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Chapter 10: How to Brief the Boss


If you are moving up the corporate ladder, there will come a time when you will receive an assignment from someone much higher in the chain of command. The "big boss" might be the president of the company, or a senior vice president, or your boss's boss.

The important difference is that it's not your direct boss who is giving the assignment. It's not someone you are used to. An assignment from a senior person beyond your norm can be very significant for many reasons, not to mention for your career. What do you do?

How do you handle yourself? Who else do you involve? Are there any rules for this type of thing? What are they?

That's what we'll explore in this chapter. To help set the framework, we'll begin with a story and draw some pointers from it.

The Briefing

As product director for Richardson Vicks Company, I was responsible for the Clearasil brands. The president of the division was John McLaughlin, an extremely smart, buttoned-up executive.

I didn't report to John; my boss, Dick Secrist, did. Nonetheless, John had given me a special assignment to evaluate the feasibility of introducing a "makeup base" product under the Clearasil name for teenage acne sufferers. I was to report back to him in three weeks on a Thursday. And when John said Thursday, he meant Thursday.

When the due date arrived, I wasn't as ready as I should have been. I found out that John was going on a trip and was leaving for the airport at noon. So I thought to myself, "Maybe I can finesse old John McLaughlin a little bit. I'll give him a fast status report, and he'll have to leave before he can pin me down to too much detail." So I phoned Beverly, his secretary, and made an appointment for 11:45 a.m. She said she would call me when John was ready (I was just down the hall).

At 11:44 a.m. the phone rang, and Beverly said John was ready, which meant that I should be there within the minute if I knew what was good for me. My first words to John, who was a nitpicker for exactness, detail, and professionalism, were, "I know you don't have much time so I'll make this as fast as I can."

The Boss Speaks

Before I could go a word further he said, "Let me put this meeting into some kind of order. First, it is not I who does not have much time. It is you. You only have thirteen minutes, at the end of which I will leave regardless of where you are in your discourse.

"Second, I am not interested in how fast you can make the meeting go. I am looking for a top-line digest of the research you have done. I want you to articulate what your conclusions are on the matter, and I would like you to suggest the direction you think we should take. Now, if you are prepared to do that in the time you have remaining, proceed.

If not, please schedule a meeting at another time when you can provide me the information I need."

The meeting was over. John caught his plane. I went back to my office to lick my wounds. I sat there for more than an hour, stewing and feeling sorry for myself. What a jerk I had been. John McLaughlin had given me an opportunity to advance my stature with him and within the company. I had dropped the ball. I had advanced nothing. If anything, I had lost a point or two.

How many chances like that am I likely to get? I was depressed. And why was I thinking I had to go it alone? I had a direct boss. His name was Dick Secrist. He was a good guy and very supportive of me.

"Why hadn't I kept him in the loop?" I thought to myself. "He works with the president all the time. He's been around. His thinking would be helpful. So would his presence in the meeting. Besides, he's my supervisor. He's supposed to know what I'm doing. If I ignore him (which I had done beautifully, thus far), it will tick him off, and I'll lose my most valuable ally."

I spent the rest of the day working on my presentation so that it would fit the guidelines John had laid out. It was obvious I needed more information, so I made a series of phone calls to gather what was necessary.

Meeting With My Direct Boss

The next day I went over to Dick Secrist's office and told him the whole story of the John McLaughlin meeting. He was not impressed.

"Why weren't you better prepared for the meeting?" he asked.

I tried to justify my behavior by explaining how busy I was.

Dick said, "I don't want to preach to you, my friend, but whatever you had as priority number one becomes priority number three as soon as the president gives you an assignment. The reason it slides to number three is that the president's project becomes priorities number one and two. Nothing else you do is nearly so important."

A Company Has Only One President

He continued, "You can explain your way around a missed deadline with anyone else in the company. But not the president."

I didn't fight. I knew he was right. I told him I was embarrassed and annoyed with myself. I apologized and said I had learned my lesson.

Then he said, "I have one more question . . . why didn't you go over this with me before your meeting with John?

"Suppose John had asked me what I thought about the makeup base idea. What was I supposed to say? If I said I didn't know anything about it, I'd look foolish, wouldn't I? John would expect that you had been keeping me informed. And interestingly, you'd look foolish too, wouldn't you?

"You could have hurt us both. So tell me, did you intend to keep me in the dark?" I blundered through an apology. I had no intention of hurting Dick Secrist, or myself for that matter. I had been thoughtless and, when you get down to it, irresponsible as well. I didn't try to excuse myself. I told him I was wrong.

Dick said, "Chin up, boy. I forgive you." He told me he had made a similar mistake in his last company. He said he wasn't properly prepared for a meeting with his president, and he tried to wing it. The president wasn't impressed.

"It took me a long time to recover," he said. "Every meeting in that office is important. It's not just twenty minutes. It's the most important twenty minutes you'll spend that month."

Next, I told him what my thinking was on the project. He helped me a lot by changing my direction in places, challenging some of my conclusions, and suggesting changes in some of the charts I was thinking of using. I felt increased confidence, realizing that he was totally on my side. I also understood that if he was not on my side, I would have lost the battle . . . no matter how good my thinking was.

I asked Dick to join me at the next meeting. I realized his presence would add importance to the meeting, and his support would make me stronger in the eyes of the big boss. Heaven knows, I needed all the support I could get after the last debacle. Dick said he would be glad to come.

I was buoyed by the fact that, going forward, I had a better relationship with my immediate boss, who would be a supporter instead of a critic.

