Making presentations to C-suite executives can be a nerve-wracking proposition for even seasoned HR leaders. Top executives aren’t shy about showing their impatience with reports that don’t quickly address their key concerns or that fail to draw a connection between workforce data and financial results.
But succeeding in these high-stakes presentation scenarios is one of the best ways to raise HR’s profile in the organization. Here are some tips, tactics and lessons learned for making successful presentations to CEOs, CFOs, COOs and other senior leaders, whether you are presenting face to face or sending status reports.
What Matters to HR May Not Matter to Them
How do you determine what senior leaders consider to be key HR performance measures? Ask them, said Joey Asher, president of Speechworks, an Atlanta-based communication skills company. “Are they most concerned about cutting costs, growing revenues, reducing risk or retaining pivotal employees?” Asher asked. “The way to find out is to simply e-mail or phone them and tell them you’re on their calendar at an upcoming date.”
Sending the message that you want to avoid addressing low-priority issues “can itself help your presentation as much as anything else,” Asher said.
Grabbing the attention of metrics-driven executives requires viewing the world through their eyes, said Jim Endicott, president of Distinction Communication, a firm in Newberg, Ore., that coaches HR and training leaders in making executive-level presentations.
“Being a senior HR leader is a daunting role because they often find themselves straddling two different worlds where their goals, needs and issues must be translated into terms that align with how other senior leaders are measured and produce bottom-line results,” Endicott said.
That challenge demands that HR leaders become more skilled in using data-driven rationales in their presentations. “Things like employee policy or benefits changes must be distilled into projected turnover rates, or the need to invest in essential skills training put in terms of increases in labor costs,” Endicott said.
Those who struggle to convert their advocacy into sound business cases can find themselves marginalized amid their own peer leaders, he added.
Steve Secora, senior human resource information systems manager at International Gaming Technology in Reno, Nev., said demonstrating the financial impact of HR initiatives has been a win for his group. Secora has had success by comparing “dollars to dollars instead of dollars to people” to show the bottom-line impact of workforce data.
For example, revenue-per-employee is a popular metric with many executives, but Secora believes the measure is “an arbitrary ratio that compares people to dollars. You might gain some insight from the measure,” he said, “but there are too many ways to fudge the data.”
Instead, Secora shows total labor costs as a percentage of revenues, operating expenses or operating income in his reporting to senior leaders. “They’ve said they find these measures meaningful,” he said.
And rather than simply presenting a voluntary employee attrition rate, Secora calculates the cost of that attrition. “Senior leaders don’t fully appreciate how much attrition is costing the company until you show that figure in a monetary format,” he said.
Less Is More
Want to raise the ire of top executives? Show up at a meeting with a deck of 20 PowerPoint slides. “You need to keep it simple, tight and short, with the focus on workforce metrics that matter most to your executives,” Asher said. “A few slides with your key messages or metrics is best. No executive has ever complained that a presentation was too short.”
Kelly Butler, vice president of global rewards and HR operations for Rackspace, a cloud services company in San Antonio, never uses more than 10 slides in her presentations to the company board or compensation committee, keeps slide text font size to 18 points or larger, and ensures that bullet points never wrap. Butler also never reads slide text verbatim to executives, since audiences can read for themselves.
In addition, she eliminates any “nice to know” detail in content and ensures that headlines on her slides are benefits-driven and descriptive. “I tell our team to put everything they want on slides, then cut it in half for presentations sent to senior leaders,” Butler said. “If you have 15 minutes to present, that means you have 15 minutes, which usually means a maximum of seven slides. And the first sentences out of my mouth in the presentation are why we are here and what decision we ultimately need from them.”
Prep for Questions
Senior leaders are skilled at probing for weaknesses and inconsistencies. “HR and training leaders often spend an enormous amount of time preparing PowerPoint slides and supporting graphics, but they don’t prepare as well for questions,” Asher said. “You can have beautiful slides or infographics, but if you blow the questions you’re asked, the CEO will think your presentation is terrible.” He suggests asking those who know C-suite executives best about questions to expect.
Butler always comes prepared to answer questions about how her data compares to industry averages. “Executives want context,” she said, such as how your voluntary attrition rate stacks up to industry averages or whether your 10 percent year-over-year growth on a certain metric is good or bad relative to the industry.
Mary Carvour, vice president of global human resources for Viewpoint Inc., a software company in Portland, Ore., said the communication needs of individual C-suite executives don’t always mirror the group dynamic. She suggests taking time to meet with the various executives to determine how they prefer information be communicated to them. “Then be flexible with your communication game plan in important meetings,” Carvour said.
Butler also follows this approach, often including an appendix with the materials she sends to her company board a week in advance of presentations.
“We have some board members who really like to get into detail, so this allows me to include it without having to get into all of the specifics during the presentation,” Butler said.
In monthly reports on training statistics that he sends to his COO, general managers and sales executives, Larry Wecsler highlights the training metrics that these leaders have deemed essential. Wecsler, vice president of organizational learning for MetroPCS, a Texas-based wireless communications company, found one such measure to be a “zero door report.” That report details how many employees in each MetroPCS dealer store completed no sales or operations training courses in the prior month.
Each dealer receives a monthly report card from top executives that includes those employee training statistics along with sales data and other numbers. “Use of that report is one way our top leaders keep the focus on the importance of training here,” Wecsler said.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.
To read the orignal article on shrm.org, please click here.