Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Essential Life Skills for the Investor Relations Professional

My last blog post on principle based disclosure for investors was somewhat on the serious side, so in the interest of balance, I’ve decided to write a lighter piece this time about the things an investor relations professional needs to master to be successful. Forget knowledge of securities laws or finance or marketing, these are the essential skills that will set you apart as a true professional.

1. The ability to talk with your mouth full without embarrassing yourself. Many investor relations meetings take place during meals and investors will pepper you with questions throughout the meal. If you can’t answer questions with your mouth full, you will either never get to eat or your investors won’t get their questions answered. Neither is a happy prospect, so you need to learn how to talk with your mouth full. As I say to my children, “This should only be done by trained professionals”. I’m told that the proper training for this is to fill up your mouth with marbles and practice talking. Then you start removing the marbles as you learn to speak clearly with them in your mouth. Finally, when you’ve lost all your marbles, you are ready to become an investor relations officer.

2. You must have a high capacity for repetition. Every securities analyst prides themselves on their analytic work and their unique approach to figuring out your company. Many won’t attend meetings with other analysts because they don’t want to reveal the questions they ask management. The dirty little secret to all of this is that between 95% - 98% of all the questions asked are exactly the same, no matter who’s asking the question. This means that investor relations professionals hear the same questions over and over and over. There have been times in my career when I’ve said to myself, “If I have to explain that project one more time, I’m going to throw up”. (Fortunately, I’ve never followed through on the threat.) A true professional needs to answer the questions with the same enthusiasm on the twentieth time as the first time. This is where your carefully cultivated veneer of being really, really interested in the meeting will carry you through, even though you’re bored out of your skull.

3. You must be able to sit placidly by while others take credit for your work. Let’s face it, senior management doesn’t have time to coin catchy phrases or do interesting analysis. That’s your job - they’re too busy going to meetings. But when it comes time to look good in front of investors, all those careful, clever talking points prepared by you will be used by management and you have to sit there and let them take the credit. The first dozen or so times this happens it’s no big deal, but after that it starts to feel like a stone in your shoe. Get used to it.

4. You must be willing to let others make multiple edits to your deathless prose. When you write something, everyone will want to make sure you conform to their agendas. Accountants are fussy about certain phrases, lawyers want you to stay within the strict confines of the regulatory requirements, the business divisions want to make sure they get equal billing and there are always hidden agendas to deal with. It’s a wonder that a simple declaratory sentence ever gets written, much less an entire page of intelligent prose. One of the skills you need to mastered is learning to watch without flinching as your well written press releases get disassembled for reasons that are not entirely clear to you. The professional must then pick up the pieces and reassemble them into a reasonably coherent whole. The polite phrase for this is “when someone hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

That’s enough for today. I’d love to hear from others as to their views on essential life skills for investor relations officers. Alternatively, I could write about essential life skills for investment analysts, but that would assume they had a life.

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