How to Wow a Senior Exec

November 28, 2012 by Heather McIlvaine 0

(Photo: istockphoto.com)

You may not have first-class travel privileges or experience giving interviews on CNN, but as “just” an employee, you have something that most of your C-level colleagues don’t: subject matter expertise. That’s why top decision-makers often look down the ladder for counsel. If a senior executive turns to you for input on the business, you’ll likely have less than 30 minutes to get your point across. How do you ensure that the meeting is a success?

To find out, we spoke to SAP employees with experience presenting to senior executives. They shared their advice on how to profile an exec’s personality in advance; avoiding common pitfalls, and why, sometimes, you have to say ‘no.’

 Top Tips

Do your homework

“If you have a meeting with a senior executive, get in touch with their assistant to find out who’s available to prepare with you. Reach out to these people. They will help you hone in on the focus of the meeting so you can optimize the executive’s time and knowledge – do your homework.” – Geoff Kerr, Chief of Staff to Sanjay Poonen, President and Corporate Officer, SAP Technology Solutions and Head of the Mobile Division

“Be concise. You have time to present three main messages or ‘asks’ at most, so you really need to focus your presentation on the information executives need to make a decision. They want to know what it is you’re doing, how it relates to corporate strategy, what the impact will be, and how much it’s going to cost. They’re usually not interested in the tactical details.” – James Dymond, SAP Investor Relations

“Do your homework on the executive in advance. Find out if they’re open communicators, or more formal. I was preparing a presentation to recommend a huge technology purchase for one senior executive at SAP, and I saw that he was on Twitter. So I looked at his comments and saw that we were fairly aligned from a technology standpoint. The presentation then became more of a conversation. But you need to know in advance if your audience is the kind that will value this kind of engagement.” – Moya Watson, Technology Evangelist and Project Consultant

“Make sure you always come armed with data that supports your point of view – either anecdotal or quantitative.” – Krista Ruhe, Head of Communications for SAP Marketing

“I don’t care how seasoned you are at giving presentations, when you stand up in front of an audience it’s really hard to get your point across easily and eloquently. The thing that makes you successful is simply practice, practice, practice.” – Tara Degler, Director of Employee Communications for SAP Global Communications

Make it a conversation

“You have to realize you’re not the only one in the room. It’s a two-way street, and you should listen as much as you talk.” – Moya Watson

“A lot of people have volumes of information on their subject, and they end up doing all the talking. Then they run out of time without having any interaction. You should be prepared to ask some really good questions. You don’t need to have all the answers or show off how much you know.” – Geoff Kerr

“Don’t be afraid if the executive leads you off-script, or if they take the presentation in a different direction than you planned. That’s a good thing. It means they’re thinking about what you’re saying and not multi-tasking.” – Krista Ruhe

“Senior executives have their own targets and goals, so you have to make your presentation relevant to that. Ideally, you will know their goals before you walk into the room, but if you don’t, that’s the first thing you need to figure out. Ask them open-ended questions and really be tuned in to what they’re saying.” – James Dymond

Know what you bring to the table

“If you’re presenting to a senior executive, it’s because they want your expertise. So make sure you go in there with a strong point of view. Try not to be deferential. If you have a bit of a controversial opinion and a deep knowledge of the topic, you’ll be much more effective.” – Krista Ruhe

“There’s a certain way to say ‘no’ – and this depends on the executive. They might make a suggestion that you don’t think will really work. You have to realize what it is they want to accomplish, and then offer your own suggestion – using statistics or concrete examples from your experience – of how they can better achieve those results. Quite often you gain more respect when you push back in a smart way.” – James Dymond

“Executives are seeking other people’s expertise all the time. They want to know what you know. It’s not a test. One executive I work with compared it to an admiral walking onto a warship. He doesn’t want to talk to the officers; he wants to talk to the people in the engine room. He wants to hear the truth about what’s working and what’s not. The smart executives know what’s happening on the front lines, and they’re willing to hear the good, bad, and ugly.” – Geoff Kerr

Avoid these mistakes

“Don’t try to be too funny, especially if you’re dealing with a very international audience. You never know how it’s going to come across, or if a joke might be inappropriate in another culture.” – Tara Degler

“One time, I was working with an executive, who kept postponing our meetings. So of course, when we finally sat down together, I had a huge list of things that needed his approval. And I sort of bombarded him with all these tasks without really thinking about his priorities and his agenda. Needless to say, the meeting did not go well.” – James Dymond

“Be yourself. The biggest mistake I see people make is when they feel they have to talk ‘executive talk.’ They end up losing themselves and the subject matter expertise they bring to the table. The content you bring might need to be adjusted to the executive level, but that shouldn’t change how you say it.” – Tara Degler

Still looking for tips? Read this Harvard Business Review article for expert Nancy Duarte’s advice on presenting to senior executives.

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