The corporate board is often described as a black box, a powerful members-only club. For some executives, however, the time will come when the club door will swing open, and they’ll be ushered inside. When that day arrives for you, you want to be ready.
An invitation to present to the board is a badge of honor, says Rich Fields, head of the board effectiveness practice at Russell Reynolds. “You don’t get asked to do that if you’re not kind of a big deal at the organization.”
Although the board’s agenda determines who’s asked to speak, the CEO, who makes the invitation, might have their own motive, too, says Jeff Wong, EY’s chief innovation officer. CEOs often want to expose the board to someone worthy of a major leadership role in the future. That way, directors are familiar with the employee when the CEO floats their name at the next board meeting. And if those directors like what they see, they’ll also have more confidence in the CEO’s leadership.
Moreover, engaging with the board and getting exposure may be your stepping stone to landing a future board seat.
The stakes are admittedly high for an executive asked to present to the board, but—and this is paramount—put that aside as you prepare for your big day. The best way to hit the mark during your boardroom debut is to stay focused on your mission, and meet your audience’s needs, says Lisa Edwards, executive chair of the Diligent Institute. (Diligent sponsors this newsletter.) Here’s what that means and how to do it.
Focus on the topic at hand, not every topic under your sun. This was the No.1 piece of advice from every board member, executive, and governance expert interviewed for this guide. When you’re presenting to the board, your mission is to stay narrowly focused on the subjects that most closely align with its goals.
Be selective even if asked to give a general update: What matters most to the board? What are the two or three takeaways you need to drive home? This isn’t a data dump, nor is it about showcasing all of your deep knowledge. It’s about delivering specific information.
Turning the presentation into a show-and-tell moment is the most common error executives make when first appearing in the boardroom, says Edwards. “It’s human nature that you want to show your expertise,” she says. But you can do that by demonstrating you understand the board’s role in the firm. “They don’t want to run your business,” she says. “They want to get assurances that you’re on top of it.”
Hold a premeeting and ask questions. Most board presentations are meant to either a) keep the board informed about a key area of business or b) supply data and context to help the board go deeper on a topic when a strategic decision is needed. Your job in the premeeting with whoever invited you to meet the board—usually the CEO—is to find out exactly what the board expects from you and what they already know.
The questions to ask, according to Fields: What is the key message I need to get across? What actions do I need to get from the board? What questions should I anticipate? What has the board heard about or decided on the subject already?
This pregame tête-à-tête also helps executives understand how much time they should spend preparing the presentation. According to Fields, practiced presenters spend 10 to 15 times the allotted presentation time on prep work. But Deborah Rubin, senior partner and head of RHR International’s Board & CEO Services division, warns that senior team members often spend an outsized amount of time—days or weeks—on boardroom prep, creating unnecessary anxiety and taking the focus off of day-to-day business, when the potential return on investment may not match the effort.
At smaller companies, executives may have preexisting relationships with board members and should feel comfortable inviting them to a coffee, says Yasmene Mumby, a leadership coach who has worked with organizations like the ACLU, International Rescue Committee, and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “Instead of at the board meeting that’s very public, and everyone is waiting for something juicy to happen, meet people where they are before the meeting, understand what they care about,” she suggests.
Make your presentation memorable
Only once you understand the scope of your mission can you start preparing your meeting materials: a pre-read deck, slides (if you plan to use them), and the general outline for your short talk. Here’s a lightning round of advice to make your material and delivery stand out:
– Keep your pre-read laser-focused. You’ll be asked to submit reading for the meeting’s “board book,” a collection of documents that board members are expected to read and digest before arriving at a meeting. The length of your pre-read deck will vary depending on the topic and ask. However, some say limiting the pre-read to five pages is a good rule of thumb. Fields typically advises executives to create a first draft and then trim it by half. Peggy Foran, chief governance officer at Prudential and a longtime National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) faculty member, likewise argues that the pre-read has to relay tailored information in as few pages as possible. Use bullet points, she says.
When you feel compelled to add details to flesh out your pre-read, remember that there’s always an appendix. That’s where full financial statements will land and you can slip in additional reading. “By the way, you’d be surprised, a lot of board members go deep into the appendix,” says Jocelyn Mangan, a board member at Papa John’s and CEO of Him For Her, which aims to improve gender diversity on boards.
– Don’t ignore the raw data, especially when it’s requested. Keeping your presentation materials short and well-structured is essential, but some board members—especially new ones or activist investors turned directors—will want to see raw data rather than a carefully curated report. If boards ask for raw data and only receive selected, packaged charts and narratives, says Rubin, they may worry that the company’s leadership team lacks transparency. If you’re unclear on how much detail to offer, ask the CEO or the company’s corporate secretary for a sample presentation.
