When Peter Munk recently apologized for his company's failure to enhance shareholder value, he set a rare example of executive candor.
The chief executive of Toronto-based Horsham Corp. displayed corporate responsibility few business people show shareholders, notes public speaking guru Peter Urs Bender.
Seldom do executives make public apologies for corporate shortcomings, says Bender, who expounds the concept of "power presentations" in about a hundred speeches and lectures he gives each year.
"We have failed in the most fundamental responsibility that a public company has toward its shareholders and that's really the delivery of value to you," Munk told Horsham's annual meeting. "It's not acceptable, we shall not live with it, and we shall do something about it."
Munk heads a holding company with controlling interests in Barrick Gold Corp., developer Trizec Corp. Ltd. and oil refiner Clark USA Inc.
His statement at the annual meeting is a hallmark of good leadership, Bender says.
"His apology is rare on the corporate scene. It's a leadership quality to take responsibility and not blame the circumstances."
Like Munk, other executives face the task of reporting unpleasant news to shareholders as well as employees. It's a nightmare of a job for executives going through annual meetings, especially when a company's fortunes are uncertain.
In such a situation, what can an executive do?
"You, as the executive, have to come to terms with your company's situation," says Bender. "Be it ever so difficult, the facts are the facts.
If an executive is afraid of the facts, or at peace with them, he'll communicate his thoughts through words, voice, emotion and body language, he says.
Bender, 55, who wrote Secrets of Power Presentations has been a public speaking practitioner for the past 12 years. His book is now used by classes at several colleges and universities.
"Public speaking is one of the greatest fears that executives have - higher than death and taxes," he writes.
In presentations in Canada and a dozen other countries, he provides advice on how executives and leaders can leave a lasting, positive impression on their audience, despite unfavorable developments.
At the outset, present the facts cleanly and simply, he tells executives. Find the "real positives" and deal with the "negatives" head on.
"What gives you hope for the future? Communicate it. If it inspires you, it will inspire others."
Get help to prepare professional graphs, slides or computerized visuals; Bender suggests.
"Help people to really see where the company is. They will leave feeling satisfied at having been told the truth."
He says it's important that executives tell people how they feel about where the company is going. "If they know it concerns you, if they feel your feelings, they'll be more understanding and less hostile."
It's when people sense an executive is masking the truth or lying outright that they really get upset, he says.
Executives must also listen and hear people's views, Bender says.
"When people are disgruntled, what they most want is someone to listen to them. Hear their pain and frustration."
Don't reject "crazy" ideas from shareholders or employees, but see if you can build on them, he says. "They may hold the seeds to the answers you're looking for - to increase their satisfaction and your company’s profits."
Practising beforehand gives an executive a good head start, Bender says.
"Know what you're going to say. Practise smiling, breathing and speaking with power. Rehearse using your computer or slides, so you can know they work. And if you're up to it, try it out on your friends or a small group or staff or suppliers."
Another idea from Bender: Find your passion and share it.
"People want more than facts. They want to feel good. So give people your enthusiasm. Why you believe in your company. Where you want to go in the future. What you're prepared to do to get there and what help you need from them to make it happen."
In trying times, it may sound crazy that an executive should relax and have some fun, he says.
"But finding some humour in the midst of a mess, you'll turn a near-funeral into a resounding success."
© Peter Urs Bender
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