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An Op-Ed from the Atlanta Business Chronicle
Last month I had the opportunity to hear one of my most accomplished former students, Rick Lenny, speak to the Georgia State University Marketing RoundTable. Although his comments were wide-ranging, one important topic was “How to Present to the Board of Directors.”
His former positions include president of Pillsbury North America; president of Nabisco; and president, chairman, and CEO of The Hershey Company. He is currently a member of the boards of directors for McDonald’s, ConAgra Foods, Discover Financial Services, and IRI (a huge global marketing research company where he is nonexecutive chairman of the board). So, he has had substantial experience both in presenting to boards and listening to presentations to boards. Here is what I took away from his remarks.
Know Your Audience.
The first thing that must be understood is that board members have a totally different perspective from the chief marketing officer or other C-level executives. Many have a financial background, and they come from different industries. They are smart, experienced, successful professionals who operate at a different level from the line managers with whom you typically interact.
They may only meet four to six times a year, but they grasp ideas and issues quickly and ask penetrating questions. Their primary responsibility is to protect the shareholders’ assets and ensure they receive a decent return on their investments. Thus they are often focused on what can go wrong. Marketers think offense, but directors think risk factors.
Frame the Discussion.
As a marketer, you may be presenting advertising or pricing issues, but the discussion needs to be grounded in the growth factors that drive the firm’s financial performance. It is important to be strategic and to speak the language of the business, not the vernacular of marketing. If return on equity is the major metric of the company, then when discussing marketing issues, it is important to relate them to the board in terms of ROE.
It can’t be a data dump of interesting facts such as SWOT analysis or an environmental scan. There is no need to do a thorough situation analysis; they get it. Focus on the strategic growth factors driving the business and provide clear, concise information so the board can make strategic decisions for the company.
First, make certain that you and the CEO are in alignment regarding what is to be covered and how much time is allotted for your presentation. Understand the expectations — what you are expected to deliver, including the stated and unstated goals of the presentation. Know the material inside and out.
Practice so that you will stay within the time allotted but know that agendas don’t always flow as planned. Spend no more than two-thirds of the time allotted presenting so that there will be sufficient time for questions and discussion.
Questions are the driving force of board meetings. Know which directors will ask you the hard questions. Focus ahead of time on those questions you hope won’t be asked, because they will be, and that way you will be prepared for them. There will be times that you will be shocked by how basic the questions are. Always first answer the question, then answer the one that you wished had been asked. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it and say “I will get back to you on that” (and do it).
Content is Important.
Your message to the board must be succinct; so should the supporting visuals. Minimize the number of slides you use. Use only a few words on each slide, and do not read what is on each slide. No one will ever know what you forgot to say. Understand that the board is not interested in excessive detail.
Providing pre-reading material is important, and you can assume that the board members will have read it. The pre-read will help with the board’s education and will result in better questions being asked. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations. A glossary may be helpful. Providing the board package well in advance will enable the board to prepare thoroughly.
In presenting to the board, you must have a total business orientation. Remember that you are not representing your functional area; you are representing the total company. It is important for the board to have alignment around the fundamental growth drivers of the business and what delivers value to customers. Marketers must help the board understand these.
It is helpful to facilitate a discussion with the board rather than making a presentation. Do not gloss over the risks. Boards need to understand the worst possible outcome, the most likely outcome, and the best possible outcome.
Lenny ended his presentation by reminding everyone that strategy is a necessary but insufficient factor in a company’s success and that execution is critical. He stated that as CEO at Hershey his task was to get the same To Do List on 13,000 people’s agendas. This is an important point for all of us to understand.
Ken Bernhardt is Regents Professor of Marketing Emeritus at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business and a marketing consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.