Ian Creagh, a strategist working with higher education C-suites and boards across Europe, was invited to contribute on how FM’ers could get heard in the boards rooms. This is his response.
It’s Monday morning. You’re presenting to the exco in two hours’ time, asking for investment in a project that’s been dear to your heart for some time. You firmly believe it is the right strategic play for your organisation.
You’ve taken extra care with your appearance. You’ve practiced your pitch and you’re invited into the room and to your astonishment, the substance of the paper is never really addressed.
The conversation among the C-suiters feels as though they’re in a parallel universe. The discussion stutters to an end with the chair of the meeting pronouncing ‘….I think you need to take another look at this Laura, discuss it further with Tom and come back with a revised version.’ Excuse me? What was that all about?
Bafflement after an appearance in the C-suite is all too common. But with a bit of insight and preparation you can maximise the chances of your item getting a fair and focussed hearing. Here are my top six tips.
Tip 1: grasp the importance of timing, place and context
Which means first things first. Take the time to understand where you are on the agenda and what else is on the agenda. If you’re asking for a large resource investment and there are three other petitioners asking for large-scale resources, all three are likely to be kicked into the long grass either because ‘…we’re haven’t got enough of the right data to compare these bids’ or ‘…we need to line these up with other bids we know will be coming forward in the next couple of weeks’.
Make friends with the committee secretary. If you don’t like the look of your place on the agenda, make excuses about another commitment you can’t change. Avoid being first or last on any agenda!
Tip 2: align key voices before the meeting
Socialise your paper and the pitch with key participants before the meeting, actively seeking their comments and criticism. Take the time to understand the source and nature of sceptics’ objections so that you can address these in the final paper and pitch. Try to use specific words and phrases they’ve used in discussion with you so that they recognise them in the final presentation. Flatter their egos with comments about how ‘enormously helpful’ their comments have been to you. Ask for their advice on what they believe might be the objections to your pitch.
This will inevitably lead them to spill the beans on the invisible elephants in the room, and the alliances and deals underway. They can’t help themselves! It’ll also help you understand how the ‘votes’ in the room will stack up on the day.
Tip 3: there’s always an invisible (to the petitioner) elephant in the room
C-suiters are competitive, politically astute individuals with big egos. That Monday morning meeting room is awash with a sea of shifting alliances, rivalries and half negotiated deals between members. Support for your pitch will depend on how it sits in this wider political and social context. So you’d better be aware of all of this before you walk into the room.
Get yourself up to speed with the things that are causing tensions between members. Figure out the alliances between individuals. And do some basic homework: check on who will actually be at the meeting. No point going forward if two of your key supporters are on holiday. If so, try to delay the item until they’re back. Above all, just accept that logic and data alone will rarely get your project across the line.
Tip 4: if you’re presenting as part of a team, appoint a quarterback
One of the basic mistakes presenters make when they present to a senior audience, is failing to appoint a team quarterback to orchestrate the pitch, field question to team members and generally manage the engagement. Remember, pitching isn’t a democratic process – it’s getting your project across the line.
Everyone in the team has to be there for a reason, but not everyone on the team necessarily needs to ‘present’. Rehearse the pitch, including the roles that each team member will play, anticipating questions and how the quarterback will direct them to the relevant team member.
Tip 5: the power of classical rhetoric and the killer fact
C-suiters don’t want to spend time in useless meetings more than you do. Put yourself in their shoes: how might you like to be persuaded of the merits of your case?
Remind yourself of Aristotle’s rhetorical framework for achieving persuasion: ethos; pathos; and logos.
1.1 Ethos. Appealing to the authority of the audience is all about name checking those key C-suiters whom you’ve aligned before the meeting. ‘As you said Tom, in the very helpful feedback you gave me on an earlier draft of this paper…’
1.2 Pathos. Appealing to the emotions of the audience is often about heightening their awareness of an underlying or collective ambition. ‘In moving forward with this project we have the opportunity to further enhance our reputation for leadership in this area and build on the success of the board’s other recent decisions which have attracted such favourable comment.’
1.3 Logos. The power of logic or, as I like to put it, the killer fact! Al Gore changed the tenor of the climate change debate with a simple graph that everyone could understand demonstrating global warming. Presenters to the C-suite often try to overwhelm their audience with facts. By all means have all of the key facts to hand – they’ll be in your written submission in any case – but when it comes to the presentation, prepare your version of Al Gore’s killer fact.
Flattering their authority, appealing to their prior wisdom and assaulting them with a killer fact: it’s a deadly combination.
Tip 6: take your cue by reading the body language of the chair
CEOs or chairs of boards are constantly trying to balance organisational constituencies, interests, competitive rivalries and personalities. Observe how the chair’s eyes move around the room to gauge reactions. Who is invited first to respond to the presentation? How is the chair’s responses to what C-suiters have said calibrated? Is he nodding at what he’s hearing? Or is she staring through the person and giving nothing away? All of these reactions will give you hints as to where the power coalition lies in the room and to whom you should direct your eye contact.
Ian Creagh has over 30 years’ experience as an executive in universities in the UK and Australia and in the Australian Public Service. Until recently he was King’s College London’s Senior Vice-president Operations & College Secretary. In 2016 he founded Ian Creagh & Associates, an independent higher education consultancy. He continues to serve as a non-executive director of higher education boards and committees.