5 mins

In higher levels of leadership, one of the most important aspects of the job is communicating effectively with executives. So how do we go about doing that?

Over my time in engineering leadership, one of the hardest lessons to learn was executive communication. Communicating with an audience where everyone has drastically different skillsets and expectations of engineering isn’t easy, but doing it effectively is necessary for success.

Know your audience

When you’re first managing an engineering team as part of a bigger organization, almost everyone you’re communicating with regularly has similar backgrounds and experiences. Your team members and your peers, even if they’re in product, design, or some other discipline, generally speak the same language and have the same focus areas of the business. 

As you go further up the hierarchy, the gaps in shared concerns and language get bigger and bigger because each person is responsible for a broader area of the business. And when you get the whole way up to the executive level, your entire ownership domain might only be a third-tier concern for a given executive. And on top of that lesser concern, their understanding might be fractional at best.

And so, the first piece of communicating to an executive audience is knowing what each person is looking for. The things that your chief financial officer (CFO) is going to focus on are going to be different than the things your chief technical officer (CTO) is going to focus on, and you need to understand their perspectives to be able to cover those topics and be prepared to address any questions.

Convince, don’t pitch

If you’re communicating with an executive audience, it’s to fill some overall gap in understanding or alignment. You could be trying to get buy-in for a new project, explain the results of some experiment, or calm fears after a bad outage, but in every case you’re trying to get everyone on the same page and comfortable with the path forward.

In the beginning, I approached these communications like a sales pitch: my goal was to generate interest and excitement, so I went in with some flash, glitz, and some handwaving past any potential problems or difficulties. This was absolutely the wrong way to go about it. If your executive audience is anything as sophisticated as mine was, they’re going to zero in on all of those things that you try to skirt past.

After a few poor attempts, I realized I needed to put facts first. Everyone in that room knew the business better than I did, so trying to gloss over any of the problems or difficulties just reduced their confidence. I didn’t need to be selling them on an idea, I needed to be convincing them of it. And that convincing comes in the way of data. Proposing a new product where you have hard numbers for the market size, pricing, cost to build, etc., is far more likely to get buy-in than a fancy slide deck that boils down to “trust me.”

The data that you use to convince your audience needs to be bespoke. The things that encourage buy-in from your chief operating officer (COO) might not work for your chief marketing officer (CMO). As such, you need to cover the appropriate breadth and give them the right stats to be convinced of your position.

It’s important to consider how busy an executive audience is; they’re constantly context-switching, and if they have to wade through dozens of dense pages or slides to get to your point, you’re going to lose them. Linking out to substantiating information or more detailed data is always valuable, but the core of your communication needs to be clear.

Elephants and goldfish

There’s the proverbial wisdom that an elephant never forgets and a goldfish can’t remember more than three seconds, and a manager of mine once told me to think of executives as both of those at the same time. When you’re working on communicating to that audience, assume they’ll remember everything you want them to forget, and they’ll forget everything you want them to remember.

You will have a deeper understanding of your area than the executive team. Even if it feels like you’ve repeated point X in every monthly review for the last six months, if it’s a critical point, you need to repeat it again this month. While you live and breathe the details of your area every day, it might only be a fleeting consideration for the executive team members. 

And on the flip side, if two months ago you made an offhand comment about how a project was at risk, you need to address that in a follow-up. That little bit of information may have lodged into someone’s brain causing ongoing worry about it.

This rule of thumb has helped me avoid plowing forward with mistaken assumptions of where the executive team’s understanding lies. It’s necessary to always set the foundations and follow up. This helps guarantee that subsequent discussions stay on the intended topic, and don’t spiral around trying to correct misunderstandings.

Final thoughts

All communications require a certain amount of intentionality, but when communicating with an executive audience, it is tenfold. Their time and attention is limited, so make sure you deliver the information they need, how and when they need it, with as minimal effort as possible on their part. This focus on the distillation of thought also forces you to better understand the problem space and prepares you to address any follow-up concerns.

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