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Presenting to an Egomaniac? Get Your Head Right First

leadership: managing yourself

You are dreading an upcoming presentation to senior leaders, or the C-Staff, or the Board. You are dreading it because at least one person has a rep as a egomaniac. Sotto voce: you might have a different descriptor of that person you prefer to use!

Whatever you choose to call him/her, you know the type: they are smart, sure, but you sometimes wonder if they are not also a bit insecure since they spend so much time trying to make sure you and everyone else knows how smart they are.

A super annoying way they often try to look better is by making those around them look worse. They: 1) highlight something they know in more detail than you do, 2) act like a dog on a pant leg about some point in your presentation you haven't thought about, or 3) hold court about some topic they feel illuminates their brilliance, whether relevant or not.

You have walked away from past presentations to people like this feeling downright awful about some combination of the presentation itself, your accomplishments, or your abilities. And you are dreading getting sautéed again and the feelings that follow.

Some think the way to handle bullies on the playground is to standup to them. But in Corporate settings, with all the power games and financial stakes, that could backfire badly with you being the only one who gets wiped out.

A better approach is to "get your head right" beforehand, so you don't so easily get thrown off your game by the egomaniac's inevitable stunts.

Here are four strategies and re-frames.  They are not theory.  I and my clients have successfully field-tested all of them in presentations with real egomaniacs!

That one move changes the game to one you can actually win.

Don't Try to be Right. Try to Learn.

If you walk into situations like this trying to be bullet-proof and perfect and get everything right, you've lost before the presentation even starts. You're not going to get everything right, in general, and it's especially not going to happen with an egomaniac who wants to show how smart s/he is.

What to do instead?  Focus on what you might learn.

When you are trying to be right, you tighten up because you are afraid of making a mistake. On the other hand, when you are trying to learn, you open up. Opening up to learning shows a real confidence.  The people in the room will "smell" that.

Early in my consulting career, I had a client who was the President of one of the GE Capital businesses. In that capacity, he had to get in front of the late Jack Welch three times a year to present the status and strategies for his business.

I am not saying Jack Welch was an egomaniac. But he was wicked-sharp, had a nose for BS, and was a real handful to present to.

I asked my client if he got nervous presenting to Welch and he told me that he didn't. I wondered at first if that was bravado, but I have never forgotten the next thing he said: "I know what I think about my business. I am interested in learning what Welch thinks about my business.”

A mindset like that completely changes the dynamic from a presentation that has to be perfect to a dialogue around current reality and the best options for addressing it. It is now not about who is right and who is wrong but instead a great chance to compare mental models and for the whole group to get smarter.

That one move...focusing on what you can learn...changes the game to one you can actually win.

Be Able to Articulate Your Unit's Weaknesses Better Than Anyone Else

A few times each year, the Northern California Women's Hockey League (NCWHL) sponsors a Give-Hockey-a-Try day, for women of ages, shapes, and athletic (or not) backgrounds. NCWHL provides all the equipment so no one is deterred by the big investment in equipment to just see what hockey might be like.

As a hockey player myself, I admire anyone who even tries. It is not easy for adults to try something new and hockey is especially challenging.

Before they skate anywhere, before they pass, before they shoot, before some of them even let go of the boards they are clinging to for dear Life, the instructors (other women in the NCWHL) tell everyone to just stand where they are and fall on the ice. When the women struggle back to their skates, they have them do it again. And again. And again.

Why do they start with this? So everyone can learn that because of all the padding, it doesn't really hurt to fall, which is a big part of what everyone is stark-raving terrified about.

So before you present to someone who you are worried will try to expose your weaknesses, uncover them yourself. Get a notepad and list your business/function/unit's weakness and all the vulnerabilities/threats/missed opportunities...all of them: competition, customers, strategy, execution, technology, talent, skills, culture. Then sketch out some possible steps or countermeasures to close those gaps.

There.  That is everything that is currently sub-optimal.  Everything you have fears and doubts about. That's falling on the ice.  It is not business situation is just is.  What then is s/he going to point out that you haven't already faced?

If s/he shines a light on some weakness, simply reply, “This is how I view the situation and what our options are to address it. What do you think? Is there anything I'm not thinking about that I should be?”

No normal leader expects anyone to be perfect...just to understand their business and the situation and to have a plan to accelerate progress or close gaps.

If s/he is not a normal leader, does in fact expect perfection, and therefore decides to keep grinding you during your presentation, well, keep reading.

"You're Going to Get Cut. You're Trying Not to Get Killed."

I earned my black belt in Aikido from Sensei William Gleason in Boston. One of our training modalities was to practice against an attacker with a knife. Mercifully, the "knives" we practiced with were wooden.

As the training began, our Sensei used to remind us that in a real confrontation with an armed attacker, "You're going to get cut. You're trying not to get killed."

That is a useful aphorism for getting your head right when presenting to an egomaniac. You're going to get cut: s/he will find something to pick on or some detail to dig out of your charts and pound on. That's their MO. Don't worry about that.

When s/he dredges something up you have not considered, say something like, “Great point. I apologize, but I don't have the level of detail you are looking for right now.  Would it be OK if I did some research and got back to you with my assessment and recommendations?"

If s/he won't let their point go, at some point say, "I did hear you and I do acknowledge it is an important issue.  I again apologize for not knowing this in more detail. I suggested that I research the matter and close the loop with you. Is there something more you are looking for from me right now? If not, what would be the most productive use of the time remaining for you?”

The "most productive use of the time remaining" question often breaks the spell and stops their perseveration.  This works especially well if the egomaniac is one of several people you are presenting to as others might also be weary of the show and advocate for moving on.

But guess what?  Sometimes even this doesn't work and the egomaniac keeps pounding away.  Clearly there is some other "agenda."  Your best option is probably to just let him/her finish showboating.

Afterwards, if you feel some line of respect or human decency was crossed, it might be worth reflecting as to whether this job and this company are the right place for you when senior leader behavior like that is tolerated.

Is the Negative Self-talk of Service?

As mentioned in the introduction, after presenting to egomaniacs in the past, you may have walked out feeling bad, questioning yourself, and beating yourself up about your prep, the presentation, your poise, your results, your overall adequacy as a leader, etc.

Odds are s/he never actually said you were dumb or that your presentation sucked or that you were ineffectual. If anyone actually did say that, it was probably you.

If you want to use self-talk to build a case against yourself, that's your call. But you might want to ask yourself (and others!) whether your negative self-talk is objectively true. Even if it is true, you might then ask:  to what end...what's the objective of putting myself down?

I don't know you, but I'm a betting man.  I would bet against the former as you would not be presenting to someone at that level if you were as inadequate as your self-talk seems to suggest.  

As for the latter, I am not sure you will find many successful athletes or high level performers in any domain who attribute their success to negative self-talk.  If it didn't help them, how's it going to help you?

Neo finally got his head right and realized he was The One. The audience knew because he said "No," and put his hand up.

There are other odds and ends suggestions I teach when I coach leaders on Effective Presentations, but the most important thing is to be mentally ready for the flak you will likely take.

The re-frames here are battle-tested.  They will help you handle an egomaniac's antics with aplomb. And not getting flustered might even earn you some respect, which is likely to affect how your future presentations go.

In the scene from The Matrix pictured above, Neo finally got his head right and realized he was the One.  The audience knew because he said "No," and put his hand up. What happened to the Agents he had been running from and fighting with the whole movie?  They simply vanished.

Things seem to change quickly once you get your head right.