Briefing Senior Leaders

How to brief (make a presentation to) your boss

By Mark D. Harris

One of the most daunting tasks faced by junior officers in the military, and subordinates in any organization, is how to formally communicate with their boss and other senior leaders. Some senior leaders are easy to communicate with; they welcome open discussion and make those briefing them comfortable. Others are hard to communicate with, and as people progress up the ranks they find that senior leaders become harder and harder to brief.

This is not because senior leaders are bad people morally, they are certainly not worse than others on average. It is not because they are stupid or lazy; senior leaders have to be relatively intelligent and ambitious or they wouldn’t make it to senior levels. Rather it is because they are very busy people who don’t have time for the unprepared, the uninterested, the verbose, and the comic. They expect their subordinates to bring them trustworthy information, problems and solutions. Such leaders don’t have the time or the ability to double the information they are given, and they can’t fix everything, regardless of their position.

The Boss Is Neither Friend nor Foe

Senior leaders are not your friend. One of the biggest mistakes a junior briefer can make is to treat their boss like a buddy; someone that they might hang out at a bar with. One Navy captain in charge of construction on an installation, was asked by an admiral when the barbeque pit for wounded warriors would be done. He replied “In time for barbeque season.” Such a response takes your breath away, and is not likely to engender favor with senior leaders. Some senior leaders are friendly and others frosty, some are unflappable and others are unpleaseable, but no briefer should treat them, at least not during a formal briefing, as a friend.

Neither is the senior leader your foe. He has a mission to accomplish and has limited time and resources in which to do it. Brusque tones, interruptions or curt replies shouldn’t be taken as a personal attack; they rarely are.

Use the Leader’s Language

Preparing a good brief begins before the first word is spoken. Senior leaders do a lot of communicating, both verbal and written, and junior leaders must listen carefully to what they say. In the military, senior leaders frequently put out a “command philosophy” as well as guidance on the mission and vision of the organization. Briefs from subordinates should demonstrate how they have nested their issues into the mission, vision and philosophy of their leader.

Make sure to know the senior leader’s priorities at all times. If you are unsure, check with his staff or even him. Brief topics that are priorities and those that are important. Each person has their own priorities but can’t be allowed to shift focus and resources away from those of the boss.

There are two purposes for a formal brief. The first is to inform the listeners (especially the senior leader) about an issue. The second is to get a decision, usually one desired by the briefer, from the senior leader. Whether providing an information brief or a decision brief, junior leaders should use language that the senior leader they are briefing has used before. They should also use it in the way that he used it whenever possible. First, it proves to the leader that the briefer has been listening. Second, people understand better when they hear terms that they already know. Third, everyone likes to be validated by hearing their words from someone else’ mouth.

One subordinate of mine was especially good. I frequently tell my staff that even if they don’t have command or other formal authority over others in a situation, they can still “exercise influence” and “shape the battlefield”. In one brief several months ago this officer was explaining a complicated issue over which we had limited control. He said “Sir, I know that we cannot force this decision but if we execute course of action 2, it will dramatically increase our influence and ability to shape the battlefield.” I smiled inside. This officer was right; we did what he recommended and the issue was eventually resolved in our favor.

Use The Format That The Senior Leader Wants To Use. Ask Questions

Senior leaders in any organization address hundreds of challenging issues, and see hundreds if not thousands of slides and other briefing materials, per week. Most have a preferred format for these slides; one that communicates best to them, and briefers must learn to use their boss’ preferred format. As a young officer this made no sense to me, but with time I have learned that there are many reasons leaders do it.

