How to Successfully Present to a Higher-up at Work (Without Freaking Out)
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A business idea pops into your head. It’s a good one—solid enough for you to summarize and run up the chain of command. A few weeks go by, and you nearly forgot about it—that is, until your manager informs you that you’re on the agenda to present your idea—to the CEO.
Minutes later, you’re having a mini-meltdown, imagining the worst-case scenario in which you humiliate yourself in front of the company head during the one face-time opportunity you’ve had since you got the job.
Presenting to a C-suite executive or senior manager, especially when you’re entry-level or somewhere in the middle, requires a different set of skills compared to run-of-the-mill speaking presentations. Because the roles of these high-level staff are quite different than the mid-level managers you may be used to working with, their objectives, communication styles, and decision-making methods are going to be distinct as well.
But whether you’re pitching an idea for a new product, process, or other special initiative, you’ve got this. All you need is some solid preparation and a few adjustments to your usual delivery style.
I turned to two C-suite executives for guidance on how to pull off this next-level career move like a rockstar. Here are their top seven lessons:
1. Know What You’re Asking For
What’s your goal? Is it to get the executive’s support? Will you need her advice, expertise, resources, or influence to make your idea a reality? Whatever the case, Anne Cooney, President of Process Industries and Drives at Siemens, advises being specific about how the leader can support your success. Cooney explains, “If you’re just providing [her] with information or an update,” says Cooney, make that clear.
But if you have a bigger ask, don’t shy away from explaining what’s involved. Whatever your goal is, be direct on whether you need her to take action or simply give her approval.
2. Make it Relevant
Before you begin preparing slides, recommends Cooney, take time to understand the executive’s role, interests, and level. For example, it may be relevant to understand that while your CEO can greenlight your project, the COO approves new equipment investments, the CFO advises on whether the purchase should take place this quarter, and then the VP signs the purchase order, which indicates there’re often a lot of wheels that need to be in motion for something to happen.
Research each executive’s role and responsibilities before preparing your pitch. Says Cooney, “Make sure the information you share has an impact on the leader’s scope of responsibility.”
3. Inform But Don’t Overwhelm
So what is the best method for being informative without overwhelming a high-level exec? I asked Ann Finkner, Senior Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer with Farm Credit Services of America, this very question. “Executives have varying needs for information,” she told me. “You may have one executive who wants more detail,” while maybe another “prefers a different way of receiving updates.”
Find out what you can expect by speaking with people who know the person well. Ask the assistant and direct reports about the boss’ preferred presentation format, methods of communication, and decision-making style. Does he prefer a detailed plan or executive summary? Will he ask questions throughout or wait until the end? Craft your approach with knowledge you glean about the leader’s management style before you go in.
4. Cut Your Time in Half
“Time is so precious to all of us,” says Finkner, emphasizing the importance of communicating your idea concisely. Executives, who are accustomed to people vying for their attention, tend to lead highly scheduled lives. Your meeting, though your most important priority, is undoubtedly just one of many things going on in the higher-up’s day.
Which brings to me to my next point: If he or she is running late, roll with it—there’s probably a good reason. Even if the meeting starts on time, it’s highly likely that you’ll get cut short, so be prepared to deal with an abbreviated agenda. Your goal should be to pitch the idea and leave time for discussion and questions.
5. Be Mindful of the Idea’s Impact
Being aware of how your idea might affect the company at large is essential. It’s also an often-forgotten element of a thorough presentation. As part of your preparation, consider what will change as a result of what you’re proposing. If it’s going to require significant changes in how your organization does business, be sure to address this head on. Will a colleague feel snubbed if it’s your innovative plan that’s accepted and not hers? Will forming a new team require recruiting employees from an existing one? Will a certain department be slapped with a ton more responsibilities?
Explains Finkner, “Don’t leave ‘human casualties’ behind that the executive then has to address on your behalf.” Include your plan for incorporating team members and dividing the workload. Demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.
6. Include Recommendations and Options
When it comes to the crux of what you’re saying—asking an exec to give your idea his blessing or help your team implement it, you should be ready with recommendations on how he can help you get it done. Present options, suggests Cooney. Articulate what will happen if your proposal gets approved, and be prepared to compromise.
“If you give a recommendation or you have a specific conclusion that you'd like to reach, be passionate about it but also be open to modifications or clarification,” Cooney encourages. Always be willing to negotiate.
7. Don’t Be Intimidated
Whatever you do, don’t let your nerves get in the way of this opportunity. The level and tenure of a senior person shouldn’t make you feel like an imposter. “Differentiate between the title and the person,” says Cooney, adding that company founders and leaders “are not better people.” The job they’re doing is different, but, Cooney reiterates, that doesn’t make them “better people. Don’t let anybody convince you otherwise.”
Finkner’s parting advice closely follows Cooney’s: “Have faith in yourself. Take care of yourself and foster genuine relationships while you keep learning.”
It’s normal to feel some trepidation about giving a high-stakes presentation to an influential audience—heck, or any presentation to any audience—but know that just being brave enough to do it is an accomplishment. Even a failed pitch is a win when you look at it this way, so go for it!