The Thumbnail Executive

May I rant this week?

I’m noticing an annoying trend in the world of business communications.

It’s something I’m calling the Thumbnail Executive.

Here’s the way it works. A company’s executive – let’s say the CMO, CEO, COO, or really any Senior VP of Blah Blah Blah, needs to review a new, innovative plan, or weigh in on an important decision affecting a new program or initiative.

Their schedule is highly protected. Time with this person is precious. You dare not waste it.

That’s NOT the annoying part.

In order to protect the sanctity of the executive’s time there is a notion that any new plan, proposal, or any research presented to this executive be made so watered down as to be “as if you were going to explain it to a five-year-old”: An instruction that was actually, literally, given to me recently.

Believe it or not, that’s not the annoying part either.

The annoying part is that, increasingly, this need for over-simplification is treated as a kind of heroic virtue.  The idea is that this particular flavor of executive is some sort of different kind of person. As such, they have a special gift that requires them to not too burdened with “complex details”.

Now, to be clear, this is not a trend related to brevity or efficiency. Jeff Bezos famously replaced Powerpoint presentations with a six-page memo to summarize meetings. Amazon also has their two pizza meeting rule, meaning that no meeting should be conducted in which two pizzas wouldn’t feed all the participants.  Other companies, like Google, have adopted a “buck stops here” approach where every meeting that requires a decision has a requirement to have the decision maker in the meeting.   

I’m fully on board with all of these.  Efficiency and brevity is incredibly important when we are dealing with an executive who has little time for overweight Powerpoint presentations or endless circular discussions in meetings.

On the contrary, the trend I’m speaking to, is where either the executive, their supporting team (or both), has put this aura of virtue around simplifying the needs to the extent that it makes it almost impossible to present any kind of complex issue.

One Marketing Director I know can’t put a complex marketing plan in front of their VP of Marketing because they “are too busy to understand all the ins-and-outs of the planning of marketing”. She has to build out her plan in images so the executive can approve it in stages.

Another Content Director I know couldn’t get her content strategy approved through her CMO because each time she got time on his calendar to present it, the feedback was that it was too complex, and to simplify it. It recently reached the highest levels of absurdity where the content strategy was, literally, one slide with three bullet points: 1. Content Team Needs Reallocation of Resources 2. Content Technology Project Needs New Sponsor and 3. Better Measurement Is Coming.  The result?  The CMO wanted more details on “the money and resources part”.

My own observation is that 100% of presentations where this level of simplification occurs go badly.  Why?  Because either the executive is annoyed that there are missing details (meaning their supporting team has vastly overestimated the desire for the executive to have things simplified) – or the executive hasn’t taken the time to understand even the fundamental basics of the concept being discussed. Thus, the only way to teach these fundamentals is to go into details that the executive has no time to spend on.

Now, again, I don’t mean to say that every executive has to have an in depth understanding of every sophisticated process and concept in business.  Today’s modern business is more complex than it’s ever been – and ideally this is what the executive’s direct report specialists are for.

What (to use Family Guy’s Peter Griffin’s saying) “grinds my gears” is the indifference to complexity as a virtue to executive’s need.

As managers in a business, it’s incumbent on us to present new, complex concepts in an efficient, clear, and easy-to-understand way.  But I believe it’s just as incumbent on leaders in an organization to expect and want to understand complex concepts that may require more than a thumbnail sketch of the idea.  If an executive’s team is interested in communicating the complexity of an issue, the leader doesn’t necessarily need to understand it – but they do need to be as interested in understanding it as the team. 

It’s Your Story Tell It Well.

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