It's not about you

c. 1,400 words

My manager and I were standing outside the room where the Executive Team was meeting, waiting to be called in for our slot. I was trying not to pace around too much, wondering what questions I would get asked and making up answers in my head, as if I was already in the meeting. 

I felt excited and a little bit anxious. Okay, maybe a lot.

I was well-prepped, though. I’d followed my manager’s instructions: “no more than 5 slides; make it engaging; include a clear recommended way forward”. I'd spent hours figuring out how to best present things visually and had even practised my voiceover a few (dozen) times the evening before. As a young professional, I didn't get to meet with the Exec Team very often so this was my chance to make a good impression.

After a few minutes standing outside the door, we went in to present my work together. They listened carefully, shared a few thoughts, and asked a couple of questions which we addressed in the room. Overall the interaction lasted no more than 15 minutes and felt both pleasant and constructive. 

Once we had left the room, my manager thanked me for the ‘good work’, visibly pleased that the Exec had seemed suitably impressed.

Fast forward a few years. I’m managing a team of my own. It’s Monday morning. One of the guys in my team—let’s call him Francis—is finding himself in a bit of a pickle. 

His call for help comes at a time when I am struggling for time and headspace. Two work emergencies had landed on my lap a few days before and I’ve also been fighting the beginnings of a cold. 

But this is important—and Francis needs me.

I have two options: I can either scrap a few meetings from my diary and spend a couple of hours with him to iron this whole thing out, or I could ask him to summarise the problem in a few slides which I could scan in between meetings and we could discuss in 5-10 mins after that. 

Francis is training to be a leader so the second option feels like a better use of both his and my time. He’s not done this before much so it’s a great (and safe) opportunity for him to practice.

I give him the usual guidance, a bit mechanically, before scurrying off to the 9 o’clock meeting I am now late for: “no more than 5 slides; make it engaging; include a clear recommended way forward”.

The day goes by like a whirlwind. It’s 20:30. My head feels like a melon. I’m about to log off when an email from Francis lands in my inbox. Great. I double-click to open the attachment. 

I see 10 slides—and another 5 in the appendix. My eyes start scanning them one after the other, not really engaging with any of it. I see many words; tiny font; some stuff in bold; some in italics; some in red; some in green. I see a few highly complex graphs and note the absence of any kind of take-aways next to them. There’s a summary slide at the top but it’s one of those slides that’s overflowing with so much information that I can feel myself moving away from the screen, as if to escape it.

I can’t do this. 

I have too much on my plate right now to have the time or the patience to trawl through those 15 slides to find the important bits. I’m too tired to engage with paragraph after paragraph written in font size 6. 

As I was staring at the screen, wondering whether to send the presentation back to Francis for refining or to ‘just dive into it and get it over with’ I suddenly ‘got’ what my managers and mentors had been trying to teach me all those years.

Francis was trying to show me all the good work that he’d been doing on that project when all I wanted was for him to tell me what the problem was and where he needed my help. 

I’d been making the same mistake as the one he was making now for years.

I’d always gone into the room with the Exec Team thinking it was about me. About me doing good work. About me preparing a set of slides that showed off that work. About me presenting those slides well. I felt impressed by them and I wanted to impress them too. Like a student who wants good marks.

But this wasn’t university. I wasn’t Francis’ teacher. 

And the Exec weren’t my teachers either. They were humans who had to solve real-life problems. Busy humans. Tired humans. Humans who have their own job to do without having to do mine too.

In the minutes that followed, I started realising that each of the elements in that guidance actually contained an implicit and much more ‘real’ request that no one had ever bothered making explicit. 

The implicit request behind ‘no more than 5 slides’ was for me to take on the responsibility to curate information I had such that the humans on the receiving end ended up engaging with no more than they needed to. That way, they might get some time back to make a cup of tea or go to the bathroom before their next meeting—or it might even help them not have to read my piece over the weekend.

The implicit request behind ‘make it engaging’ was for me to bear in mind that my presentation was probably one of ten that they had to read ahead of their meeting. I should create a piece that didn’t require them to take a deep breath or drink an extra cup of coffee before they could engage with it.

The implicit request behind ‘include a clear recommended way forward’ was for me to acknowledge that there’s only so much decision-making that humans can do in a day, and that it’s much easier for a human to react to a proposal than to come up with one. I should figure out what the next step should be for my own projects and have the courage to propose that step to the Exec.

Realising that didn’t change that much on the face of it but it changed everything inside of me. 

Up until now, I had understood with my head what I needed to do to do my job well. I knew what motions I needed to go through to get ‘good marks’. Now, I understood it in my bones—and my behaviour started shifting immediately.

Instead of limiting myself to making a presentation under five slides, I started behaving like a curator of information. I only included information on the slide that absolutely needed to be there. If that meant I had three slides, excellent. If that meant I had six, so be it.

Instead of giving the Exec Team the recommendation that I thought they wanted to hear, I thought hard about what options were available and consciously put energy into deciding what I personally wanted to recommend based on what my own reason and gut-feel were advising me to recommend. 

I’d like to say I started spending less time on design. I could have but I didn’t. Only because I’m wired to want things to look really good, because it helps me think better, and because it’s one of the things that made my presentations really stand out—like my own personal brand.

I started spending more time and brain power on the things that really mattered. It did require me to use my neurons in a different way than I had up until then, which was both fun and empowering. 

With each presentation, I progressively trained myself to identify any ‘fluff’ in an argument. To focus on progress over perfection. To make decisions more confidently. 

I was training myself to become a stronger leader. A leader that understands the work that needs to be done even when no clear guidance is given on how to do it. A leader that the Exec Team trusts as an ally. 

And believe me, being an ally to your Exec Team—and others in general—is a career accelerator that being a ‘good student’ never will be, even if you are top of the class.

Note: the photo above is a snippet from a photo by Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash