For any company executive, fronting up to a board meeting and presenting is a daunting challenge. You work hard all year but the board sees you only a couple of times during that time. You have to package everything you do in a brief presentation. CIOs have an additional challenge. Boards are rarely interested in technology. They don’t understand the jargon.
If you don’t present well or fail to engage the board, it does not matter how efficient you are or how good your proposal is. Worse, a poor impression may even derail a career. In such an environment engaging effectively with boards, making good impressions and getting that funding request approved can be a major challenge.
Over my career, I had to present to the boards several times in different companies. This article, based on my experience and that of colleagues, aims to offer guidance to CIOs and other IT executives who want to win the board game.
Role of the board of directors
Before starting to put together a board presentation, it is important to understand the role of company board of directors. The board chooses the chief executive and approves the appointment of senior executives. The board’s role is to direct and control the company. The board must understand how proposed actions will impact the company’s performance. Direction setting includes overseeing strategic planning and major decisions. The control function requires that the board watch the company activities, systematically managing risks and compliance.
In short, the board is focused strategic planning, major decisions, performance monitoring, risk management and senior management capability. Typically, the boards don’t get involved in the details of execution, which is the responsibility of the CEO. Hence the board has to be satisfied with the ability of the CEO and his leadership team.
Every interaction with the board is an opportunity to show that you are a capable business leader; they can trust your judgement and have confidence in your ability to lead and execute. If the board trusts your business judgement, you will have greater influence and your recommendations will be viewed favorably It’s an opportunity to shine but there is also the real risk of revealing your weaknesses. This just emphasises the importance of the interaction. The challenge becomes even more acute as a typical IT executive may only get one or two opportunities to get in front of the board. Typically board presentations are only 15 to 30 minutes or less. As a result, it is vitally important to get it right.
Board presentations fall into three categories.
- First is the ‘state-of-the-union’. Here an executive is giving an annual update for the business unit.
- Second is a ‘request for approval’ for a new project or initiative.
- Third is the ‘please explain’. The board wants more information on an issue / risk or event that could impact on business performance.
Board members are generally not technology literate. For technology investments, the CIO needs to show how the technology would improve business performance e.g. customer service, profits, revenues, compliance etc. They want to know if the benefits from the new initiative exceed the technology and implementation risks. The CIO has to satisfy the board that the risks are understood and effectively controlled.
Now that we understand the board’s role and focus, it is time to begin the preparation. It is a mistake to underestimate the preparation time. I remember planning a preparation 3 – 4 months before the scheduled board meeting and this is not unusual. Status updates and proposals are scheduled to give presenters ample time to prepare, while the ‘please explain’ request can arise with a short notice.
- Understand the board submission process – Companies have well-defined processes and protocols to be followed for board submissions. Take time to understand the process, what is the accepted format (text document or PowerPoint, cover sheet), what are the pre-submission approval processes (e.g. CEO sign-off, leadership team run-through), what are the deadlines for submission. Getting these wrong can derail your presentations before the starting gate. Talk to others, get copies of the previous submissions. The company secretary is an authentic source and is also responsible for the board agenda.
- Understand what is on the board agenda – Make sure you understand what is on the full agenda. Research the current business priorities and challenges and talk to the other presenters to understand their proposals. If proper, coordinate your message with that of the others. This will avoid repetition (or worse contradictions) and help the team express a consistent message.
- Research board members – Try and understand more about the board members, their background, special interest or expertise and technology knowledge. Find out who are more active or influential around the board table and their focus areas. Try to understand their capacity to understand technical information.
Whether you are an IT leader or Marketing leader the board looks upon you as a member of the senior leadership team. Always keep this in mind for the board interactions.
- Align the message to the board’s interest and needs – Align your message to themes like company strategic goals, effective governance and risk control, business growth and efficiency, customer service etc. These will resonate better than release upgrades, infrastructure investments, virtualization and service-oriented architecture, etc.
- Eliminate jargon and use business language – Use of jargon is the quickest way to lose the board’s interest. What is obvious to the technology literate younger generation may be incomprehensible to many board members. Talk about how IT (or the current proposal) is supporting or enabling business, helping improve customer experience, reducing time to market. Better still get the business sponsor to co-present business proposals. Talk about how you are addressing risks via compliance, disaster planning and governance.
- Sell opportunities at the executive table first – If you have new ideas or approaches discuss these with the CEO and business executives first. You may have to do significant groundwork to get them on board with new opportunities. If they agree, it is quite likely the CEO will discuss it informally with the Chairman or other board members. One has to defend ideas at the board table, not raise new ones.
- Keep at high level but prepare for a deep-dive – The board presentations are brief. 15 -30 minutes is what is on the agenda. In reality, it could be shorter. Keep the message at the strategic level but be ready with facts and figures to back it up. Board members tend to ask lot of questions, so prepare for these. Get help from CEO and CFO to find out what questions to expect.
- Research the company history– Board members can have long memories. Check if this idea/ proposal has been tried before, and, if so, was it successful? Did the projects deliver? Why not? How will it be different this time? Failure to research and address these questions may mean a lack of approval or a delay.
Get ready to deliver
- Rehearse and rehearse again – With time short and pressure high don’t leave anything to chance. Make sure you are on top of all the presentation material and the facts. Try a dry run with your team and the executive team if necessary. Get their opinion and revise.
- Write down questions and answers – It is easy to forget answers when under pressure. Write down the questions and answers and keep them at hand. Practice Q & A with your team.
- Prepare a two-minute version – Board meetings can be unpredictable. Presentation time can be cut drastically. State your purpose clearly and be ready to succinctly summarise your report / proposal. Seek to gain support for one key point that moves the board in the desired direction.
- Get ready for interruptions – Questions can start as soon as you stand up. They have read your submission. Don’t let these questions derail your presentation. Pause, breathe and smile before answering each question. Turn negative questions into positive answers. At all costs avoid blaming anyone. Stick to the facts.
Follow these tips and you are on your way to winning the board game. All the best for your next presentation! For a further discussion on how you can effectively engage with the board, please contact author.