic or short the briefing. The skills needed to brief the chief executive in the Oval Office are directly applicable to briefing any executive in the C-suite.”

Harris believes that most presenters “undervalue the interpersonal elements that are critical to a successful briefing. Your presentation can fail or succeed before it begins and your odds are worse if you skimp on the personal in favor of the PowerPoint.” He breaks down your preparation into two areas, before you go into the room and during the meeting. I have adapted them for a CCO.

Before You Walk into the Room (or Log in)

  1. Identify the “crucial nodder.” At a critical moment in the briefing, the senior executive present will look to a trusted advisor and “look for a facial expression to affirm what you’re saying. You need that person to nod “yes.” It’s a quiet gesture that gives the boss comfort; it shows that your idea is sound and all of the right people have been consulted. Even worse, a look askance or a non-endorsement from a chief advisor can spell the quick death of your pitch.” Harris suggests that before you present your idea, figure out who the crucial nodders are “and consult them in advance…You need their support — or at least a sense from them that you’re facing an uphill battle.”
  2. Know your boss’s “tells.” If you spend a lot of time with the senior executive, then you should know the nonverbal cues that indicate things like “go deeper on that point” or “speed it up.” If not, seek out people who do know and ask what to look for to know if the boss is annoyed. Find out “how best to respond to negative signals to try to shift the mood. Advance understanding of your boss’s body language will help you keep your cool and pivot in the right direction during the briefing.”
  3. Find out how the boss engages with the material. People vary in how they react to and absorb information. Some leaders question and push back (hard) on every point, large or small, in every briefing. Harris noted, “The colleagues who earned this leader’s respect were the ones who picked their battles wisely. They went with the “yes” where they could and judiciously pushed back when it counted most, showing flexibility but also confidence in their views. If you go in with an awareness of a leader’s engagement style, you’ll be better prepared to effectively convey information and respond to pushback.”
  4. Plan for gradations of success and failure. Identify what you need from a meeting before walking in the door. But as my daughter continually reminds me, do not simply think in binary terms like success and failure. Walk into the meeting with not only your “ask” but also with contingency plans for multiple scenarios of success and failure. In this way, “you can achieve a limited victory instead of a complete failure, keep an idea alive to fight another day, or, in the best case scenario, go bigger and faster in implementation.”

In the Room (or on the Video Conference Call)

  1. Read the room, not your notes. Whether the briefing is in person or virtual, you need to read cues and body language. In short, “take cues, not notes.”
  1. Stay laser focused on your task. Time pressures are always great for senior management. There are competing interests, and unforeseen circumstances can threaten to pull you off task during the meeting, so do not lose your focus. This means “If the conversation gets off track, a question causes the meeting to digress, or someone starts to rant about a pet topic, pre-plan several ways to redirect the conversation and get what you need.” Try not to deviate or raise unnecessary details to reduce the chance that a briefing will be interrupted before your ask is addressed.
  1. Practice the art of staying silent. If the discussion has taken off, you need to be exceedingly strategic about whether and when to chime in. By speaking at the wrong moment, you risk derailing the line of thought or annoying your boss. Conversely, if the discussion is trending against you, take your best shot at jumping in to try to get things back on track. Sometimes, not speaking at the wrong time is just as important as saying the right thing at the right time.

The bottom line is that there will always be circumstances beyond your control, from an unrelated crisis to the boss’s stress level that day, that could well affect your pitch. By focusing on the interpersonal dynamics ahead of time and improving your situational awareness once in the room will make you more effective. Harris concludes, “You’ll be better placed to communicate the right message under pressure, whether you’re briefing the president of the United States, a C-suite executive, or any leader.”

Have some fun and learn some meeting presentation lessons by checking out this clip on YouTube. It should give you pause to recall that some meeting can end badly, very badly if you do not prepare properly.

Apology Accepted

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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