– Plan on sharing very few, if any, slides. While your pre-read must be carefully edited, your slide deck ought to be positively minimalist. Fields challenges executives to use one slide—to perhaps find one striking visual—to drive home a point.
– Mind your speaking-to-listening ratio. The biggest mistake you can make in a 30-minute presentation is to prepare a 30-minute speech, warns Foran. If you want to get the most bang for your buck, speak for no more than 10 minutes and use the rest of the time to converse with the seasoned professionals in the room. Listen to the directors’ insights, and take their questions.
– Avoid jargon. If technical terms can not be avoided, include a glossary. Your board presentation and pre-reading can include an educational component for meaty topics like data privacy or sustainability, but the “lesson” shouldn’t take over. Stay out of the weeds as much as possible and offer to send follow-up material.
– Start with the conclusion. Time-pressed directors get impatient and frustrated with long introductions, says Fields. Instead, say, “Let me start at the end and then provide more detail.” Or, “Here’s the decision we need to make, and here’s where we need your input.” Opening with that one-line scene-setter is “profoundly obvious,” Fields adds, “yet somehow not universally used.”
– Do not read from a script. Nor should you read your slides. “What I want is the color behind it, the nuance,” says Edwards. “Let’s have a conversation about the possible risks or opportunities associated with what you’re talking about.”
– Provide context. Offering a backdrop helps board members come to their own conclusions about data, Edwards says. “So our risk score has improved. Is that good or bad? What do we look like versus the industry? What do we look like versus our named competitors in the proxy? How do we hold up overall?”
– Remember that boards aren’t insiders. “You see the business every day,” says Michael Maggio, CEO of Reciprocity, a cybersecurity software company. But unlike you and the colleagues you normally present to, the board has spent maybe 30 minutes on this topic in the last 90 days.
“If you’re presenting to a board that you presented to before, give them an update,” Rubin advises. “Link from where you were, what they asked for, what happened, and where you’re moving forward.”
– Connect to the company’s mission. “Executives should always remember that the board’s fiduciary duty is long-term value creation for shareholders while taking other stakeholders into consideration,” Sonita Lontoh, a director at the solar company Sunrun and the workforce solutions firm TrueBlue, suggests in an email to Fortune. “As such, when executives present to the board, they should share insights as to how their topic is helping the company to better navigate material risks and opportunities for long-term value creation.”
– Report the good, the bad, the unclear. Want to demonstrate your leadership skills? Be upfront about what is and isn’t working in your area of business. It may take courage, but it’s your job and an essential part of building trust, says EY’s Wong, who regularly reports to the consulting firm’s board. “The number one thing I want them to know is I’m going to tell them the truth.”
Ashley Kramer, CMSO at GitLab, says her company uses a green, yellow, and red color coding system to give board members a visual guide to where initiatives stand. Most importantly, she says, tell the board how the company plans to keep the good things going and what it will do to monitor and mitigate risks and trouble spots.
– Make the experience tactile. When it makes sense, EY’s Wong allows board members to play with new products or emerging technology as he delivers the presentation. “How do you make it so they can see, feel, and touch it inside their environment?” Wong says. “You don’t just talk about what it is in theory. You show it to them in action.” For product managers and developers, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the potential return on investing in an innovative idea or educate the board about a new development—like virtual learning or ChatGPT—that may impact the company.
That’s a start! Next week’s newsletter will feature the second half of this guide, covering what to expect during your presentation, how to calm public speaking anxiety, and tips to handle inevitable snafus.
IMAX appointed Jen Wong, COO of Reddit, and Gail Berman, CEO of The Jackal Group, to its board. Union Square Venture’s Fred Wilson is taking over as chair of the board for SoundCloud. Gavin Patterson, former CRO at Salesforce, and Francesco de Mojana, a former partner at Permira, are joining the Wix corporate board; Yuval Cohen and Roy Saar are stepping down. Vista Outdoor announced that Tig Krekel has resigned from its board effective immediately. Stelios Papadopoulos, chair of the Biogen board, will resign following the company’s general meeting in June; board member Caroline Dorsa will replace him. Former Boeing CFO Greg Smith was elected to become the independent chair of American Airlines, effective April 30; directors Ray Robinson and Jim Albaugh are resigning from the airline’s board.
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- Remote work has put more pressure on corporate offsites as the venues for employee bonding. Companies are learning to schedule plenty of unstructured time rather than back-to-back programming.
- Pension funds are pushing back against GOP governments that want to ban companies with ESG agendas from investing in state-run plans. In other words, the backlash to the anti-ESG backlash has begun.
- Greenwashing might be as cynical as it sounds. A global study found that companies that add sustainability committees to their boards see an increase in market value but little change in their carbon footprints.
- The change might be temporary—and let’s hope it is—but the push for greater boardroom diversity has slowed, according to a new report by Heidrick & Struggles.
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