1. Personal issues – if your boss wants big letters, she may be nearsighted. If he wants different colors, he may be red-green color blind. If she wants a certain font, she may have trouble deciphering some. Senior leaders tend to be older than their subordinates and often have excellent personal reasons for wanting something a certain way.
2. Clarity – some slides are simply too busy and confusing, while others say little and are a waste of time. Using your boss’ suggested format can help avoid these problems. Furthermore, inconsistent slide format itself can distract viewers so that they focus on the format and not on the content.
3. Image – each organization wants to portray a certain image to itself and to the outside world. Each stakeholder has an idea of what the organization should be and wants it to fit their mental image. Health care facilities should have slides that portray competence and compassion while armored divisions should have slides that portray power. Leaders know this and choose a format for slides, and all of their other communications, that reflects the image they want.
4. Aligning with another organization – Lower headquarters will often use communication tools such as slides to visually align themselves with higher headquarters. Slides in Army medicine, for example, typically have a medical emblem and an Army emblem.
5. Preference – There are as many other reasons as there are bosses. Junior leaders should simply use the slide format that the boss wants.

Never Embarrass the Boss

Another big mistake in briefing a senior leader is to embarrass him or her in public. This includes asking questions that he or she is not prepared to answer, and bringing up controversial items in an open forum. One way to avoid both of these problems is to send the slides that you will be using to the leader 72 working hours ahead of time. This will give him an opportunity to review the brief and make changes. He may tell you to take something out, put something in, or change something else, but either way he will not be blindsided. A copy should go to the staff of the senior leader because they will be able to troubleshoot the brief as well. When you get updates, change the brief accordingly.

Along the same lines, anticipate how the senior leader and everyone else in the room, will react to each item. Communicators are briefing not only the boss, but also everyone in the room, on the phone, and in the videoteleconference.

You’ve Got Two Minutes with the Elephant…Use It Well

Be concise and quick. A senior leader have very little time to spend on each brief, so communicators must capture his attention quickly. Brief the most important issues, especially the ones that he needs to do something about, first. Also, don’t repeat on the same slide or even different slides. A slide that I saw recently had the same information three different times on the same slide. It is OK to repeat a verbal point because repetition is necessary for the ear, but don’t repeat a written point on a slide.

When You Swim With Sharks, Don’t Bleed

Early in my medical internship in El Paso Texas I was on call for the orthopedics service and was scheduled to present a patient to the orthopedic senior physicians the following morning. It was a busy night and I wasn’t as prepared as I wanted to be for the morning report. I began by reporting the patient’s injury, the ambulance call, and the patient’s time in the emergency department in detail. I tried to answer a few questions but could not. Before I had even finished a senior orthopedist stopped my presentation in mid sentence and said in a voice that filled the room: “congratulations, that was the worst patient presentation I have ever heard.” The other orthopedic surgeons were amused, the residents laughed aloud, and I left the room feeling a lot like Charlie Brown.

Afterwards a sympathetic resident came up to me and said “Know everything about your patient. Anticipate every question that they will ask and be ready. These guys are sharks and if you show the slightest uncertainty or weakness, they will eat you alive. When you swim with sharks, don’t bleed.” Not every brief of senior leaders will be this painful, but some will. However embarrassing, they provide a not-to-be-missed opportunity to improve.

Every briefer must do the same. Know your slides or brief inside and out. Review them carefully and anticipate questions before the brief. Have colleagues “Murder board” the brief, asking tough questions in adversarial tones. It cannot be emphasized enough “when you swim with sharks, don’t bleed.”

Identify and Brief Outcome, Not Just Process, Metrics, and Focus on the Right Outcomes

In the 1980s emergency departments routinely started a lidocaine drip to prevent abnormal heart rhythms in heart attack patients. In the 1990s primary care providers routinely prescribed estrogen to control menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms in older women. A common quality of care metric was whether or not the medication was prescribed, and doctors could be punished for not doing these widely accepted interventions.

As more studies on lidocaine in heart attack patients and estrogen in post-menopausal women were completed, however, researchers discovered that patients who received lidocaine died more often than those who did not. Worse patient outcomes also occurred in women who received estrogen. The medical conventional wisdom turned out to hurt people, not help them. Why, because it measured a process (whether medications were given) and focused on the wrong outcomes (heart rhythm and menopausal symptoms) rather than the important outcomes (death and serious disease).

