Handling the Seven Deadly Challenges at the Top

In our research with senior leaders and middle management, we discovered there are seven communication problems that come up again and again. So we asked the C-levels how middle managers should handle these problems. Here is what they told us:

Time Cut

The most common unexpected problem presenters have to deal with is having their time cut. Perhaps you go in expecting to have 30 minutes on the agenda, only to be told, ‘We’re running behind. You now have ten minutes.â? What do you do?

As Sharon Black, District President of Robert Half International says, ‘You should have two presentations, one that is for the amount of time you are given, and the second is for five minutes.â? In your five minute back up version cover:

– What is your bottom line, what do you need
– What is the cost advantage and the ROI.

The 10 / 30 Rule
A new mindset in terms of timing is what we call ‘The 10/30 Rule.â? This simply means that you should prepare material for only about one third of the time you’ve been allotted. Realize that the executives will take about 2/3 of the time for discussion. As Ned Barnholt put it, for a 30 minute presentation all you need to prepare is three slides, three minutes / slide = about 10 minutes of material.

Work the Clock
Keep track of your time, and if you find yourself running out of time before you’ve covered all your material, be ready to jettison what is left and go to your final slides, and ‘ask for the order.â?

The Elevator Pitch
In addition to the five minute version of your presentation, the Elevator Pitch can get you out of tight spots. In the hallway, or in a fast moving Q&A session this can get your point across quickly. Use the PREP model:

P: Your position or what you want (your bottom line)
R: Reason you want it, including the ROI
E: Example or piece of evidence for support
P: Repetition of what you want


‘You have 30 seconds to get my attention. After that, I’m on my BlackBerry,â? says Steve Blank, Founder and former CEO of E.Piphany .
In today’s world, with PDAs and cell phones at the ready, and the internet calling your executive audience, you may lose them within the first minute.

The Problem
Even if you get and hold their attention beyond the 30 second mark, later in your presentation, you may notice executives checking their email, or worse, just nodding off. It is easy to take offense and assume they are being rude, but according to Ned Barnholt, Former CEO, Agilent Technologies, these are very quick people, and they are good at multitasking.

Furthermore, these are Type ‘A’ personalities with lots on their plates, and it may actually be a good use of their time to be checking other things during the meeting. So, what to do?

The key here is to understand what is going on, figure out what to do, then take action. The last thing you want to do is ignore what is going on and somehow hope for the best. Maybe they’ll spontaneously come back to your presentation. Unlikely. Better idea, use the READ approach:

R: Read the room and notice what is happening
E: Evaluate the situation
A: Acknowledge what you are seeing
D: Determine next steps and take action

Take Action
Move out of ‘presentation mode’ and into ‘process mode,’ that is, make a comment about what is going on, making sure to blame yourself not them. For example: ‘I’m concerned my presentation is not hitting the mark. Is this still an important topic for everyone?â? This may get them back. If not, check with your sponsor who may be able to pull them back on topic. If all this fails, and they admit that the topic is no longer engaging to them, better to find it out now rather than wasting another 25 minutes of their (and your) precious time. It is then time to gracefully disengage.

Food Fight

‘The war between R&D and Sales and Marketing was vivid and alive in every discussion,â? according to Ginger Graham, Board member, former CEO, Amylin Pharmaceuticals.

The Problem
Something you say in your presentation triggers a debate between two or three of the senior executives. Quickly it spirals into a range war. The debate can involve resources, old simmering disputes, previous mistakes, or whatever. You are a guest at their meeting, and do not have the power to stop the fighting. Left unattended, the Food Fight can eat into your time and sidetrack the entire discussion. What to do?

First, listen carefully to the issues being fought over. As you get clarity about this, using active listening, or paraphrasing skills, you may be able to quickly frame the opposing positions so they see that you are really listening and that you care. For example, ‘Well, it sounds like R&D feels they are doing the heavy lifting, while Sales and Marketing believe the cost is too high. Is that it?â? As you do this intervention, be sure and step into the group, and maintain a strong stance. It is possible this will help the group calm down and get refocused. Or, it might not.

If your attempt to break up the Food Fight doesn’t work, you’ll need to get help from your sponsor. Since your sponsor does have some authority in the group, he or she may be able to get the group to put aside their differences and refocus on your presentation.

Along the way, be sure to use the ‘process check’ to reconfirm that this topic is worth discussing, and that a decision needs to be made.

Decision Maker Leaves

You’re feeling nervous presenting to the top level. You’re so focused on your slides, you fail to notice when the key decision maker furtively takes a call then exits quickly. Being unaware of what has happened not only slows down decision making, but makes you look clueless.

