Bridging Communication with Executive Leaders
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How do you navigate a meeting with a high-level executive? Those gatherings where you have limited time, and within that span, you need to exhibit authority and confidence, enlighten about an idea or a concept, promote a plan based on that notion, and influence or steer the decision towards your vision or suggestion.
In my role as an executive coach, I frequently encounter this query from middle managers or senior executives slated to engage with someone in the C-suite soon, sometimes even with C-level representatives they've never interacted with before. They often understand these dialogues are distinct but are unsure about preparation. It's as if they're about to meet the President of the United States, self-inflicting immense internal pressure regarding audience expectations.
Should our communication with executives and senior leaders mirror that with colleagues?
Executives, like us, are human, they also have the necessity of human connection. Yet, it's key to remember their focus diverges, usually tied to markets, clients, financial outcomes, and organizational growth and continuity. Their pace varies too; with a long-term vision and greater responsibility, they exhibit caution, postponing significant impact decisions, preferring incremental steps when faced with change necessities.
Their accountability extends to the organization's security, job preservation, client satisfaction, and the firm’s environmental, technical, and social impact. This caution is reflected in their scrutinizing and challenging proposals, ideas, and concepts that appear overly complex, disconnected from the organization’s mission, vision, goals, or yearly budgets, or those adding undue overhead or disruptions.
Recognizing and adjusting to these differences is vital for any middle or senior manager aiming to excel, be acknowledged, and be seen as a valuable contributor to the decision-making process.
The Domain of Executive Communication
Executive communication transcends mere verbal exchanges, encompassing the skill to comprehend the unsaid and respond in a manner congruent with the organization's strategic narrative. It's about grasping the C-suite's viewpoints, priorities, and concerns, and tailoring your communication accordingly.
Building rapport with executives demands a mix of clarity, brevity, and understanding. It's essential to simplify complex ideas into clear messages, underpinned by a deep comprehension of the executive domain.
In this article, we will explore 7 elements crucial for effective communication with C-level executives.
1. Prepare Your Mindset
Your mindset is your foundation. It's about setting clear objectives and fully embracing self-leadership.
Draft a plan for whatever it takes to arrive with clarity and confidence. Whether it’s a calming walk, grounding exercises, breathing routines, reading inspiring quotes, visualizing successful communication in the upcoming meeting, or tuning into music, identify your needs in advance and schedule them before your meeting.
Starting with a clear mindset allows you to present your best self, acting from a place of sincerity. Feeling authentic makes you more relaxed, reflecting positively on your speech and appearance.
Addressing the meeting's agenda is crucial, but so is fostering connection—with yourself, and with the individual or group you’re engaging with. Approaching the meeting with a clear, assured mindset sets the stage for this.
Remember, the meeting isn't about you or your worth. It’s about your contribution and the quality of your collaboration.
2. Be Strategic in Communication
Begin with the end in sight!
Firstly, understand the interaction expected from you. Are you there to present results and solutions, seek clarifications or validations, or create shared understanding?
It's crucial to align executive expectations right from the onset regarding your meeting objectives and the necessary approach to achieve them.
Executives have limited time, and when provided, they expect resolutions. Hence, start assertively with statements like:
"My goal today is to gain approval for the next implementation steps."
"I seek your final approval on the 2024 recruitment budget."
In such instances, be ready to support your proposal and address any arising questions or concerns. Note that this isn’t a brainstorming session. Any new idea not included in your presentation might get dismissed as executives see it as non-urgent compared to resolving the current work at hand.
If you need to engage your executives in brainstorming or discussion to understand their opinions or need to build a shared perspective, be direct about this objective, the rationale, and the type of support you seek from them.
“I have a proposal that I wish to share with you, to either kickstart these actions or revert to planning. I’d like to present it to you and obtain your higher-level input on the identified actions.”
“Regarding Project X, I see some issues and have compiled a list of clarifications I need. I hope to have all my questions clarified after this discussion to further manage Project X.”
By demonstrating a result-oriented mindset aligned with executive priorities, you will be seen as a valuable contributor and collaborator. Executives will appreciate your focus on what’s crucial for the business and your mindful use of their time.
Avoid starting your interaction with long stories about the context, or myriad problems, especially if they’re already resolved. Time is scarce, and you risk losing their attention on irrelevant matters. Are you there to resolve an issue or to boast? As stated earlier, this meeting isn’t about you, it’s about addressing organizational challenges requiring C-level support and input.
Having defined your purpose, delve into the core matter. What's the critical message? What do you know that C-level needs to know too? Yes, sometimes the news isn’t favourable. It’s a reality in today’s complex organizational landscape, where things sometimes veer off plan. C-level needs a clear understanding of the information's impact, hence, presenting facts as they are, with no sugar-coating, no added drama.
“Due to the loss of four key team members last week, we now face a risk of a three-week delay in the next delivery. I've initiated an overtime program, which will recover just one week of the total delay. We need to discuss this delay with the client and start recruiting four senior individuals. Here are the additional costs, and this is the impact on our project’s profitability.”
