How to Communicate with Executives
So, you’ve been asked to provide a project update to executive(s). Where do you start? How much detail should you provide? Should this be different than a general team update?
While every audience is unique and needs to be well-thought-out, there are some specific things you should consider when communicating with executives.
Keeping in mind the level of responsibility and amount of multi-tasking an executive does on any given day, you’ll need to prepare your update accordingly. Some assumptions you should consider:
They will have no background on your project, and do not need the detail
They will have done little-to-no prep for their time with you (even if you sent them something ahead of time to review, assume they didn’t have the time)
They have many competing priorities
There’s a possibility the update may be rescheduled at the last minute (although this should not deter you from creating the best possible update).
With these challenges in mind, here are 7 guidelines I use when preparing an executive update:
1. Get to the point upfront: While many presentations or communications build up to the main point, I find it helpful to give the executive(s) the reason for the meeting up front. It helps ground the conversation and keeps their attention on topic, rather than them being distracted trying to assess the purpose of the meeting. Assume you will have only half the time allotted – this allows for questions, the meeting to start late and forces clarity.
2. Address their concerns: Don’t wing it, or just reuse an older update. Do your homework to understand what they care about and build that into the content. If you fail to do this, you run the risk of the meeting getting derailed, the executives getting frustrated, and leaving them with the impression you don’t have a clear understanding of the project.
3. Be prepared for their questions: If you’ve done your homework to understand their concerns, you most likely can anticipate their questions. Hopefully, your content will address most of their questions, but you can never fully prepare; and having them ask questions is a good sign—it shows they are engaged in the topic. Be prepared to answer their questions, and if they ask something you don’t have the answer for, don’t guess. Let them know you will get back to them and be sure to do so in a timely manner and through the appropriate channels.
4. Be transparent: Never sugarcoat bad news. While no-one likes to deliver bad news, sugarcoating it will jeopardize your credibility and integrity; and possibly create doubt in your capabilities. And consider this, if you’re hitting road blocks, they may be able to assist in breaking these down.
5. Focus on outcomes & solutions: Where there is a problem or bad news, include what your plan is to solve it. Never lay out the problem and expect the executive to solve it for you. Be specific in your plan to drive to an outcome that serves the business and be open to their input on how to do it differently.
6. Be clear in your ask: If you have an ask of the executive—either as part of a solution to a road block or action you need them to take—be specific and clear about the ask. Be sure your ask is at the level appropriate for them to get involved and be clear on how it will impact the outcome.
7. Listen to create dialogue: We all get enthusiastic about the information we’re sharing, and it’s easy to get nervous when presenting to an executive. It’s important to stop, pause and listen. Thinking of it as more of a conversation and taking pauses to invite questions and input is a critical part of having a successful dialogue. And be prepared for the conversation to go in a completely different direction. Have a deep knowledge of your content so you can be fluid in the discussion; and remember, it’s okay if you only get to slide
Use your time with executives wisely—be respectful of their time and be impactful in your delivery!