I went back to my office, gathered all my information, and put it into presentation form. Big news first, details second, recommendation third. I squeezed it down so that I could do the whole thing in ten minutes.

The Next Meeting

Then I phoned Beverly and got a twenty-minute slot on John's calendar the next week. I asked her to mention to John that Dick would be with me in the meeting. I had learned that John was one of those, "I don't like surprises," people, and I didn't want Dick's presence to be a surprise.

The day arrived. Dick and I entered John's office right on the minute. We went through a little social chitchat, perhaps less than normal, since John always seemed to feel that was not a good use of time.

I started the business meeting by saying, "John, when we met last week you said you were looking for three things: a top-line digest of the research I had done, my conclusions based on the research, and a suggested direction or next steps on the project. I am prepared to do just that, and, depending on the level of discussion, I see the meeting taking no more than twenty minutes."

John smiled, said, "Go right ahead, Kevin."

I started. It's nice to start a presentation with the big boss smiling. It's also nice to follow a format that is so obviously a good one. The meeting proceeded without a bump. We finished in twenty minutes, believe it or not. I had more work to do, of course, but the project was going forward.

A Happy President

At the end of the meeting John said, "That was a first-class meeting. Your thinking is solid. We might really be on to something here."

My president was pleased. My immediate boss, Dick, had made some important observations that John had agreed with, so he was a happy man. And I was on cloud nine.

Dick and I went back to his office and rehashed the whole thing the way you do after you have had a successful meeting with the president. At the end of the recap he said we had learned three things. He took out a yellow pad and wrote three headings with space under each one. We talked about each, and he wrote some more on the pad.

When we were finished he gave me a copy of what he had written and kept the original for himself. He called it "Lessons Learned." Here's what it looked like:

We did a lot of research on the "Brief the Boss" subject and formalized the presentation procedure.

But before we get into that, let's examine the situation from both perspectives.

The Bigger Picture

First, consider what is at stake for the boss in assigning you this project:

You are bringing the boss information and probably suggesting action steps. If the boss decides to make a decision based on your input, the business, for which he is responsible, will change to some degree as a result of the meeting.

So the big boss needs to be reassured that you're deeply into the subject; that you've done your homework; and that you are reliable, responsible, and trustworthy. Your boss's personal reputation is at stake. It always is. New data always involves risk.

So does working with new people. And, unless the boss has worked with you a lot in the past, the boss may not know how to read you.

This is what is at stake for you:

You are in the spotlight. The boss will be examining you closely, making judgments about you. If you do well, your career will be impacted positively. If you drop the ball, you probably will not be able to recover with that company. It's not fair, but it's real. You can't change the way the system works.

So you'd better give it your best shot. Nothing else is more important to your career than how well you handle this kind of special assignment. And your "Brief the Boss" meetings will be the setting in which the boss evaluates you, your thinking, and the state of the project you are on.

Consider this the background as you approach the meeting. Here are key steps:

Step 1: Reestablish the priority of your project.

The best way to do this is to actually quote the boss. Quote a statement he made to you about the importance of the assignment and its timing.

Remember what we said above, "The more of the boss you get into your presentation, the more impressed the boss will be with you."

Recognize that the boss has other things vying for top level attention. A lot has happened in the company since you got your spot on the calendar a week or three weeks ago. Your assignment may not be as urgent now as it was then.

But it's your project and you think it should be. Quoting the boss on the subject reestablishes the project's importance:

When we met last week you said ._._.

Step 2: Lay out the agenda. Make it short. Make it time-bound.

The agenda is headlines only. Once again, you're thinking of your boss's time. You are pleasing your superior immediately by showing that you are prepared and in control. Define up front the items you are going to cover. Any boss who wants to add or subtract topics will do so right there.

And if the meeting is short, "God bless you, my child" is what the boss will be thinking.

Briefing Format (Meeting Time - Twenty Minutes)

  1. Top-line digest of the research

  2. What conclusions we can draw

  3. Suggested next steps on the project

Put the agenda on a chart - no more than four items. It should stay visible for the entire meeting. The boss sees where you are and where you are going. You can recap using the agenda chart. He or she can refer back to an earlier item using the chart. Everyone is a winner.

Step 3: Flesh out the headlines with vital details.

The vital details are those the boss needs to know in order to make sound decisions. But be selective. Give only "need-to-know" details. If a boss wants more, a boss will ask.

What makes details vital? Details are vital when changes are indicated. Details are also vital when the boss wants to be able to predict outcomes, or wants you to.

No data dumps, please. Be selective. You're not holding back because of ignorance. You are holding back because of knowledge, the knowledge of what's important. Less is usually better than more . . . unless asked. Then be prepared to discuss the subject in as much detail as the boss deems necessary.

Step 4: Stick your neck out. Suggest action.

Many times you are only being asked for an update, a status report. Sometimes you are being asked for a recommendation. In both situations you should recommend the course of action you think is indicated.

And why is that? It's because the whole business process is about change and adjusting to change - about problems and finding solutions to problems - about opportunities and moving quickly to take advantage of them.

All of these circumstances require action. Remember the great statement of Aristotle:

Knowledge is not power until it is turned into action.

The way to make a real difference in the boss's life is to recommend actions to improve the situation that you just gave your report on. That way you have turned knowledge into power, assuming the boss agrees. If he or she doesn't, don't be surprised if the boss goes on to explain his or her own solution or his or her preferred next steps. Either way you will be the catalyst for action on the part of the boss. As such, the boss will appreciate your contributions and perceive the meeting was a good one.

And, hey! That's not all bad.

Key Learnings for Briefing the Boss



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