“This budget outline escalates from previous ones. Over the last six months, there have been significant price increases for raw materials, affecting our budget and forecast. Let's review the altered variables and justify them.”
Nobody likes delivering or receiving unfavourable updates, however, competent leaders value honesty and appreciate timely disclosure. Transparency fosters trust and reflects courage, clarity, and confidence.
Be Structured and Concise
Middle or senior managers outside the C-suite may not grasp the challenge executives face, needing to swiftly switch between topics throughout the day—legal, contracts, HR, environment, safety, markets, sales, operations, accounting, fiscal, and investments, to name a few.
From a C-suite person's perspective, everyone in the organization seeks something from them, right NOW. All topics are deemed urgent, important, or both.
It's common for C-level individuals to forget details discussed earlier, or to enter one meeting while their mind lingers on the previous topic. Especially in an organizational environment that favours back-to-back meetings. In addition, they too might face personal challenges, making it difficult to connect with the matter at hand.
Hence, structuring your communication transparently and directly is vital. Keep it simple and concise, minimizing information to what’s relevant to the agenda and humanly possible to communicate within the provided timeframe.
Presentations nowadays favour discussing three points, as three seems to be a magic number for what the human mind can retain from an interaction. Regardless of the number of points, create a well-structured overview of the main points and consistently refer to them. Executives will appreciate this, finding it easier to maintain an overview and navigate the details.
Often, besides the meeting agenda, it’s beneficial to send your presentation a few days in advance. While they might not find time to read it, showing support and compassion by doing so is on you. In the absence of a written presentation, have notes prepared to ensure clarity in structure and adherence to it throughout the meeting.
3. Stick to the Facts
Ensure you use relevant and updated data in all executive meetings. KPIs, figures, and data act as "solid proof" when presenting your case or idea. Executives are aware that their decisions have a wide-reaching impact, and they take them seriously. Providing metrics to support your ideas or concerns exhibits your earnestness and supplies critical context aiding executives in decision-making.
Your metrics should discuss organizational performance, and you should be ready to explain any variances from expected performance. For example, you might show that while transitioning to a new design software, initial costs are higher, but the long-term savings are substantial. Or, you could highlight noticeable declines in productivity or quality during tight project schedules or the underperformance of certain sales drives.
Ensure your metrics present a persuasive argument and stem from reliable and accurate sources. Be mindful that executives often have a deep understanding of these metrics and are proficient at discerning realistic or achievable outcomes, and what seems off-mark. If something appears inaccurate or amiss, anticipate challenges about those results and be prepared to answer questions regarding potential causes for the variances. Again, it’s not about you, it’s about what the meeting aims to achieve. Your approach during these moments and your responses will determine your future credibility among these executives, and will also bolster your confidence in managing these interactions with key stakeholders. If you do not know or you are not sure, say so, and commit to a date when you come back with the information checked and with a full explanation.
4. Remain Aligned to Objectives: The Company's and Yours
Executives continually align their actions and decisions with the company's objectives and values, and expect other managers in the organization to do likewise. Does your proposal resonate with the company’s objectives or goals? This is a focal point for executives.
If your presentation doesn’t clearly align with these objectives, anticipate a high likelihood of rejection. You’ll know it’s a rejection as it won’t be treated as a priority. You might receive apparently neutral feedback like: “Your proposal is interesting, however, we do not have the budget for it this year. Let’s revisit it for next year’s budget.” Do not fall for the absence of NO. This is a rejection. Remember the rejection refers to your proposal and not to you.
Yet, this rejection shouldn’t be the finale. Sometimes, executives might not immediately grasp the merit of your proposal. There could be a case where your idea merits integration into the corporate objectives. If you believe so, act accordingly. Arm yourself with resilience, and assert your thesis, multiple times if necessary, and to multiple stakeholders. If it’s a cause you fervently believe in, don’t retreat. Better align your arguments with the company objectives and demonstrate through forecasts the positive impact your proposal has on EBIDTA, sales, or operations optimizations. This is how you win the minds of the executives. Delivering your proposal will win their hearts too.
Regarding your personal objectives, be conscious of how your job circumstances align with your broader life vision. Sometimes, in pursuit of career advancement, you might overlook whether your assignments or ideas resonate with your personal vision or hold any higher meaning for you. This oversight could lead to embracing projects for the mere sake of showing capability, pleasing superiors, gaining access to a desired job which later you find unsuitable, or projects you thought would be exciting but aren’t.
Your true north lies solely with you. Nobody else can navigate your course with the same insight and dedication as you can. When you make a choice for the wrong reason, your motivation will soon erode.
5. Wholeheartedly Embrace Feedback
Mastering non-attachment is central to navigating feedback, which entails detaching your identity or self-worth from external validations or criticisms.
Remember: IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU!
This mindset enables you to view feedback objectively without taking criticisms personally.
When executives pose challenging questions, it might feel like an onslaught, yet it’s indicative of their genuine engagement with your ideas. It’s their role to thoroughly examine, and their probing signifies vested interest. Employing non-attachment during such interactions enables you to respond with enhanced clarity and assurance while preserving your self-esteem.
