Anyone who watches The Apprentice knows that the drama always culminates in the hallowed environment of Lord Sugar’s “boardroom”. This is where the games are played; careers are made or ruined; conniving tactics are employed; reputations are rubbished; and the weakest are “fired”. It’s a hothouse environment that tests even the most able. It’s a time when your professional impact is vital.
Nowadays, many people find themselves walking into the boardroom, including new non-executives. It can be a daunting experience. Let’s face it, walking into any meeting of an existing team can be inhibiting. It’s not your métier. These aren’t your regular colleagues. They have their existing relationships, their own ways of doing things and their own meeting rituals. You are entering foreign territory.
Whilst television, of course, exaggerates the pressure and the performance, it does reflect some of the challenges that people face when communicating with the most senior in an organisation, especially executives who will be robust in defending their strategies when challenged.
In preparation for such encounters, it’s helpful to focus on four areas:
You need to get your head straight. And that’s not just about knowing your topic and preparing your views. It’s about having the right attitude and approach.
It may feel as though you are under the spotlight, like in Dragon’s Den, but people are not normally there to pick you to pieces. There’s no doubt that you are likely to be facing some extremely able people who will challenge your thinking. So, expect a probing discussion. That’s why you need preparation—rehearsing your views and questions. It will help you anticipate questions and prepare your answers.
You also need to remember why you are there. What is it that you have to offer? You have a right to be there. They want you. You are equal to anyone around. Status no longer depends on your title or position in the company. You can hold high self-esteem and status simply by owning your expertise and capability.
You may have great ideas, brilliant knowledge and probing questions about management’s strategy, but if you are not able to express yourself then it’s going to be very hard for people to buy into your authority.
You will be judged by your actions so you are now expected to embody your approach and values. A senior audience will pick up clues about confidence and competence simply from the physical signals you give out: posture, expression, voice, appearance, gesture—the body language of gravitas that communicates authority. Spending time preparing yourself in this area to increase your professional impact is worth the effort.
At a senior level people are expected to have distinctive individuality and a special contribution to make. It’s about being authentic and honest. It’s about having determination and resilience. And above all, integrity.
You might want to try answering two challenging questions:
• What’s your point of view?—What are your opinions? What do you stand for? What are your values?
• What’s the point of you?—What’s your purpose? How do you add value? Why would anyone want to be led by you?
There is also, of course, a place for charm in these situations. Not in a smarmy way. But grace is attractive. You might have a very steely personality, which you will need to survive the toughness of the environment, but that is no reason to dispense with common courtesy.
And finally, you may well need a bit of chutzpah—a Yiddish word meaning gall, nerve, guts, cheek and audacity. It’s certainly no time to be a shrinking violet.
The fourth area that enables you to have boardroom presence is all about the chemistry you create at a senior level. You will need to establish a relationship with them and build rapport quickly.
It is very hard to build a relationship with anyone if you are self-conscious. If all your attention is on yourself—worrying about how you are performing or wanting to look good—then there is little opportunity for forming productive relationships with others.
Instead, in these situations, you will need to focus most of your attention on the other people at the meeting. Having a presence means being totally present. That involves really looking and listening, and being able to respond to the signals you are picking up. Being alert and aware of everything that is going on around you. The more preparation you do, the more you will be able to be sensitive to the dynamics in meetings and focus on relationships.
Establishing a presence in this way also requires you to enter the room with energy and aliveness. That does not mean bouncing in with “Tigger-like”exuberance that can be overwhelming and inappropriate. But make sure you carry your vitality with you. You are a force to be reckoned with.
Boardroom skills are merely an extension of leadership skills that you need all the time. An awful lot is expected of leaders these days. It’s not enough that you simply do your job to the highest level. You can be brilliant technically, deliver operational excellence, drive commercial success and, yet, people still want more. And what is it that they want? Inspiration—and that means leaders developing the ability to engage and inspire others throughout the organisation, whether it be the shop floor or walking into the boardrooom.
Stuart MacKenzie is managing director of Maynard Leigh Associates, which provides consultation on behavioural change.