Executive Anthropology
October 9, 2009 12:53 PM   Subscribe

How do you communicate effectively with Executive level people?

Throughout my career (software) I've struggled with successfully communicating with executive types. They, (for reasons I can sympathize with), always have to put a positive spin on things and will de-accentuate the negative. While I can see the necessity of this for political reasons, it leads to situations where you're never quite sure if an executive is telling you something needs to be fixed, or if something can slide.

So, assuming you're interested in seeing your projects succeed, how do you parse the language of your managers and executive to find out what they really expect of you?

If your answer involves the phrase "talk to HR", please talk to /dev/null. I'm interested in clearing up communication channels such that the need to involve HR is removed.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Good executives or bad executives?

If good executives: Relate all of your concerns, complaints, requests and reports to 'the big picture'. Judge and refer to everything only as it relates to the overall corporate goals or missions. Reference these goals or mission as part of your conversation. "As part of expanding into Western Europe, I think..." and "This can fit into our ABCQ plans."

If bad executives: talk about golf, complain about immigrants, or remark on how amazingly shiny their shoes are. "Where did you find a boy who could do such a good job?"
posted by rokusan at 1:02 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

In a large meeting of employees such as an all staff, I totally agree with you, management will (has to) spin the message in the most positive way possible. But in a small meeting with you to discuss your work or issues that have arisen? There's no reason why a manager would still be talking like that. One of the skills of a good manager is the ability to tailor the message to the audience. If you need clarification on whether something is to be fixed or allowed to slide, set up a quiet, one-on-one meeting with your manager later to get things sorted out.

However, one thing you can do in an all-staff where the big-wigs are present, is ask questions. Not "do you want that fixed" type questions, but bigger picture ones: "You've just announced a change to x. What benefits do you see to that change?" This will also help clarify their thinking for you, just remember to keep it high level and spun in a positive way.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 1:06 PM on October 9, 2009

Be respectful of their time, especially C-level executives. Be concise. Avoid the urge to explain every detail.

Ask specific questions that have concrete, actionable answers. Better yet, see if you can boil it down to a "yes/no" question.

Whenever possible, present them with the answer/solution you want, and ask for approval to do that, rather than asking them to come up with solutions on their own.

"What do you think?" is your enemy.
posted by mkultra at 1:13 PM on October 9, 2009 [10 favorites]

Without examples, it's difficult to figure out what kind of parsing needs doing or what kinds of statements confuse you specifically. Very broad. However on the back end, if you've been told something and aren't quite sure what it meant, you can send the person an email afterward confirming what (you think) they said and what you will do as a result, by when. If that isn't what they meant, they'll let you know. As mkultra says, be very concise. A few sentences, Blackberry-friendly. "I had a look at the ____ you mentioned today. In order to make it X, I will do Y. I'll have it done by Z." Also this documents it, so you're covered. You can do the same thing in person. Identify a change, an outcome, and a timeline and ask if that works for them.

And speaking of documenting things, the saving grace of the developer or consultant is the requirements document. I imagine you already have a handle on that. And I know that every project you've ever worked on has creeped out of the agreed-upon scope. But it's your cover. So try to refer to it and confirm changes to it. I like your coding joke!
posted by Askr at 1:43 PM on October 9, 2009

Brevity and clarity are what you want. Quick and dirty--low details, high actionable content. They want you to provide the info they need to make their decision without a lot of excess stuff that isn't mission-critical to them.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:44 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

My Lead keeps reminding me that while I may be intimately familiar with the details, most managers don't have the time or perspective to fully take it All in.

Focus on the core of what you want to say. Don't present anything that may look negative, but really isn't once consider "other factors". If it's not a big deal, don't bring it up.

I also agree that bringing your solution to the problem is a good idea, rather than leaving it up in the air or up to the manager (obviously this isn't always possible).

In the end, remember you both typically have differing goals and in an ideal world you are working together to help each other achieve those goals.

Since I'm neck deep in the "details" everyday, this is a constant struggle for me. Maybe writing it out like this will help me too.