Non-attachment also equips you to objectively evaluate areas where you might be wrong or need to reassess your stance. Open acknowledgement of this is a hallmark of significant maturity, professionalism, and a willingness to evolve.
Being fully receptive to feedback opens the door for collaborative ideation. This phase of mutual engagement transitions into a collaborative endeavour to find solutions. In complex companies, solutions entail trade-offs. For sure, there will be elements you may not be aware of, and you’ll discover them during discussions with executives. It’s normal. They have a higher vantage point and therefore see interactions and impact with better clarity. You just need to assimilate the new facts and upgrade your proposal accordingly.
Collaboration to find a mutually acceptable trade-off aligned with the company’s objectives and values transcends the immediate task, morphing into an opportunity to foster rapport with the stakeholders you’re engaging with. When you’re completely open to feedback, recognizing your idea as a mutable blueprint, remarkable developments unfold. Although this openness might necessitate a revisit to the planning stage, the essence of the outcome is the collaborative dialogue you’ve engaged in with high-level leadership, leaving a profound and lasting positive impression.
6. Call to Action
Your engagement with the executive, senior manager, or leadership team is purpose-driven. What precisely do you seek from them? This is crucial. Many stumble at this juncture, hesitant to articulate requests. Yet, without voicing your ask, progress remains stalled.
Your request might be framed as:
“Based on the provided insights, will you authorize the recruitment of four more team members?”
“I’m inclined towards the third option due to its cost-effectiveness. Do I have your approval?”
“I acknowledge you need some time to look at the spreadsheet with the calculations I have just presented you. Could we aim for a resolution by the end of next week?”
7. Final Secret: What Really Matters
Often, managers I coach perceive total failure or rejection at work when their ideas lack higher executive sponsorship or backing. They know they did everything to support their ideas, but couldn’t advance them. They know their idea is good but can’t lead it to fruition since they don’t receive enough audience from executives.
My secret is simple:
If you've diligently performed your role and adhered to the above-mentioned 6 points, then you're on the right track! You've provided the executives with a heads-up regarding your proposal and its potential positive impact on the organization, at an opportune time. As time progresses, there's a high likelihood that the executive team may revisit your proposal and, if it holds merit, approve it.
At the C-level, sometimes conditions aren't ripe for immediate decision implementation (consider that what appears to be a simple idea at the middle management level may require shareholder approval, which can take time to secure).
What truly matters is that you conveyed your message accurately and timely, to the appropriate executive stakeholders. You've made your decision, and although the final call may not be yours to make, you've done your part. Embrace and own this fact. It's within this acceptance that your emotional freedom resides.
Executives are individuals just like you. More often than not, they are very competent, and knowledgeable people. However, they too can make mistakes or exhibit limiting beliefs. There might be instances where they overreact or exhibit negative behaviours driven by their own self-sabotaging tendencies. Yet, this is all part of human nature, your nature included. Casting judgment won't elevate you, in fact, it will only put you in a state of resistance and friction.
In the modern era, society and organizations are perpetually seeking successful organizational models. The merging of old and new methodologies can obscure the values that truly matter, heightening the risks in human interactions and communications, perhaps more now than ever before.
Good communication with executives may appear challenging, yet it's a two-way street. While interacting with executives, we too have a part to play and a role to fulfill. Regardless of the difference in managerial levels, both parties deserve to be heard, respected, and valued equally.
By consistently practising and adhering to the 7 points outlined above, you further develop into the decision-making partner you aspire to find in the C-level executives you interact with. Your actions in this direction will undoubtedly gather recognition within your organization!
If you would like guidance – for yourself or your team – in strengthening your communication skills, and practicing more conscious leadership, you can book a discovery session with me to strategize and plan your path to success.
Your Management Performance Coach
Navigating High-Level Interactions:
- The article discusses how middle and senior managers can effectively communicate and influence decisions in meetings with high-level executives. It emphasizes the importance of preparation, a clear mindset, and understanding the executive’s perspective to ensure successful interactions.
- A crucial aspect is to align communication with executive priorities, exhibiting a results-oriented mindset and being direct in communication to respect the executives' time.
- The author also advises on starting interactions with clear objectives, whether to seek approvals, present results, or engage executives in discussions, ensuring to provide supportive data and facts for proposals.
Mastering Communication Techniques:
- Effective communication with executives transcends verbal exchanges and requires understanding their viewpoints, priorities, and concerns, and tailoring messages accordingly.
- The article suggests simplifying complex ideas into clear messages, emphasizing aligning proposals with organizational goals, and being prepared to support claims with solid, updated data.
- It also stresses being concise, structured, and sticking to relevant points during the presentation, while avoiding overly long context or resolved issues which may divert attention from the core agenda.
Embracing Feedback and Resilience:
- The article encourages embracing feedback with a non-attached mindset, viewing challenging questions as signs of engagement rather than personal attacks.
- It advises being open to collaborative ideation, willing to revise proposals based on new insights, and fostering rapport with executives as key to leaving a positive impression.
- Lastly, it emphasizes the importance of persistence and resilience especially when facing initial rejection, and the potential merit of aligning proposals better with corporate objectives to eventually gain executive support.
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