The Problem
Failing to notice the power vacuum caused by the unexpected departure may cause the other executives to feel at a loss. At that point it’s useless for the presenter to keep soldiering on. What needs to be determined is what to do next… call a break? wait for the person to return? make the decision without him or her? A presenter who has the psychological bandwidth to realize what has happened will ‘call an audible,â? as they say in football.

Since you do not have the authority to make a unilateral decision about what to do next, you need to get advice either from the departing executive, or from the group, if the executive has been so quick that they are out of the room before you notice.

When the executive is gone, check with the group and get their advice about what to do. Something like, ‘Since the CEO has left, what should we do next? Should I take a break and wait for him or her to return, or, should we go ahead with my presentation and make a decision on our own?â? Usually the group will want to push ahead with the presentation and make a decision. Someone can later let the CEO know what was decided.

A better solution is for you to be cognizant of what is going on in the room and stop the senior leader before they reach and door with a quick and polite inquiry, ‘Excuse me Brenda, I notice you have to leave. What would you like us to do? Shall I wait until you come back, or should we push ahead without you?â? The executive’s response will make the road ahead clearer. In addition you will have a better shot at getting what you want, and also look like an executive who can improvise when the game changes all of a sudden.

Topic Change

‘You have to be willing to abandon the middle part of your presentation, participate in their conversation, and lead it to where you want it to go, which is to your bottom line conclusion,â? says Robert Drolet, retired Brigadier General and defense industry executive.

You put weeks, if not months, into your presentation, only to find that the group suddenly wants to talk about something else, something not on the agenda. Many presenters at this point get frustrated and try to push their agenda anyway. Not a good move. Topics may change because of new business priorities. Something may have come up in the meeting that causes people to lurch in a new direction.

Rather than trying to ignore the new direction, acknowledge what you are hearing, ‘So, it seems like the agenda has shifted from a marketing concern to a supply chain concern. Have I got this right? Do you want to change the agenda and handle my topic later?â? This says that you are aware of what has happened and that you are flexible enough to move in a new direction.

If you are prepared to talk about the new topic, you can move quickly into the new area. Although it may be hard to give up the preparation you’ve done, your willingness to, as Drolet says, ‘abandon the middle of the presentation’ and go with the new discussion will show you as a team player. With luck, you may be able to bring it around to your topic as the discussion time runs out.

You may also be able to use your sponsor to move the other executives back on to the original agenda. In either event, be sure to wrap up with a clear agreement to follow up with whatever is decided.

Side Talk

“You can’t shush the executive audience,” says Audrey MacLean, founder, NET, and former CEO of Adaptive. While you can demand attention and even call out side talkers on your own team, when speaking up, such action would be seriously career limiting. But on the other hand, side bar conversations are very common in C-level meetings.

The Problem
When executives begin a side bar conversation in the middle of your presentation, it is a distraction to the rest of the audience and a real problem for you. If you let it go on, you look like you’re not in control of your presentation or of the room. Worse, whatever you were hoping to get approved may fail due to all the distraction. What to do?

Even though direct confrontation would feel great, avoid it at all costs.
Refrain from doing what our third grade teachers used to say (dripping with sarcasm), ‘Excuse me, do the two of you have something you’d like to share with the rest of the room?â? The problem is, you don’t know what they’re talking about. It could be a total distraction like plans for the weekend, or, it could be something significant about the material you’re presenting.

The best solution is to politely inquire if there is something you have not made clear, or if there is a question. That may pull them back into the meeting. Or, it may not. In the event that your own attempts to reengage the side talkers fails, then you can make a plea to your sponsor, or the most senior person in the room. They will have the authority and capability of bringing the two people back to the table.

Energetic Discussion

‘When they’re asking questions, people are engaged, and there’s a lot of passion in the room, thrive on that. It doesn’t happen that often. You’re having a successful presentation,â? says Corinne Lyle, President, Global Operations, Edwards Life Sciences Corp.
The gold standard for senior level presentations is when the audience is totally involved and working productively toward a solution for the problem on the table. At that moment no one is distracted, leaving the room, or side talking. The ideas are coming fast. People are building on what others are saying. This is exactly what you’d like to see happening. It is called the ‘Energetic Discussion.â? But… it is not easy.

The Problem
The only real problem with the Energetic Discussion is that you stay focused and not get lost. Your role rapidly becomes that of facilitator and note taker.
‘This is a unique opportunity for you to understand what all these executives’ points of view actually are,â? according to Todd Lutwak, eBay senior director.

Listening skills are critical. Feedback what you are hearing. Confirm where things are going. Your ability to accurately summarize will make the meeting move forward and get you closer to your goal. Make sure to get all of it down on paper. As you confirm what is being said and agreed to, let people know what the next steps are, and what you will do to follow up.

‘Enjoy the experience. It’s fun to sit around and talk to all those big smart people in the room,â? says Dave Schwartz, sales leader at Cisco.

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