12 tips that will help you conduct productive briefings with the senior executives

As kids, we waited for parents to return home from work. I’ve seen almost every kid waiting to tell mom or dad about what (all) happened at school and play throughout the day. This eagerness kind of fades away as the child becomes a teenager, when friends become a little more important as confidantes than parents. Even we begin working, this act, in its essence does not change. Let’s call it ‘Telling What Happened’.

‘Telling what happened’ remains the same all your life, it’s just that it takes on all new shades when the person before you changes.

Organizations have a very clearly defined structure, in other words, a hierarchy. Information flow is bidirectional i.e. either from top to bottom, or from bottom to top. While announcement of executive strategies and commencement of new projects happen from top to bottom, their respective progress updates and operational updates happen bottom to top. Like me, if you have been part of an organizations as these, you know and understand the various nuances in handling the updates. There is often some sense of being overwhelmed when your updates have a visibility to executives high up the food chain and not just your immediate supervisor.

In one of the roles that I was fortunate to be assigned, I had the opportunity to work with the senior executives of the organization. This role gave me a fresh perspective of ‘Telling What Happened’. First draft of a status update would have several Microsoft PowerPoint slides. I remember preparing for an executive review whose initial draft had over a hundred slides! After several revisions (read this as version 20), the final report had about 8 slides. A lot of the content was deemed as either “that is too much of details” or “this section is irrelevant to the agenda” or “we will not have enough time to get to this section” or “put these in the back up slides section”.

During my 1:1 with one of the executives back then, I asked what the objective was of shrinking the overall content to such a large extent. I will never forget what he said. More on this towards the end of this post.

Key things to remember while you prepare for an executive review are these:

  • Subject Matter:  What is the briefing about? Is it good news, bad news or something stressful? Most executives prefer the bad news first. However, it’s always wise to approach the bad news with the proverbial silver lining or at least a solution to avoid/prevent/mitigate further losses. If it’s good news, one needn’t be overly excited in
  • Time: How much time does the executive have to listen
  • Place: Where are you making the briefing- at a meeting, in their cabin at work, in the elevator, on the way to somewhere in a car or over some drinks in the evening, a quiet place or a noisy pub
  • Accompanying people/Forum: Are you briefing alone or are there many people around you who would be an audience to the briefing

Ah! So now you would have got wind of how things are going to turn for us hereafter! Well, the above points highlight the importance of a setting.

Planning for an executive briefing is crucial

For seasoned professionals, the briefing might not come as a surprise as they are aware of the nuances of such briefings. For one, briefing is in effect portraying what you and your team has done, most of the times. Obviously, the executive would react or respond depending on the kind of news fed to him/her. Most of them don’t like to be asked what to do next. They’d rather you come up with some analysis and a few options on your own towards the solution so that they can just make a choice, if needed and hand it back to you.

Things to remember before briefing the executive

  1. Seek time proportionate to that required for the briefing. If the matter is complex, let the executive know beforehand. No one likes to ponder upon complex issues in a hurry. If it’s something trivial, you may meet him any place.
  2. Prepare your notes in advance but don’t refer to them while briefing. You look better in command as a direct report when you know the matter you’re discussing with your supervisor. Carry any supporting documents if you feel they would be needed or asked for.
  3. Assess the setting where you are headed towards for the briefing. Gauge the body language of the supervisor. If he looks disturbed, aloof, sad, disinterested or is busy in something else while you’re talking, take a pause and ask if you can continue or come back at an appropriate time. That should provide him with some time to gather his attention or force him to pay attention to what you’re saying.
  4. Keep a tab on your words, tone and spirit. If you ‘sound’ complaining and helpless, you are going to invite some rebuke. If you sound too enthusiastic, it may be considered overt. Be non-judgmental and neutral in your tone. That way, you allow the supervisor to respond appropriately to the matter. If you have little time and much to say, make it to-the-point and quick.
  5. Use pauses judiciously. Know when to pause and when to stop. Take cues from the supervisor. If the supervisor is lost in thought, holds some desk item and plays with it silently or stares out of the window into nowhere, it’s wise to pause until asked to continue. Look out for subtle cues like a nod here, a raised eyebrow there, a smile or a frown. Also look at the other people if they’re present in the same room. If the supervisor looks at them for affirmation, you better look at them too.
  6. If there are any specific templates in which you are expected to present your updates, ensure you diligently follow them. These are enforced to establish uniformity. Any deviations tend to irk the participants.
  7. A lot of times, the supervisor may ask you what you feel about a certain matter. This is a tricky situation because your answer must be aligned to the company’s strategy as well as to the ideology of the supervisor. If you feel your views could be divergent to those of the supervisor, make sure you coat them into positive sounding phrases and yet deliver the bitter pill.
  8. It is always better to preempt any questions or clarifications and go prepared rather than scampering around to find answers and mumble something.
  9. Know the way your senior or supervisor understands matter (his style of learning). If the supervisor is a visual learner, present charts, graphs or tables. If his/her style is more auditory, break up the content into small points and present them crisply. Avoid jargon, colloquial words or short forms. Do not express your opinion unless asked to.
  10. It is always advisable to send a detailed email even after your briefing so that there is always a reminder about what was discussed.
  11. Do not take this personally. The supervisor may yell, sulk, use harsh words, brush it off or even ignore a matter. That doesn’t mean he/she has been mean to you. It just means that that was the reaction for the matter and not to you. Also, do not discuss reactions or responses with anyone not concerned with the matter, later or day.
  12. Lastly, general rule of thumb that I personally follow is this: Prepare your content to utilize 60% of the duration of the meeting and leave the rest for QnA. For example, if your review is planned for 60 minutes, prepare your content for 40 minutes, and leave 20 minutes for QnA. It takes roughly 4-5 minutes to cover content in each slide unless the slides are short of content. So, for a review of duration of 1 hour, you might want to keep the slides to 6-8 at the maximum.

Briefing the seniors is a routine matter and if done right, can add value to your work and meaning to your role.

And oh, that thing the executive said to me in my 1:1 – “You and I may have a lot of time at hand, but the executives are usually short of it. So we need to be mindful of that in all our reviews with them”. How wise!

What are some of the things that you do to have a good, productive, and meaningful reviews with the executives in your organization? Take a moment and comment below your experiences. I would love to hear from you.

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