Think Inc.
A forum for Hawaii's
business community to discuss
current events and issues

Talking to the big boss

The important meeting may
not make your career but a
botched job could sure end it

By David Lohmann

You are in charge of a large information technology project and it's time for a corporate level decision on its future. You are about to meet with the chief executive officer and to request multimillion dollar funding.

Or ...

You are a military staff officer and the commanding general needs to be briefed on the status of the time sensitive military plan that is your responsibility.

Or ...

You are the loan officer at the branch in Hilo and one of your best customers needs the largest loan he has ever requested. You have to get the approval of the CEO and the loan committee in Honolulu.

Or ...

You work for the state government and are scheduled to meet with the governor to prepare her for her first meeting with the president.

The butterflies are in your stomach. The important meeting may not make your career but a botched job could sure end it.


What can you expect? How should you prepare? How should you act?

In a nutshell, the answers to these three questions are; 1. A tough audience 2.Very, very thoroughly and 3. Analytically.

What can you expect?

CEO's are decision making machines and they process information very quickly. And they get it the first time. They have very little time for non-essential tasks and rarely can give more than a half hour to a particular topic before their schedule demands that they move on to the next high priority item.

The decisions they are faced with are difficult ones. After all, the easy ones have been handled at a lower level. Nonetheless, the decision will be made quickly. After many years of experience CEO's recognize favorable and unfavorable patterns in your presentation and when they see them, the conclusion is evident. It may look like hip shooting to us but it is really rapid decision making based upon years of experience.

The CEO may have excellent interpersonal skills but they will not waste them on you. If you start your presentation with a "Good Morning" you may be told that "This is not a social call. Get on with it." Like most of us they relied on their technical skills early in their careers, then transitioned to developing and using their managerial skills and finally are most valuable to the organization for their conceptual, strategic and problem solving abilities. They have tough skins and expect you to share that characteristic. Don't expect pleasantries.

They also expect that you are very competent, the organization's expert in the topic at hand. After all, if you are not, then what are you doing there? If they ask a question and you answer, "I don't know," expect a very hard time. CEO's have no patience for ineptitude. They do not suffer fools wisely.

How should you prepare?

Anticipate every single question that could be asked from the simplest to the most difficult. Have an answer to each prepared. Then predict all the possible follow up questions. Have the answers for them ready as well. For every question you can predict, be able to drill down into the data to at least three levels and have that information ready.

Review the quality of your preparation. Can you answer the Who, What, When, Where How and How much questions for every major idea in your presentation? Organize a murder board. Have your colleagues ask you every nasty, complicated question they can think of.

Have at least three people read over your presentation materials. Nothing destroys credibility faster than typographical errors and misspellings. Eliminate any "eye candy," including all clip art. Don't sugarcoat bad news. CEO's are used to hearing it. Good news is not the grist of CEO in-boxes.

Always include options in your analysis. They always exist even if you are acting as an advocate for your project. Timing, magnitude, scope of applicability can all be varied to create options from aggressive to conservative.

How should you act?

When the time comes for the meeting and presentation, here are some things to keep in mind:

You don't have much time. Stay on your focused linear line of thought. Do not ramble and do not repeat yourself. The CEO will get it the first time.

Go as fast as the CEO is processing information. You are speaking at about 250 words per minute. He or she is processing at twice that rate. If all the CEO says is "next slide, next slide, next slide" then all you need to do is keeping on pushing the button. Don't be tempted to interject unnecessary commentary even though you have worked on the presentation for three months. If you get the favorable decision you are after, that is success, even if you don't have to utter a word. (Happened to me once.)

Don't read material presented visually. The CEO is processing information far faster than that. If you don't want to get your head torn off, DO NOT cover-up some of the material on the slide and reveal it slowly. (The PowerPoint equivalent is putting up one bullet at a time) Doing so implies that the CEO can't think as fast as you can. Big, big mistake.

Don't include your personal views. No one cares. Don't get drawn into any side discussion for which you are not thoroughly prepared. It is particularly important to avoid commentary on corporate politics and criticism of others including the advocates of the opposing view to yours. Leave the jokes, opinions on current public debates, as well as your personal opinions, at the door.

At the end, leave right away. Loitering, waiting for a compliment, is a waste of time. There won't be any compliments. Why should there be? You were expected to have the task well in hand.

David Lohmann is a professor of management
at Hawaii Pacific University. He can be
reached at

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