I recently found myself sitting at the board table opposite our chair who was clearly summoning his inner Bond villain. He was in the company of our group CEO, CFO and a bevy of interested non-executive directors.
The room was cool and eerily quiet as I entered. The only sound was a slight rustling like crisp £50 notes rubbing together, as they all turned to face me. Goodness knows what they were talking about before I was called in – was it an operational challenge, strategic debate on diversification, potential M&A, maybe the share price? Either way, the atmosphere was grim and not ideal for my agenda item on brand strategy. Perhaps I would be the light relief…
In a world where strategy should be 10%, execution the rest, it’s vital that board engagements go well, lest you find yourself in a strategic doom loop, never actually getting on with taking action.
Presenting effectively to the board, or any very senior executive team, is something of an art requiring courage, clarity and confidence. But, there is technique too. There are key skills to learn that can de-risk a board level car-crash for you personally, and your marketing strategy.
I learned this through the hard yards of experience, which had some giddy highs and extremely grim lows. I can still feel the breath on my face and fleck of spittle land on my cheek from one such encounter over a decade ago with my then CEO. Or the time when my boss and I completely lost control of the room when presenting a new brand strategy for the group ahead of our IPO. I quiver even now when I recall the group CFO, a friend in court, shouting across the room to my boss: “Come on Mike, what do you recommend? This is your thing. You need to grip this.” Thankfully we also took in the CEO of our brand strategy agency. He stood up, held the floor, and fought like hell for the proposed brand strategy and organisational purpose that would go on to galvanise the business and power our growth. It was he who helped me regain control of the agenda and get the executive committee on side. I was so thankful that he was there. Some things are best done in pairs.
So, for the uninitiated, and ambitious marketer, it’s important to face into situations like this as you move through your career, learning to put both your over-eager self-confidence in check, while also overcoming the fear that can arise in us all as we approach the meeting. You know, that fear that grows like a mushroom in the dark of our minds, eating away at our confidence, a feeling fed by the dread and risk of exposure of being seen as an imposter. After all, who am I to tell the board anything?
There is no magic recipe for having a successful meeting, but I have found the following ingredients are helpful… use them to garnish your board level engagements. They are very simple, and as such easily forgotten.
Set a clear context
When you enter the room, introduce the topic and start speaking, the truth is no one really knows why you are there at that precise moment. They won’t remember what was agreed before. The subject may well be of low interest and “not a problem” in their business area. And I can guarantee that most around the table really won’t know anything about marketing. Although, they will be very willing to talk from a position of uninformed views and intuitions based on their own personal experience, conversations with their husbands/wives/life partners, about marketing, advertising and what a brand is.
So the first task is to explain the situation, the context. The reason why you are in the room. This is the case even if you have been asked to answer a specific question. Always, always, always set the scene about where the business is now, and how we got here.
Why? Well, this one small step allows you to situate your approach or recommendation in the business strategy. It makes it relevant and timely. It will capture their interest. They will understand its importance if you position your recommendation as a business enabler.
If you forget to do this? Well, you’ll be like a ship without an anchor drifting in the ocean.
Be clear on the question you are answering
This is a deceptively tough thing to get right, and so very easy to get wrong. It’s hard because it has to be open-ended, and incredibly relevant: ‘Do we have the right brand strategy?’ is, for example, a terrible question to have to answer in a 20-minute session with the board. It’s succinct, sure, but it is too black and white, and implicitly indicates the current strategy may be incorrect. A much better question is ‘What is the right brand strategy to achieve our enterprise goals?’ This question links brand to business strategy, it also gives you space to examine alternatives to the current approach, while also being able to recommend that you stay the course, and double down on the existing approach.
A key factor here is taking your audience with you. If you have set the context well, it should lead directly to the business question you are seeking to answer.
Crucial here is not to add an ‘and’ to the question you are answering. The dreaded ‘and’ will take the debate into execution. With the board or exec committee, it should always be noses in, hands out. You need to avoid giving them the opportunity to opine on execution. Their job is strategic direction, so keep the conversation at that level. Also, they won’t have any nuance for marketing or brand building, and their suggestions will be at best hopelessly naïve, at worst incredibly damaging to long-term brand building.
Own your recommendations
This is absolutely vital. When you are making a recommendation and asking for their agreement, they are buying ‘you’, not an amorphous ‘we’. It’s really important that you own the recommendation, the debate and the assent. It makes implementing the strategy much, much easier after the meeting. You can face into the rest of the organisation with great authority.
Boards thrive on focused relevant content, informed debate, and being led by a confident expert. Marketers often fail in this by using jargon and not linking marketing and brand building directly to business success.
Back to my Blofeld moment, the session went well. Questions did fly quite literally from across the board. Most were predictable, some very obscure, but all manageable. The board understands the brand strategy calculus, appreciates the trade-offs, and agrees with the recommended strategy for the medium term. I couldn’t have asked for more. With this confirmed approach, we can double down on execution, and keep the business moving forward with real focus and intent.
Part two of this mini-series will cover some hacks on how to own the room, by being clear on what you want to achieve with the board emotionally, rather than just practically.