Dear Coach: How Do I Not Tank with Senior Leaders?

September 15, 2022   |   Julie Diamond

What’s the Problem?

Dear Coach, I am a great presenter and communicator with my peers and direct reports, but I tank whenever I get in front of senior leaders. Obviously, these types of presentations are incredibly important, and I can’t quite pinpoint if it’s nerves, situational, or a more deeply rooted issue. 

How do I get past this and set myself up for success with senior leaders?


Tired of Tanking


First, let’s unpack this. Your question tells us that:

  • You’re seeing senior leaders as distinctly different from your direct reports or peers.
  • Being equals or in a position of power might feel easier to you than being in a one-down position.
  • You may lack sufficient insight into people with power/above you, and therefore your own feelings and self-talk fill the gap. 
  • You don’t see that the people above you need what you have to offer.

So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:

  • It seems you gain and lose your sense of personal power depending on who you’re talking to, and this changes how you show up.
  • You likely imbue qualities of greater capacity, intelligence, and importance to those above you than you do to your peers or direct reports. 
  • By over-focusing on the outer situation (the leaders), you end up under-focusing on what you have to give.
  • You’re overvaluing the role of positional power and neglecting your personal, expert, and informal sources of power.

What’s the Solution?

To get past this, you’ll need to do two main things to shift your mindset.

First, focus on what you have to offer. If you’re being invited to give this presentation, someone thinks you’re the expert; draw confidence from that as you take inventory of your powers—personal, expert, and informal—and how they/you can add value in this context. 

Second, rethink your ideas about people in power. See the senior leaders as people who are counting on your contribution. It’s unlikely they woke up this morning trying to figure out how to intimidate you or make your life harder; rather, they probably woke up thinking about the work (the customers, the bottom line, the team) and ready to hear what you have to contribute. 

Once you feel good about this new perspective, a good first step is to take some extra care in preparing for your next presentation to senior leaders. 

Remember that those above you are people, just like you, that need help. Prepare by:

  • Asking yourself what problems they are trying to solve and how you can help them. What knowledge/insights/resources do you have that they do not?
  • Writing down (and bring with you) your three most important points. It’s easy to forget what you most wanted to say in the swirl of conversation, and you’ll feel less flustered if you have it jotted down.
  • Asking yourself the anticipated questions ahead of time. Not only will this help you develop your critical thinking skills, but it will also build your confidence knowing you’ve already thought through the tough stuff. Try asking yourself this question about everyone who will be in the room, “If I were [INSERT EXECUTIVE’S NAME] what would I want to know about this project?”
  • Getting specific and writing down what you have to offer that can help them solve their problem—is it data, insight, or perspective? And don’t forget about your personal attributes like curiosity, humor, directness, clarity, or warmth. 

You are valuable and you’ve got this!

Each month we answer questions we often get from the leaders we work with and unpack how at the end of the day, every problem is a power problem. If you have an issue you just can’t solve, get in touch! We’d love to answer your questions in an upcoming Dear Coach post. Find us at [email protected], or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.