Mistakes like this happen in every area. Emergency managers sometimes measure preparedness by the number and type of ambulances available to respond to an event (a process measure) rather than by the ability to evacuate patients from that event, forgetting that ambulances are not the only way, and sometimes not even the best way, to move injured people. Businesses measure how many customers say they are pleased with the company (the wrong outcome measure) rather the measuring how many become loyal customers and encourage their friends to become loyal customers as well (the right outcome measure).

If You Need the Senior Leader To Do Something, Let Him Know Exactly What You Want Him To Do

Every leader, no matter how senior, has limited power and influence. The best are acutely aware of their limits and are careful in how they exercise their authority. As influence and power increase they become more associated with perception; a person’s power and influence are what others perceive it to be. Consider the US President, the “most powerful man in the world.” His power over the mightiest military and largest economy in the world is impressive, but it is completely limited by the will of the people. If others don’t do what he wants, the President has little power. Even if they comply his power is limited by physical realities, the other branches of government, businesses and other organizations, and the rest of the world. Tyrants such as Nero since the dawn of time have forgotten this, and paid a heavy price.

Junior leaders should try to identify the scope of their boss’ authority and consider their issue from his perspective. Avoid comments and requests that don’t directly impact the leader’s area of responsibility. If the boss runs a tank company in Iraq or an auto distributor in Texas, don’t brief him on the price of corn in Kansas. Also consider, “If my leader grants my request, how will other stakeholders perceive the decision?” If there will be opposition, the leader must decide how much it will be and how to handle it. The astute junior leader will have considered all of this before making a request.

A new hospital commander asked my preventive medicine team to provide an introductory brief and asked for three things that he could do to help us. As we planned for the meeting, one junior leader suggested that we ask to hire several new people and one wanted to increase our budget by more than 30%. I refused, telling them that our requests had to be targeted to an important mission, carefully thought through, and limited to what our new boss could actually do. Rather than requesting new hires we asked for authority over another section that was key to our mission but administratively owned by a different department. Rather than trying to increase our budget we suggested that some funds allocated to a little used line item shared between departments be redirected to our department. He agreed to both.

Don’t Tell Him Something That He Already Knows, Don’t Assume That He Knows More Than He Does, and Don’t Be Hard to Follow

The most senior leaders have a broad scope of duties and will probably not know nearly as much as any individual subject matter expert does. He will know the mission, vision, and idea behind whatever is being briefed so speakers must not speak in generalities. Too many briefers waste slides with statements like “this will save money” or “this will improve quality of care” without providing any details on how it will do either.

The message of each slide or other document should be clear at a glance. Briefers should cover the slide top to bottom and left to right, just like reading. If the boss needs more details, take them from the slide notes, illustrate them with back up slides, or explain them in supporting documents.

If a process is involved then ensure a read ahead was provided which explains the process. The slides should walk the leader step by step through the process. Have the same slides during the brief and answer any questions on the process at the brief.

Have an assistant capture all comments and tasks/due outs from the meeting

It is not possible to carefully observe a meeting or briefing, capture all of the due outs and give the brief at the same time. Be sure that at least one another person attends to support the briefer.

Execute the due outs as quickly as possible and report to the appropriate person (staff or senior leader) ASAP. Use the approved reporting format.

It is OK to mess up occasionally when doing a briefing to a senior leader; it is not OK to make the same mistake again. Junior leaders, colleagues and administrative support personnel (when available) should look at what went wrong and what went right after each brief to a senior leader. Then they should consider how to fix their errors and how to build on their successes.


Briefing senior leaders can be frightening to subordinates and many try to avoid it altogether. Some senior leaders make themselves easy to communicate with and some make it hard. Some junior officers are naturally better at communicating and some are worse. Nonetheless, every officer and leader, junior or senior, owes it to his or her organization to be the best communicator that he or she can be.

Having written this essay, the reader may presume that the author considers himself an expert in the topic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The tips contained herein are the honest fruits of years of work, both successes and failures. Pain has proven to be a greater teacher. Even though I know many good things to do, I sometimes don’t find the time to do them. The journey to excellence in communication seems short, but actually lasts a lifetime.

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