Dilbert touches on a nerve that employees often experience in many corporations – executive management teams appear to be on a different wavelength, altogether. It’s been often said that they seem to have their own “executive speak” language, they seem to be impatient all of the time and they seem to grossly simplify things. At MondayCall, we are constantly interfacing with senior-level leadership and the ablility to communicate well with the customer’s leadership team is essential for success. Understanding that communicating with senior-level executives appears to be a common issue, we wanted to share some of our tips that we found to be helpful in communicating with executive leadership teams. For those in executive leadership, you might enjoy our perspective on things and feel free to comment on the post below on your thoughts and ideas…
Not the Simplest Job
Let’s first begin by considering the executive’s perspective. Typically, they are under a tremendous amount of personal and professional pressure. A director must report results to a vice president who must report results to a CxO, who then must report results to a Board of Directors. Each level above expects measurable results from their direct reports and delivered in as short of time as possible. The executive must deliver on results to their superiors but must rely on a strong team of employees to do so. Completing your own work can be stressful enough, but getting others in action is exponentially more difficult. Humans are naturally resistant to change (even progress) and leading an entire organization to produce measurable results is hard work. There are many moving pieces – people, process and technology that are needed to work in synch. A typical timeframe to produce measurable results is a quarter – just 3 months. Not surprisingly, executive management turnover can be very high.
Any time people and technology are involved there is unpredictability. There is never enough time to plan and every scenario cannot possibly be accounted for. At some point, you have to dive in head first with imperfect information. Wrenches are thrown in the process; assumptions are flipped upside down. Everything was due yesterday. An executive has to juggle these complexities and orchestrate it all to completion. Executive heads are constantly on the chopping block and they never like to feel exposed.
Time is a Scarce Resource
Not surprisingly, executives don’t have a lot of time and must get to the crux of issues quickly. One industry CEO said that his job is basically to come to work every day and solve problems – to quickly remove roadblocks and pave a good path forward for everyone else to succeed. This means solving fire drills – lots of them. It also means making tough moves that may bring a lot of short-term pain but long-term gain. Another executive put his job as, “I get paid to make decisions.” As problems and opportunities present themselves, it takes hard work to put yourself in a position to make the correct decisions. No wonder they seem impatient all the time.
When communicating with executives, their main objective is to identify the issues and get results, quickly. Therefore it’s inherent that executives must evaluate each interaction they have with people. Why are we talking? Is it important? Does this interaction solve the problem? No wonder in business communication 101, it is always recommended to present the executive summary first –the bottom line – and then the details if necessary.
You’re Part of the Equation
It is true that you are constantly being evaluated as a person. Are your words trustworthy? Can you be trusted to get the job done on time? If not, the executive must put in extra time and effort to get more information, verify the recommendations and/or put in safeguards into the process to make up for the lack of trust. It’s much easier for an executive to trust the person than to review and evaluate each project the person works on.
This is why one of the most important functions that an executive must do is to develop a strong team. To be a responsible enabler of action, you must be prepared. Every interaction you have provides data points for the executive as they build their trust in you. An interaction doesn’t necessarily need to be a meeting but could be a simple email or call. Each of these interactions delivers both a direct and indirect message.
Make Each Interaction Count
In each interaction, executives follow a similar line of questioning as the following:
- Why are we talking?
- What’s the summary here?
- Why should I care?
- What are the choices?
- What would you do if you were to make the choice?
- How much time and effort will it be?
- Who’s going to own it?
- What’s the next step?
- When is it all expected to be done? Really done.
If you can’t answer these questions, then there’s a high chance you will be challenged. An agenda-less meeting will tend to get canceled. Long emails that don’t get to the point fast enough will tend to be ignored. A meeting where participants aren’t prepared will feel unproductive. A discussion with no options and no recommendations feel like creating problems rather than solving them. A great meeting with no follow-up items and ownership can slowly kill the initiative. If you are able to answer all of these questions prior to the encounter, then it’ll be more effective.
Taking a Step Further
Of course, the ideal employee is one that an executive can trust 100% and never requires any management and solves problems proactively and quickly and in a measurable way. The executives need not do anything. Obviously this rarely happens, however, one can take it a notch further by doing some of the following:
- Think like an executive. Can I solve the problem proactively? It’s great if an employee can raise issues but what the executive really wants are solutions. They love seeing initiative. They always want to turn a reactive organization into a proactive one. Think ahead – what are the problems we will run into in the future.
- Can it be solved in an efficient way (perhaps an email or a side conversation is all that is needed, not an “expensive meeting” with 10 people in the room)?
- If 10 people are needed in the room, can pre-work be done? Can there be some research or decisions made prior? What can be done to make the meeting as productive as possible?
- Be prepared for the alternatives – given choices ensures that you’ve explored different ways to solve the problem while also making people feel empowered with choices
The language of the executive strives to be “high in content, fewer words.” Getting to the point quickly is essential.
- Get to the point in the first 10-15 seconds
- Remember that every second they are evaluating whether to continue the conversation. Therefore, it is best to not save for a “big reveal” at the end.
- Insight, not data
- Summarize everything – details are only there for credibility purposes – it should rarely be a part of the message. Keep it high level and be prepared to drill down if necessary.
- Bullet points are great – as much as everyone hates PowerPoint, bullet points are a great way to communicate quickly and in a structured manner
- Tie every point you are making to what is important to the executive – it might be cost reduction, increase in profits, lowered risk, faster time to market, etc. This answers “why should I care?”
- Quantify where you can. Measurable benefits are always the best. Try not to sandbag – it’s best to set easy, moderate risk and stretch goals so that you can set expectations.
- When appropriate use stories, not theory
- Always have next steps. What do you recommend happens next? Who owns them? When are they expected to deliver?
- Follow up with a recap. What was discussed and who owns what next and when? It shows organization and it also helps to push the agenda forward.
A big part of management (whether managing or being managed) is energy and motivation. When people are excited about something it gets everyone else energized. Positivity, excitement, and energy can really make a big difference in how you are perceived and motivates others to do more.
Be the Enabler
Don’t be afraid “of executives’ — be afraid “for them”. They have to deliver a substantial amount of results in a short period of time and heavily dependent on others than themselves to accomplish it. It’s a high-stress job and they love hiring or promoting the people that help them make their jobs easier. So in working with executives, it’s highly important to be that enabler – the person who takes on the responsibility, solves the problems proactively and plays a key role in making progress happen!