Good luck
posted by johnstein at 1:52 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I second not asking "what do you think." They will usually tell you (which is usually a waste of time) or assume you don't know what to do. Give them a list of acceptable options, and tell them which one you think is the best and why. That way they think they have a say. The trick is to make sure that all the options are acceptable, so that no matter what they pick as best, it is ok with you.

Also try not to be too technical. I am a technical person and most people do not have a clue about what I am talking about. The only time I talk technical is if I want to be an ass and annoy people (which occasionally I do). Try to relate what you are talking about to something mundane, like driving a car. I find car analogies work well.

Make what you are doing sound exciting and fun, but also something that will help your organization with its mission. Make it sound a bit innovative (even if it is not really) and a bit cutting edge. People like to feel like they are on top of things, but not too extreme. Let the managers think by just undertaking the project they will be perceived by their bosses and peers in a positive light.

Don't parse it all about you and what you want, even if it is. Make it seem like it is about them and the company as a whole.
posted by fifilaru at 2:13 PM on October 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

Brevity and clarity are what you want. Quick and dirty--low details, high actionable content. They want you to provide the info they need to make their decision without a lot of excess stuff that isn't mission-critical to them.

Exactly. Also, avoid editorializing and negativity at all costs.

In regards to decision making, identify an issue (problems) or an opportunity, 2 or 3 possible decisions or solutions... and recommend the best solution.

If s/he asks why, tell them the rationale. If they don't ask, don't provide them with the details.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:22 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

1) Don't bring them problems; bring them solutions, or at least choices. Don't back them into a corner with impossible dilemmas.
2) Resist the temptation to try to sound like the smartest person in the room.
3) Do your homework; anticipate their follow-up questions and know your facts cold. Otherwise they lose faith in you.
4) Follow up immediately if they give you an assignment or ask a question you need to research.
5) Don't bad-mouth other colleagues or departments; let your actions speak for themselves.
6) Speak succinctly, and don't take them on tangents.
7) Be careful with humor; best to avoid unless you know the person well.
8) Laugh at their jokes, even if they aren't funny. Especially important if everyone else is laughing.
posted by BobbyVan at 3:02 PM on October 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you are going to bring a problem to an exec's attention, bring a solution, or a timeframe, cost and risk analysis of what it is you find problematic. Be prepared to have your idea ignored because you don't know all the details of task - you only know the details of your portion, and not all the things that an exec necessarily has to consider.

For practice, make a presentation. You get three slides.
Slide 1.
You have a one sentence to describe the problem.
Slide 2.
You get 3 bullet points to describe why this problem warrants their attention.
Slide 3.
You get 3 bullet points and a graph to compare the differential in financial cost of continuing how business is currently done, and by adopting your method.

If there were 3 concerns which your job brought up which affected the company as a whole, be prepared to discuss them in a 30 second elevator conversation with your CEO.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:04 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want to know what they really think, don't expect to get it in a conversation. Document, document, document. Use your conversation time to briefly outline the information you're going to present in written form, then make sure you have a plan for follow-up, with clear goals and timing.

Meetings and conversations, to higher-level executives, are places to shoot for the stars. Documentation is where they feel accountable.
posted by xingcat at 5:07 PM on October 9, 2009

Speak the same way you would write a good essay - be to the point, confident and honest, and be prepared to back up your statements.
posted by kid A at 6:04 PM on October 9, 2009

Speak directly and succinctly. Honesty. Bottom line it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:26 PM on October 9, 2009

Executive management cares about these three things:
1) What's the damage?
2) How do we fix it?
3) How do we keep it from happening again?

You need to have an answer that takes less than one minute to explain for each of these. You also need to have more detailed information in case they want to drill down. The smaller the group, the more likely they will drill down; if it is all management in one room, they'll just want to know the basics and work strategy from there.

