Talk the boardroom talk

The ability to impress the board is a talent still worth nurturing, discovers Julia Vowle

No matter how well conceived and well planned a business IT project is, securing board-level approval and funding still depends on a winning sales technique.

The trick, according to Cranfield School of Management's Robina Chatham speaking at last week's IT Directors Forum, is to know what makes the people you want to influence tick. Then you can tell them what they want to hear, the way they want to hear it.

But how do you work out what does make them tick? One well-established means of evaluating personality types is to apply the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI).

Originating in Jungian psychology, the Myers-Briggs methodology classifies personality types according to four key parameters, each of which exhibits two alternatives. People are either extrovert or introvert (E/I); sensitive or intuitive (S/N); thinkers or feelers (T/F); judgmental or perceptive (J/P) - and in any combinations thereof.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the favourite personality type for IT professionals is ISTJ - introverted thinkers, strongly data-oriented, who like to be organised, structured, productive, decisive and responsible. They have a low level of people skills, intuition and passion, and little sense of adventure.

But what happens when a stereotypical ISTJ-type IT manager enters the boardroom to make a pitch? Left to their own inclinations, they will probably make ISTJ -oriented presentations - typically with structured, logical agendas that are rigorously followed, backed up by substantial statistics to make the case, and demonstrating both a good cost-to-benefit ratio and the metrics to measure the results.

While the good news is that this may well appeal to the finance director (accountants are typically ISTJ types too), most chief executives are ENTJ - extroverted, intuitive, thinkers, and judgmental - and will have switched off 30 seconds into the ISTJ's presentation.

What this type of people hate most, says Chatham, is the dreaded sequential "slow reveal" point-by-point mode of presentation. Being highly intuitive, they want the big picture up-front. Far better to show them a quadrant so they can take in all the choices and outcomes at once. They like to know that things make sense and are intellectually cogent, rather than statistically demonstrable. Don't overload them with detail (they overload very easily). They also tend to be naturally arrogant and like to tell you things so allow for this in your presentation.

While all this may sound highly theoretical, the Forum's hands-on workshops really brought out the classification's applicability.

Making an ST-oriented presentation, for example, showed just how precise and detailed one's approach has to be. The brief "this project will cost £50,000 and take four weeks" immediately lost the STs in the forum's audience while they worked out this meant spending £2,500 a day.

Moreover, it is a mistake to give ST-types any options on the level of investment. To an ST, there is only one right answer - the business case just has to prove it and you'll get your money. Never use vague words like "concept" or "maybe".

Pitching to SF personalities, by contrast, has to involve a huge human element. SFs are strongly people-oriented and want practical solutions. Presenting to them requires demonstrating how real people will benefit from the project. Don't use slides or overheads. Talk to them face to face to persuade them.

For ST types, perhaps the hardest personality to pitch to, as the workshop showed, is the NF type. They are the idealistic, creative, visionary types who like big ideas and bigger solutions (preferably global and eternal ones).

The trouble is, to hard-working, down-to-earth STs, the NFs come across as loud-mouthed, over-enthusiastic, content-free garbage merchants, who are totally unconnected with reality. It's tempting to laugh at them (and then shoot them).

"It can be difficult to act outside your comfort zone," Chatham says.

Her suggestion for dealing with opposite personality types, which applies to all counter-typological presentations, is to include the enemy in your team.

"For example, incorporate an NF into your group so that you can learn from them how to pitch to an NF," says Chatham.

So, is all this personality analysis just good fun but pretty daft? A lot of ISTJs will say yes and write it off as psycho-babble.

Perhaps the bottom line has to be to apply the same intellectual reservations that should be applied to all psychology (does it discover or invent?) but you should be prepared to deploy the techniques - non-obsessively - if they appear to work or be useful in practice.

The last word, therefore, has to go to one satisfied delegate at the forum who told the audience that he applied the Myers-Briggs typology when he wanted authorisation for his latest multimillion-pound project.

Having assessed the personality types of the stakeholders he needed to influence, he painstakingly prepared his presentations to appeal to each of them individually, even going so far as deciding whether or not to use a flip chart with a particular non-executive director who he had never met before.

A five-minute opening conversation with her identified her as an NF, so he decided not to use the flip chart.

"The preparation took more time and thought, but it went through first time - that's never happened before.

"The board discussed it for seven minutes and we got commitment and sign-on," he says happily.

Proof of the pudding? Try it and see. After all, you really have nothing to lose but your funding.

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