I.M. WrightIt's the end of the fiscal year. Most engineers associate this time with performance review season, but for principal-level engineers and higher it's also executive review season. Time to waste weeks of your life writing slides for executive presentations that will be rewritten five times before they are never presented.

Executive reviews aren't a waste of time—occasionally you need an experienced, authoritative voice to blow apart your assumptions and refocus your efforts on desired business results. Preparing isn't a waste of time—being forced to explain yourself to others always helps your thinking, and I've got no desire to look like an idiot in front of the person who approves my compensation. The real waste of time is the focusing on getting the right slides for every season and situation instead of getting the right strategy.

Smart, high-level people simply don't know how to cope with executive reviews. They think it's a time to show off instead of a time to listen. They respond inappropriately to executive criticism of their badly presented, unsuitable slides. I've done it too—it's a trap set by our superiors filling out the poor templates dictated by their superiors. It's the misinformed leading the uninformed. Well, now it's time to break that cycle, avoid the pitfalls, and focus on what matters—valuable feedback on your clear and concise plans.

Wisdom to know the difference

Why do so many otherwise intelligent people bungle executive reviews? I believe there are two reasons—exuberance and confusion.

§  Exuberance over the importance of the moment. It's so important that we must cover every detail rather than focus on what's important. Twisted huh? Who defines what's important? The executive. What's important to the executive? Ask. Press for clarity. Don't accept second-hand smoke from an assistant. It's not good for your health.

§  Confusion between executive reviews and presentations. Both use slide decks. Both involve presenting. The difference is that in presentations the presenter is in control. In executive reviews, executives and their posses are in control. Failure to recognize this difference leads to failure in your review.

The secret of my success

How do you handle executive reviews successfully, obtaining all their potential benefits? Here's a three-step guide:

1.      Learn what is important to your executive.

2.      Present that information in three slides or less.

3.      Respond to questions with insight and to feedback with thanks.

That's it. Let's break it down.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

You first must learn what's important to your executive, from both an informational and a philosophical perspective.

From an informational perspective, what does your executive want to know about your project? Alignment with other projects? Financial contribution? Market share impact? Value proposition? Competitive response? You want to learn how your plans are being evaluated.

From a philosophical perspective, what principles are most important to your executive? Transparency? Alignment? Loyalty? Integrity? Self-confidence? You want to learn how you are being evaluated.

How do you learn your executive's informational and philosophical perspectives? Ask peers who've already been through a review with your executive. Ask your boss and your skip-level boss. You can even get thirty minutes on your executive's calendar. Be sure not to believe any one individual, but see patterns in feedback from multiple sources.

Easy as 1, 2, 3

Now you are ready to create the slide deck. You need only three slides—the current situation, the desired situation, and the tactics to get from the first to the second. That's all you should have. Remember, you are not in control of the review—the executive is. All you can hope to do is frame the discussion. All the other slides can either be cut or left as appendix slides for reference.

The current situation slide may be a problem statement, a current scorecard, or a recap of progress to date. The proper context and information depend on what's important to your executive, which you learned earlier.

The desired situation slide may be a solution, a target scorecard, or a going-forward strategy. It should align with your first slide and resolve the issues it raised.

The tactics slide may be a timeline, bullet list, or table of next steps, typically also indicating risks and mitigations with associated asks. Careful what you say on this slide. It tends to convert directly to commitments.

Eric Aside

The tactics slide seems like it covers a lot of information. Of course, all three slides do. You need to understand how your executive likes information presented.

·         Does she like eye charts with all the information on the slide?

·         Does she want summary slides and expects you to have all the details in your head?

·         Does she prefer detail slides in the appendix that she can reference?

I read the instructions

Many executive reviews require you to follow a template with predetermined slides for you to fill-out. Having a template is terrific—it adds consistency and clearly sets expectations. Unfortunately, most templates are hideous with four or five times the number of slides needed. The templates are either ancient or produced by assistants.

How do you handle a fifteen-slide template? Pick out the three crucial slides—the ones that describe the current situation, the desired situation, and the tactics to get from the first to the second. Get those three slides right—then ensure the other slides align consistently with your crucial slides. This keeps you on message no matter where the executive takes the conversation. If possible, skip past the other slides and stick to the crucial three.

The purpose of the review is to get valuable feedback on your clear and concise plans. By aligning your slides and staying focused, you can frame the discussion and get the input you need.

Eric Aside

A handy tip is to send out a pre-read three days before the review. Write a one-page document that addresses the executive's key questions or provides context that attendees should know before the meeting.

The pre-read helps the conversation stay focused. It also gets the executive in the right frame of mind and provides the opportunity to send clarifying questions to you in advance so you can better target your presentation.

Oh behave!

The last step in my three-step guide to executive reviews is about how to behave. First and foremost, do not be intimidated or enchanted by the executive. Executives used to have your job and they miss it (just ask if you don't believe me). They still use the bathroom. They still embarrass their kids. Do yourself a favor and get over yourself. Act like you've done this before.

The executive will typically take two actions during your review—ask questions and make comments. Most of the time you want to take notes and keep your mouth firmly shut. Use duct tape if you must. Abraham Lincoln said, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

When should you say something? When you have something insightful and relevant to say. "I agree" doesn't cut it. "We're doing that" doesn't cut it. "When we fixed that issue our support calls dropped 67%" might be worth mentioning if it's relevant. When you open your mouth, be sure you are adding value, staying respectful, and being concise. "Yes," "No," and "I don't know" are often sufficient. The rest of the time you should listen.

Eric Aside

If you need help being succinct, tell a friend at the review to give you a signal when you need to stop talking—perhaps a flashing neon sign.

As I mentioned in "I'm listening," the single proper response to all feedback is, "Thank you." In the case of executive feedback, be sure to write the comments down and consider each point. You don't have to address everything the executive mentions, but you do need to consider it.

Remember, executive reviews aren't the time to show off. They are the time to receive valuable feedback on your plans. The time to show off is when you deliver on those plans.

How'd I do?

When the review is finally over, you'll likely feel awful. The executive asked many tough questions and made a bunch of pointed comments. Was it a disaster? How can you tell?

Luckily, it's easy to tell how the review went. The key is the level of detail the executive discussed, not in the number of positive or negative comments. If the executive's questions and comments were all general and high level, then the review did not go well. The executive was questioning your basic strategy and assumptions. If the questions and comments were in the details, then the review went quite well. The executive agreed with your strategy and approach and was giving you feedback on small pieces.

Either way, executive reviews aren't about giving you an ego boost. They are about getting valuable feedback on your plans. Learn the information and principles the executive cares about, present your plans as simply as possible within that context, and be a professional during the review, and you'll get all the feedback you need to succeed.

Eric Aside

Are executive reviews really necessary to operate a business? At times they seem to act as a crutch for a lack of organization and aligned planning. When an executive staff's plans are aligned and the organization is built to match the plan, then all the executive should need to run the business are regular staff meetings and coordination meetings with executive peers. It also helps if the executive is accessible to everyone in the organization through blogs, one-on-ones, events, and casual encounters. A number of Microsoft organizations are now run this way.