In response to your particular question, unfortunately, you don't get to control what the dialogue is about. Your manager controls that. The best way to succeed, IMHO, is to present a cost-benefit analysis to every single task in your position. Let him/her know, if we don't fix the krawdle on the floogle, there is a 8% chance of outage for a day. That will result in lost sales of 80,000 minnorfs. Sometimes you won't be able to tie the numbers down 100%, but you can do a pretty good job of estimating. Also prepare yourself for answers that don't necessarily jibe with yours. In my experience, companies are more interested in creating additional revenue than reducing expense by streamlining existing processes.
posted by newper at 6:27 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had the pleasure of learning how to speak to executives at my first job where the CEO of the small company was very personable and made it very easy to come in and speak to her. She wanted us to be able to communicate more effectively so she would constantly coach me on how to discuss a business matter.

1. Start with the end. If you have a question, state what it is first, if you have a desired outcome, state what it is first. The reason being that this gives the executive the starting point to consider all the other information you are going to throw at them and they understand the context then.

2. Leave out the nitty gritty details. They only care about high-level mission critical items and assume that you can sort out the rest.

3. The whole spinning negative stuff is just how their world works. They need to constantly paint things in a positive light, so if you can do the same, they will relate better. Remember, you don't have problems or issues, you have "challenges" to which you have some solutions in your pocket ready to present right after you make them aware of the challenges.

4. As someone else mentioned, if there is an action item that comes out of your discussion, make it priority number one. Every executive expects that you drop whatever you are doing and focus on the thing they are having you do so keep that in mind. If they have an assistant, a brief email to them with any relevant information can also be helpful.

5. Be sure you've gone through the proper chain of command. If this is something that is best discussed with someone below the executive, then for gods sake don't waste the executives time or you'll piss two people off, the executive and the person you shouldn't spoken to first once they find out you tried to go around them (intentionally or not).

6. If there is a lot discussed, send them a (very) brief high-level recap via email with any action items and milestones highlighted so they can have that for easy reference.

7. Remember that executives are where they are because they can effectively manage their time and know how to make good high-level decisions. That said, they simply don't have the bandwidth to mind all the little details of a project and you shouldn't expect them to (thats what you are for). So anticipate that you will have to frequently drive things forward.
posted by Elminster24 at 6:37 PM on October 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

As a fellow software engineer who works in a more executive environment, I can tell you the problem that I see most often (and want to do myself): making a detailed accounting of all of the possible edge cases, pros, cons and tradeoffs. Ultimately it is best if you have decided beforehand: can I do this or not? If you can do it, there is really no benefit to listing every single possible caveat and condition. If there is something major, say it, but otherwise, that is the engineering problem you are being paid to solve, so solve it.
Remember: you're not talking to a fellow engineer, you're talking to a person that just wants to get the key dates and deliverables and go. Save the details.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:00 PM on October 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing the advice above. One rule for presentations: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you've told them. Aka, summarize before and after. Keep in mind that they haven't a clue about techy issues but don't want to look silly. Never make anyone look foolish - ever - even if they are. Make sure everyone knows the costs & benefits. The benefits have to be real $ benefits, not some abstract or techy stuff. Innoculate them against predatory consultants who come in armed with 'solutions', which, imho, usually involve more time/money/bother than properly equipped in-house staff can provide and which usually don't fit the environment properly. With the job situation being what it is and outsourcing a constant problem, you have to look efficient and cost effective.
posted by x46 at 9:24 AM on October 10, 2009

Something (unintuitive) that I have found is that such people often latch readily onto examples, rather than general issues. This is often true of suggestions made by such people too: they are along the lines of "Bob in Y department does X; why don't you do X?", "we need to make sure that this doesn't turn into another X", "we need to do something about people like X". This rather surprises me, because I would have assumed that people at executive levels in organisations would take a synoptic, abstracted, evidence-based view of what is going on in the organisation, and make balanced decisions based on such evidence. Some do, of course, but on balance a well-constructed example seems to cut through. Perhaps this is just because a concrete example has a salience that a complex evidence-base lacks; perhaps because they have to attention-switch between different parts of the organisation so much that a specific example is what stays in their mind between these rapid attention-switches.
posted by Jabberwocky at 11:59 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

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