Mastering the Art of Managing Up: Your Key to Confident Presentations

You prepared the deck for your presentation to the executive team with the best of intentions. You dutifully followed the somewhat vague directions from your boss. You hit presentation mode and begin. 

And then...

Arms start crossing, the CEO's brow furrows, the VP of Finance checks their phone. Your gut clenches as the slow-rolling horror of the meeting going off the rails hits you full force. 

And you think...

WTF just happened?

After you breathe into a bag to get over the initial shock, along with that awful feeling like you did something wrong, you notice the main emotion you're feeling is confusion. You don't understand how things went so wrong. You want to be effective at work, and you genuinely thought you were giving the executives what they wanted.

What happened here was a lack of managing up that started long before the presentation. 

Managing up properly will bulletproof you from bombing and increase your confidence in any situation. Here's how. 

1. Ask clarifying questions that move the action forward: Notice that our presenter was unclear about what was expected. The first part of managing up happens before you ever fire up your laptop: If you are unclear, you must ask clarifying questions to get on the same page. The trick is to a) ask questions in a way that makes it easy for your superiors to answer and b) moves the action forward.

Instead of asking, "What do you want?" which is too open-ended and can be frustrating for your superior because it requires them to do all the mental heavy lifting. Instead, step into your superior's shoes, anticipate what they might need, and give them a couple of options. For example, "For this meeting, I could either prepare 2-3 very high-level slides to elicit further discussion or a detailed deck that educates the executive team about our initiative. Which would you like or is there a preferred third option?"

Here's the thing: It doesn't matter if the first two options are right or wrong, what matters is that you're giving the executive something concrete to respond to, and that's moving the action forward. 

2. Name it: If a meeting starts going south, pause the conversation and talk about what's happening in the room. When we're bombing, our instinct tells us to keep plowing forward, get to the end of the conversation, and get the hell out of the room. That's the exact opposite of what you need to do. Instead, pause and name what's happening in the room. Not only is it ok to do this, but once you master this skill, you'll be able to confidently course-correct any meeting. 

Our intrepid presenter should've paused once she saw the crossed arms and furrowed brows. She could've said, "I'm going to pause here and check in because I'm noticing some quizzical expressions. Let's take a second to get aligned on what you're expecting." If the execs say this isn't at all what they were expecting, it's your opportunity to get clear on what the expectations are, and either pivot on the fly or reschedule the meeting. Whatever happens next will be better than plowing ahead like nothing's happened and you'll have clarity about what to do next.

3. It's not personal (Even when it seems very personal): Remember that feedback is always about something you're doing and not who you are. It's vital to depersonalize the feedback so you can 1) take it in fully without deflecting it,  2) stay present and confident even if things go awry, and 3) so it doesn't hurt your soul. 

Following these three simple steps will help you avoid those terrible gut-wrenching meetings and win over the prickliest executives. But even more importantly, managing up will make you feel confident, effective, and less stressed. 

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