I attended a meeting over a recent weekend where the featured speaker – an expert in his field – told the audience that he hadn’t prepared for the presentation he was in the process of delivering.  In fact, he never prepares for his clients, he added (rather gleefully, it seemed). 

As paying members of the audience, it was an interesting moment.  Some in the room were visibly impressed at how this speaker could be as effective as he was without preparing.  ‘Work smart, not hard’ is a mantra that’s been championed forever - this speaker seemed to embody the idea that if he could be good onstage and not prepare, why should he bother?

It recalls a conversation from the recent past, when the media and pundits contrasted the differences in the preparation styles of Clinton and Trump leading into the 2016 Presidential debates. Clinton was reported to have prepared at length -link to articleTrump said, “I don’t want to put so much practice in that all of a sudden you’re not who you are.” -link to article. These divergent approaches to presentation reinforce the dilemma we see unfolding in boardrooms and executive suites everywhere.

Why preparation matters

At Bates, we’re fans of preparation and effort.  Call it a hazard of the profession:  We help companies bridge the gap from strategy to execution by advising and consulting with leaders to drive enterprise-wide business results.  Our research with thousands of individual executives and senior leadership teams underscores how the best companies accomplish this – through communicative leadership that engages, inspires, and aligns others to act.  To execute a strategy on a global scale requires leaders to be trusted by thousands, to be seen as influential and credible by thousands more, and to be able to get many, many others inspired around a vision of the future.  Even outstanding leaders can’t pull off a mandate of that magnitude without preparing.  

If that’s true, then why do some leaders make a point of broadcasting how they don’t prepare?  It recalls times in school when the cool kid sitting next to you boasted about getting an ‘A’ on the test without even studying.  Suddenly, preparing for something is equated with “loserville”, and studying for the test means you’re some kind of sucker who hasn’t figured out the smarter, faster way to get results.

The 3 myths of preparation

In our work with leaders, we’ve also seen negative, or misleading perceptions about preparation that can derail even the brightest amongst them:

  • Smart leaders shouldn’t have to prepare: Consider the senior executive who was given lower ratings in the category of substance, measuring facets of leadership that point to credibility (as measured by our Executive Presence Index).  Stakeholders of this C-suite executive said she showed up to meetings with too many notes.  As one commented, “At her level, she should just know her stuff. It looks like she overprepared.” Worth noting:  This leader runs a nearly one-billion-dollar project at the company, leads a global team of thousands, and is a recognized thought leader.  Probably safe to assume she knows her stuff. 
  • If you prepare too much, you’ll be inauthentic: It isn’t uncommon to hear a perception that too much preparation interferes with authenticity or produce an effect of someone overly rehearsed, scripted, or wooden.  Our research disputes this notion; in fact, leaders who are strong communicators are seen as much more transparent, more genuine, and more authentic than peers who may improvise or wing it.  While some may be able to speak off the cuff effectively, more often than not, we hear reports of leaders with rambling presentations, long answers, or a lack of a succinct, crisp message.
  • I’m a natural: Think about the supermodels who tell us they can just eat whatever they want and not gain a pound – there’s a notion that great things can happen without little effort on our parts. But great leaders are made, not born, and our work with executives gives us a front row seat to the high level of preparation that’s really taking place.  We know that it takes a lot of work to come across as natural, unrehearsed, and conversational.  Make no mistake, many of the “natural” leaders you see are very likely getting coached and working hard behind the scenes to show up at their best. And clearly, it’s working.

Getting preparation just right

In our line of work, we’ve seen how these myths impact our clients who find themselves confronted with mixed messages about preparation and effort.  Underprepare, and you’re seen as not doing your homework, and you risk showing up not looking ready for the game.  Overprepare, and you’re seen as not knowing your stuff, trying too hard, and wasting precious time.  Instead, consider the following:

  1. Take preparation out of the closet: As a senior leader, share your preparation process with your team.  Take the ‘shame’ out of it:  Be open about the time and energy you put into showing up at your best, or what happened when you didn’t prepare well, and come clean with long it really takes you to be prepared.  Tell stories about your own journey and where you started, and link progress to effort.  This not only helps you, it sets your team on a path for success.
  2. Watch for putting talent on a pedestal: The work in this area (championed by Dr. Carol Dweck and Malcolm Gladwell, among others) is clear – praising talent and achievement, over effort and improvement, is dangerous territory. Create a culture where how you get the ‘A’ becomes as important as the ‘A’ itself, and that preparing is something that the best leaders do to become even better.  Continue to dispute messages that equate preparing with ‘not knowing your stuff.’
  3. Some don’t have the luxury to be unprepared: It’s a competitive environment, and nobody can afford to be underprepared; this is even more true for women and leaders of color, and the research bears this out.  As one client – an executive woman of color – recently mentioned, “I have to scrutinize every memo that goes out under my name.  One grammar mistake opens me up to all kinds of stereotypes and it isn’t worth it.”  As leaders, recognize the role that bias plays in feeding perceptions about effort and preparation, and call them out to raise awareness.

At Bates, we work with some of the very best leaders in the world, and we know that preparation is one of the important ways they’ve been able to deliver such consistently strong business results.  As a client recently told us, “If I don’t have to prepare for anything, that’s a sign that I’m not challenging my organization or myself with new things.  If it’s all too easy, I’m probably just phoning it in.”   Preparation is one of the ways outstanding leaders and organizations drive results – starting with the behavior and messages from the top.

If you are interested in this topic, you may also enjoy this post creating a powerful presentation.

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