Board Fires CEO Over PowerPoint

When the day comes that a board of directors fires a CEO because of a PowerPoint, it will send a very clear signal about what is at stake these days when anyone gives a presentation. According to the Financial Times newspaper, that day has arrived.

FT writer Clay Harris reports about the firing yesterday of the CEO of Rentokil Initial, a UK company with 2003 sales of $4.3 billion and 93,000 employees:rentokil

“Although (chairman of the board and interim CEO Brian) McGowan denied there had been investor pressure to get rid of (ex-CEO James) Wilde, he said he had “spoken to many, many people – and that included investors – and I have to say there were concerns”. Wilde cut a sadly unprepossessing figure at Rentokil’s annual meeting… His presentation on Rentokil’s operations was death by PowerPoint – too long, too rambling, hesitant – red meat for shareholders who wanted to get their teeth into something.

“…It could have been a worse day as Wilde had even more slides ready in his initial presentation but had to be persuaded to jettison a big chunk of them. He also had turned down advice on communication, a stance that proved harder to sustain after the reviews.

“A career isn’t undone by one poor performance but the episode was a window into Wilde. Stubborn when it came to taking advice, perhaps he was also inflexible when it came to rethinking the business.”

You and I may not be CEOs of large corporations, but this story points to universal lessons that all of us can take to heart:

1. “His presentation…was too long, too rambling, hesitant.” These are common symptoms of “death by PowerPoint”, brought on by lack of constraints, lack of a clear problem-statement, and lack of focus. When we address these issues we can transform these lacking qualities into their more fulfilling opposites, and become clearer, more concise and confident.

2. “He…turned down advice on communication.” The most valuable advice you can get is from your audience. Do you regularly measure the results of your PowerPoint? If not, you need to start. When you have these measurements as your beginning point, then you can start applying a range of techniques to find the best fit for you and your results.

3. “The episode was a window into Wilde.” Like it or not, the feelings people have about your PowerPoint are the same feelings people have about you. If your audience feels bored, they’ll think you are boring, and if they feel confused, they’ll think you are confused. Likewise, if they’re engaged, they’ll think you’re engaging, and if they’re clear, they’ll think you’re clear. If your metrics tell you that your PowerPoint is not who you want to be, it’s time for a makeover.

The fact that a CEO’s firing was partly attributed to PowerPoint shows how much value often rides on our PowerPoint communications, not to mention the cultural and strategic issues at stake at organizations like NASA and the CIA.

A CEO told me recently he considers PowerPoint “something my secretary should do, not me.” It’s definitely the case that many executive assistants and managers have been bravely doing what they can to maintain PowerPoint presentations at a certain level of quality. But the person who owns final responsibility for the success of any PowerPoint is the presenter, which in this case is the CEO. All of us have much to learn about the misunderstood media called PowerPoint, but when CEOs in particular start to storyboard, evoke meaning, and split screens, for example, they will begin to unlock the floodgates of innovation and creativity through their entire organizations.

If the Rentokil story is a sign of things to come, we are at a turning point, where we can see the value of PowerPoint clearly enough to overcome our inertia and start turning the wheels of change.

Tip: Take a look through your PowerPoint presentations and consider how much is at stake here for both for you and your company. Quantify the value if you can, not in terms of man-hours of production time it takes to churn one out, but in terms of dollar value of business at stake if it doesn’t do the job. If it turns out you have too much to lose if things go wrong, it’s time to start investing the appropriate resources to make sure things go right. If you’re not a CEO and are looking for ways to bring about culture change, share the story of Rentokil and see if it can prompt some new dialogue and action.

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9 Responses to “Board Fires CEO Over PowerPoint”

  1. Aaron Post says:

    “we can see the value of PowerPoint clearly enough to overcome our inertia and start turning the wheels of change” – Maybe its time to move to Keynote?

  2. cliff says:

    Aaron, it’s just as easy to “kill by Keynote” — we just haven’t seen those sort of corporate obituaries because the software isn’t as widely used as PowerPoint. When we go to a place deep enough to solve our core communication problems, the solutions will flow freely across whatever technology we have at hand, whether PowerPoint, Keynote, or some other medium.

  3. Aaron says:

    I know, I was just kidding.

    But I have heard a lot of people mention how Keynote frees them up from the basic constraints of PowerPoint. What those are, I don’t know because I only use Keynote. I always found PowerPoint too distracting; too much for the basic presentation.

  4. Abhay Sinha says:

    A cinema or movoie, which is not well directed and therefore rejected by the viewers, will be disasterous for not only the producer but also for the actors, music director and other artists. Similarly, ppt presentation, which is not well thougt out, would be rejected by the viewers and would be disasterous for the presenter and for the company for which the ppt presentation has been given. Therefore the ppt presentation is not a bad thing provided it is used properly and thoughtfully.

  5. Excellent article, Cliff, especially your commentary. I can imagine the scene at this AGM: there’s little worse than an excruciatingly-painful public spectacle of a presenter who is truly awful. Maybe worse is that the presenter just doesn’t see that.

  6. Bridgette says:

    I am so glad to see that something was actually done to stop a bad presenter from torturing people. Especially when he apparently had a horrible PPT presentation. — Maybe executives will start to listen to those of us that are only trying to help them.

  7. Lin Wilson says:

    Nice work Cliff. This reminds me of Richard Saul Wurman’s concept about the “disease of familiarity.” Which is to say, when a company team or executive creates his/her own presentation, they have a permanent proximity to their own issues and so they lack the rigorous objectivity that outsiders have. They lose the knack of cold-hearted editing. When I see Steve Jobs give a “keynote”, you can tell someone else (marketing dept?) authored the slides.

  8. Board Fires CEO Over PowerPoint

    Link: beyond bullets: Board Fires CEO Over PowerPoint.

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