Conducting Successful Exec Reviews
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I was early in my career and was invited to participate in a project review with a senior exec. I was excited! I was a subject matter expert and was eager to share progress and hear directly from our exec. This was a complex project, with lots of information to cover. I prepared for the review, anticipating questions and ensuring I walked into the meeting with all the details.
The meeting began and the exec started asking me questions. They were fairly to the point “What is the expected release date?” “How many customers have signed up for the beta release?” and so on.
I responded thoughtfully to the questions, providing helpful details to fortify my answer. Given the importance of storytelling, I even shared a story as part of my response to a customer question. I was the expert after all, and I had this wealth of information that I wanted to share. It was such a wonderful opportunity to build mind share with my exec and impress her with my expertise, I simply couldn’t resist.
Oops! Big mistake!
While I knew all the details, I had completely misjudged how to respond to execs. The goal of this meeting was to review a project with a ton of complexity, not a round table to know the extended members on her team. I realized that presenting to execs is very different from say presenting the exact same topic in a team meeting of peers. While details are interesting and important to you, the exec may not have the same need for those details, at least not until you are explicitly asked.
The goal in communicating to execs is to concisely and accurately answer the question, using a one question, one answer format. Don’t try to anticipate the next question and answer it proactively. Don’t attempt to provide details, unless asked. This is very counter intuitive for most folks, so let me elaborate on why.
You don’t have the complete picture. The execs have a lot more context than you and have specific outcomes in mind. For example, you think that an engineering trade off the team is actively debating is an important detail to communicate. On the other hand, the execs might be more concerned about timelines and backup options, since the project unblocks key customers whose contracts are up for renewal. As a result, the exec's line of questioning will be very different from what you perceive as important.
The execs are toying with different questions and looking at the problem from various angles. The way to be most helpful is to communicate clearly, completely and quickly to the question asked, and nothing more.
Be brief, be brilliant, be gone with senior execs! Choose to be frugal in your words, less is more. You want to provide meaningful responses that resonate with the exec, and leave the exec craving more. Brevity requires planning, so as you are preparing for the exec reviews, take the time to anticipate key questions and prepare pointed responses in advance.
Be intentional - listen to understand what the exec wants and then respond accordingly. It is completely acceptable to respond in a way that aligns what the exec is asking for with your own desired outcomes, but only if there is clear alignment.
When responding to execs, aim to be 100% clear, even if 80% precise. Sometimes we take into account edge cases and other important details, as a result we cannot provide a clear answer. The result of these additional considerations is a befuddled response and exasperated execs. Chip and Dan Heath call this, the “curse of knowledge”. Instead prioritize for simplicity and if you must, call out that there are caveats. For example, “While there are additional caveats, the primary reason for delays in our schedule is new requirements that were introduced recently”. The exec may or may not ask more questions about the other caveats you mentioned.
Offer to elaborate, don’t proactively elaborate. For example, “Would you like me to explain?” Don’t linger, just keep progressing through the agenda.
Feel free to use an example or factoid but no more.“We had new requirements that were not previously costed. For example, to make native apps available on mobile devices”
Take a leaf from the journalist playbook and use the inverted pyramid writing style. See below. Provide the headline (sometimes called TL;DR) then the crucial information. In regular communication, we start with the details and context, leading up to the big conclusion. With execs, do the reverse. By reversing the order and providing the headline first (“schedule is delayed by 6 months”), you provide the precise answer they are looking for. The exec may or may not want to dig into these details at this point in time.
Photo credit: Ohio State Press Books
Read the execs and the room: One signal that you are possibly providing additional or irrelevant details is you are being interrupted or cut off. Secondly, if the exec repeats the same question, you are not getting to the answer and so either get specific or ask for clarification. Lastly, if there is a clear pattern that seems to be emerging, then feel free to ask that question directly - for example, “It looks like you are really concerned about the impact our design changes will have on partners and have follow up questions. Is that accurate?”
Adapting to the exec: Every exec is different, so if you have been in other project reviews with that exec, even as a participant, it is good to note what kinds of responses resonate well with that exec. If you have never been in a review with that exec before, contact the exec’s admin or chief of staff to find someone who has been in similar reviews. Connect with that person to get helpful pointers prior to the review so you can adapt to what works.
In closing, you should be able to nail every exec review using the tips above. Be confident. Don’t be disappointed if the execs did not ask the questions you were hoping they would. They had a specific agenda in mind and you helped by providing them the information they needed. And if you end up being at the receiving end of an impatient exec, don’t take it personally. Instead focus on the fact that you learnt more about this exec, and what they care about, so you can be better prepared for future reviews. Everything we do in life either results in success or lessons for the future, there is no failure.
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