Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 26 February 2008

Top 10 Ways to Communicate with Executives

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak to an Organizational Behavior class at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN). My former colleague, Debbie Glick, is the professor and she gave me a fantastic introduction – I hope I lived up to it. There were about 25 students in the class, MBA students, and we had a good dialogue.

Here are the key points from my talk. These all come from my experience as an executive of a Fortune 100 company during the past eight years.

General Communication:

§ Listen as much as talk “seek first to understand, then be understood” – Steven Covey. If you listen to others who are speaking during a meeting and then incorporate what they’ve just said into your comments, you engage other and also establish your credibility.

§ Watch body language – you can learn a lot about whether people understand what you’re saying or how they are reacting to what you are saying. If you see they look puzzled, stop and ask what you can clarify for them. If they look like they disagree with you on a point, stop and ask what they think about it. Being responsive to their visual cues will create a positive environment where interchange can occur.

§ Adjust tempo, volume, energy levels – you don’t want to put people to sleep, nor do you want to overpower them. Take care to adjust to the situation and people in the meeting.

§ Speak with calm confidence – do this especially when the topic is difficult or contentious.

§ See communication as a dialogue, not a monologue – this is one of my key success factors. If you want buy-in, there should be a dialogue!

Top 10:

        1. Executives are humans like you – they have insecurities and worries; they want to feel good about themselves and the company
        2. Understand interests and motives – this is key for successful negotiations. Are they fighting a turf war? Do they want more visibility? Do they really need a success? Are they positioning for a promotion? Do they want success for the company? Their division? How do they measure success? Short term? What are their values?
          By thinking about the answers to these questions, you will be better prepared to position your ideas so they address at least a few of your audience’s interests and motives.
        3. Understand the audience and the venue:
          Status meeting – keep it interesting
          Strategic/business plan – focus on the highest priorities
          Problem solving – clearly articulate the problem
          Negotiation – create a bigger pie
          Selling an idea – use your passion and enthusiasm, but make sure you can articulate the benefits clearly
          Presentations – keep it relevant and short
        4. Know when to meet one-on-one – Don’t argue with an exec in front of his team or peers. When selling ideas, it’s OK to bring one other person, but don’t bring a posse. Know when to have an expert on hand – when you aren’t the expert.
        5. Brevity – Powerpoint should be 15 pages or less (write speaker’s notes for yourself), a Word document should be 3 pages or less. Use bullets, but no more than 5 per page and they should be short phrases, not whole sentences. Put detail in the appendices (keep them separate) and have them ready for reference.
        6. Clarity – keep sentences short, organize your thoughts and your information. Include headings and footers with page numbers (you wouldn’t believe how many presentations and reports I recieved without these…). Ensure you have correct grammar and spelling.
        7. Present alternatives when you are proposing a solution. I once had a manager propose a program for compliance with a $12 million price tag. I told her to come back with 2 to 3 options with different budgets. Executives know there are trade-offs and want to have an intelligent discussion about them. Never go in with just one way to do something.
        8. Anticipate and ask questions – put yourself in the executives’ shoes and consider their worries. What would be the most important thing about this project or proposal to them? Clarify and expand your understanding by asking them questions and by making points by using statements like, “you may be wondering about….”
        9. Know the details – bring lots of backup material, just in case. I always had two or three pages of notes for my own use to make sure I made the points I wanted to make and could answer questions. Sometimes I would bring an expert or have them sitting by the phone, just in case.
        10. Be honest -Don’t cover up bad news. A very large portion of projects (over 60%) fail due to people suppressing the truth about project issues. Don’t bring a problem without some possible solutions – show you’ve thought about it. Also, give an executive a “heads-up” when there’s an issue so they aren’t blind-sided. You don’t want them to hear about it through someone else!

        One more word about honesty. By admitting mistakes and failure without blaming anyone else, you demonstrate accountability. I have had to admit to some pretty expensive mistakes in my career as a CTO (technology failures cost a lot). Executives respect you more when you take accountability for mistakes and then provide the vision and leadership for a way out of the issue.

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