Understanding the Project Sponsor Role

Many executives become project sponsors, because they want a new product or a service to improve their business operations. Everyone expects the sponsors to know their role, and how they are supposed to work. While there are qualifications required to become a project manager (PM), there are none for a sponsor. The sponsor’s role is an important role, but what exactly are they meant to do? Continue reading “Understanding the Project Sponsor Role”

What Makes an IT Strategy Good or Bad?

Most CIOs would claim to have an IT strategy, but what makes some IT strategies ‘good’ and others ‘bad’? Recently there was a discussion on LinkedIn on this topic. Here are some noteworthy comments from that discussion about what makes a good IT strategy.

‘A great IT strategy that sits on the shelf is useless, and a bad IT strategy that gets executed can be even more harmful.’ Continue reading “What Makes an IT Strategy Good or Bad?”

IT Leaders Guide for Making Effective Board Presentations

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.

  1. First is the ‘state-of-the-union’. Here an executive is giving an annual update for the business unit.
  2. Second is a ‘request for approval’ for a new project or initiative.
  3. 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.

Winning tips

Preparation

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Content

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Finding and demonstrating IT value

Some commonly heard complaints about IT are ‘we are spending too much on IT’, or ‘IT is a black-hole’. While IT aspires to become a strategic business partner, business folks complain about the lack of trust between IT and business or the lack of a common language between the two. Business does not know if IT is doing a good job and many IT leaders cannot communicate how they are creating value for the business.

A book by Hunter and Westerman, “Real Business of IT” provides a four step process for finding and communicating IT value. I thought I would share their key ideas. Continue reading “Finding and demonstrating IT value”

Elevator pitch for your proposals

Why do you need an “Elevator Pitch”?

When you are a project owner, manager or a sponsor you get asked what the project is about. This is important because bosses, employees, customers, and partners all need to “buy in” and get excited about your idea. They will form an initial impression in three minutes or less. This first impression is the lens through which everything else is viewed. If you are not able to clearly communicate what the project is about and why you are doing it, then the chances of getting the necessary funding or support for the project will rapidly diminish. Busy executives get bombarded with ideas and proposal many times every day. Even when you have a great idea, if they don’t understand it quickly the opportunity is lost.

A well-articulated message or an ‘elevator pitch’, while not a guarantee of success, is an important part of selling an idea. The problem is that many people don’t have a prepared pitch or story that they can tell and so the opportunity to sell an idea walks out of the door.

What is an ‘Elevator Pitch’?

An elevator pitch is a crisp message that communicates key features of the project in a succinct way so that others can easily understand it. Imagine if you get asked about the project in the lift going up to your office. Can you communicate what the project is about before the elevator gets from the ground to the tenth floor?

A good elevator pitch covers what problem you are trying to solve, who it will benefit (i.e. the customers), how you are going to solve it (the solution approach), what efforts/ investments are required (e.g. time, resources and money) and what the next steps are (i.e. what support you need). An elevator pitch is intended to give just enough information to get others interested in your proposition without overwhelming them with a flood of information.

An elevator pitch is a tool to help you communicate your proposition or your idea to others who have a stake in its success. To start, you need to have done your homework and have a clear idea about the ‘project’. It is worth spending some time with your team to prepare answers to following basic questions.

An elevator pitch is a tool to help you communicate your proposition or your idea to others who have a stake in its success. To start, you need to have done your homework and have a clear idea about the ‘project’. It is worth spending some time with your team to prepare answers to following basic questions.

Step 1 – Describe the Problem or the Opportunity

  1. What motivated you to launch this idea? What is the key problem or need? A real life story or scenario about the problem helps the audience understand the problem or need in personal terms and agree that it is an interesting problem that needs fixing.
  2. Who else is doing something similar? What problems or success have they encountered?
  3. How long would it take?

Step 2 – Define Your Solution to the Problem

  1. What is your approach to solving the problem? Where do you start? When do the first results appear?
  2. Is what you are delivering different from what others are delivering? In what way? What are the alternatives?
  3. Who would be the users or customers? Would it be easy or difficult for them to use/adopt this?
  4. How would the solution benefit the customers, save time, save costs, increase quality or generate more revenue? Are the benefits easy to see?
  5. When would these benefits be delivered? How much it would cost?

Step 3 – Describe the Implementation Plan and Risks

  1. What are the key activities in the implementation?
  2. What are the key decisions that need to be made?
  3. Who will do the work (e.g. internal staff or suppliers)? Do we have the skills or expertise to do the project?
  4. Who will oversee the implementation? Who is involved in making the key decisions?
  5. What are the major deliverables or milestones? When will they occur?
  6. What are the key risks and how you are addressing them?

Step 4 – What Funding is Available and what is Needed?

  1. Do you have enough funding to do the project?
  2. Where is the funding coming from?
  3. Do you have full funding or there are progressive rounds of funding? What are the milestones (or success measures) for additional funding?

Step 5 – Describe the Support Needed to Ensure Success

  1. Who is supporting this initiative? Why are they supporting it?
  2. What type of support are they providing?
  3. How do you plan to communicate/sell the project internally? What opposition do you see?

Step 6 – Consolidate, Practice and Deliver

There are a number of questions to consider in preparing the pitch. Based on your situation only a few would be included for your pitch. But having considered these questions you would have fully analysed the opportunity and will be ready to face questions that may arise.

Delivering the pitchThe pitch is a tool to educate and communicate so be clear, don’t use jargon! Create a tag line that captures the essence of the idea, e.g. “loans approved in five minutes” or “eliminating errors by data entry using smart phones”. Focus on the opportunity problem you’ve encountered and why your solution is the best for providing value and benefit to the customer. Make the argument compelling.

A typical closing statement may be – “We are solving an important problem, with a solution that works. We understand the risks and challenges ahead. We have a team that can execute. We need X dollars to reach Y milestone. We need your support to help us achieve this success. “

Keep the pitch concise and conversational. A pitch that has about 230 words would take a minute to deliver. Don’t come across as if you are lecturing or giving a long monologue. Ask a question to engage the listener. Your pitch needs to be credible. Avoid the temptation to overpromise or underestimate the cost or efforts. Use hard numbers wherever possible to demonstrate that you have done your homework. Be specific about the benefits and the support or resources needed for success. Tailor your pitch to the needs and interests of your audience while keeping the basic message consistent.  Finally, practice delivering your pitch on your team and colleagues. Time it to keep it short but relevant. Show passion and confidence. Ask them to join the crusade.

If, as a result of your pitch, they want to know more and invite you for a meeting you have succeeded in your task!

Acknowledgement: This article is based on a lecture by Prof. Lynda M. Applegate at Harvard Business School.