How to Give an Executive Update

You never know what it is that might set a person off. It might be what they ate for breakfast or the fact they didn’t have a good night’s sleep. One place where you don’t want people to lose it is during an executive update.

Russian roulette is a potentially lethal game of chance. A single bullet is loaded into a revolver; the player spins the chamber, holds the gun up to his head and pulls the trigger. The chances of winning (I use that word loosely here) this game are 1 in n, where n is the number of chambers in the gun. So, if there are 6 chambers, you have about a 17% chance of winning this game. If there are 5 chambers, your odds go up to 20%.

These odds may hold true from a purely mathematical point of view, but don’t take into account the physics of gun mechanics. The single bullet will have more of a chance of lining up at the bottom of the cylinder because of the effect of gravity. Regardless, it’s an incredibly dangerous pastime that I have no idea why anyone would want to play.

But then, I used to play this game each and every Tuesday morning…and lived to tell the tale.

Let me explain.

Every Tuesday morning, company senior management came together around the table for the weekly debrief. Anybody that was anybody would be at this meeting. The CEO presided, with SVPs waiting in the wings while VPs, Directors, and even some Senior Managers would show up from time to time. It was a pretty decent meeting, for the most part, a combination of status, strategy, and a little bit of issue resolution.

The one problem with this meeting, however, was that you never knew how it would go when it was your turn to talk. Each group had an opportunity to talk; it was your time to bring everyone up to speed, ask for assistance, or just provide an update. Some weeks, presentations would be listened to quietly and with very little discussion afterward. Other weeks, you could be bombarded with questions during and after the meeting. Your assumptions would be challenged, and sometimes it seemed you were simply log-rolled just for the sport of it!

How to Give an Executive Update

How to Give an Executive Update

In that sense, being a presenter at the weekly senior management meeting was a little like spinning the barrel of a gun, pointing it to your head and holding your breath before pulling the trigger.

Either you would get the third degree after an update or allowed a pass.

Over time, I figured out how to increase my odds of not getting lambasted, by turning it into a game. Eventually, I was able to ask, “Any questions?” at the end of my update, and would be met with complete silence.

The following are some tips you may want to consider if you play this dangerous game every week:

Choose the Right Amount of Words

The devil is in the details, and you don’t want him to raise his ugly head because you trip up on your words. Use just the right amount of words. No more, no less. There may be a tendency to start getting deep into the weeds during your update. Resist that urge. All it does is create a perfect environment for furrowed brows, raised eyebrows, and interrogations of senatorial proportions.

Here’s an example of an update that typically brings on an interrogation: “We made the deliverable on time. Actually, it was a bit more challenging than we’d have liked. Ended up having to pull an all-nighter because QA was backed up from something else they were working and they were having trouble squeezing us into their schedule.” Congratulations, you provided an update AND enough information for somebody in the room to raise their eyebrow and inquire, “What do you mean QA was running behind? Who else knew about this?” Get ready to jump on your blog and start rolling.

You could have just said, “We made the deliverable on time.” That’s it. No more, no less. You can deal with the issue of QA being backed up during a different meeting because this is neither the time nor the place. Senior managers just need to know the deliverable was complete. It’s kind of like the mystery surrounding sausages and hot dogs; nobody wants to know how they are made.

Focus on Revenue

Another secret to providing a pain-free update or at least one with fewer chances of blowing up in your face (literally) is to attach revenue to it. Attaching money to what you are discussing during your updates is a great way to get people’s endorphins flowing. Everyone is at that table for one reason…to make money. That’s what business is all about. The more you can say statements like, “This project is nearly complete, and it will bring in an additional $200K this year,” or “You’ll be glad to know that this project saves an average of $20K per month,” the greater the sense of well-being you promote. You’ve just increased your odds of not getting accosted during your update.

Pre-Empt Issues

The third thing you can do to give a successful executive update happens before you even set foot in the meeting. You know what issues are going to arise and what is going to push people’s buttons, so pre-empt them; don’t wait to bring the matter up with your colleagues at the weekly meeting. Meet with them ahead of time and discuss the issue, so that it can be brought to resolution. Don’t use your and their precious time to air your dirty laundry during an update. The professional way to handle hot-button issues is to take them offline, work things out, and come with everything wrapped with a nice little bow for the Tuesday morning meeting.

Pull the Trigger

Here’s the way to seal the deal at the end of your executive update: be sure to finish with the following two words… “Any questions?” Give everyone a couple of seconds to reflect on your update. Start at one end of the table and move your gaze up to the other end of the table. If you’ve done your job well, then all you are going to hear is the oh-so-quiet, yet irritating rattling of the washer that’s loose on the ventilation duct above your head.

Silence means you’ve successfully pre-empted any issues, attached revenue to your update, and didn’t unnecessarily open a can of worms. You can even turn this into a game. See how many weeks you can go in a row with absolutely NO questions about your update. Make it, even more, fun by competing with another one of your project management counterparts to see who is asked fewer questions or not log-rolled each week.

One more thing…keep it brief. This is not the opportunity to hear yourself talk. Believe me, it doesn’t do you or your superiors any favors by blathering on about anything and everything not related to the immediate update.

Very few sane people would play Russian roulette week after week. But, it is sometimes a game of chance as to how people will react to our project updates each week. You can improve your success rates exponentially by applying the above suggestions!

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