Communicating So the C-Suite Will Listen

Feb. 14, 2013
Five ways to make the most of ‘face time’, to present ideas clearly and persuasively

When was the last time you headed down the hall or up the elevator with a senior company officer or manager to present a new opportunity, raise an issue, or just plain get some questions answered? Talking to “members of the C-suite” and senior managers can be stressful, but it can be the difference between a successful career and a going-nowhere job. When face time is limited, how do you make the most of these conversations? It takes preparation and specialized knowledge to communicate clearly, concisely, directly and, most important, persuasively with the decision makers who can greenlight your ideas. The following strategies will help ensure that each conversation is professional and effective.

1. Know your audience and tailor your message to their communication style. Everyone has a preferred style of communication: Some people are direct while others are emotional; some are casual while others are formal; some prefer a lot of detail while others prefer a high-level overview. Any and all of these styles might be found in the executive suite. To complicate matters further, the style will likely change depending on the situation.

This is where you need to do your homework. Thoughtful (and successful) communicators know the chain of command above them and understand the communication style of every senior leader and executive—all the way to the top of the organization. Read their emails carefully, watch how they communicate to the organization, and ask those who interact with them frequently, such as their administrative assistant, about their preferences. Once you understand their style, adjust your communication accordingly.

2. Think like an executive. One of the most common mistakes that people make when communicating with executives and senior managers is failing to understand what is and is not important to them. Because messaging tends to be more effective when framed within the context of the audience, you need to try to think like an executive. Ultimately, they care about execution and anything that promotes or inhibits the organization’s ability to achieve it. Framing your message in these terms will get their attention and help them reach the conclusion that you are like-minded and focused on business outcomes. Additionally, most executives got where they are because they are effective problem solvers, so never point out a challenge without offering a solution.

3. Prepare for impromptu communication. It may sound oxymoronic, but employees should prepare for a chance meeting with an executive. Executives and senior managers are quite used to challenging the people around them, and if you are not prepared an impromptu hallway conversation could do more harm than good. It is a mistake to assume that impromptu conversations are casual, because where business is the topic of conversation, it’s a serious discussion, whether it appears to be or not. Consider carefully the topic you wish to address and provide solid solutions to issues about which executives may not even be aware. It will help to showcase your knowledge and your aptitude as a problem solver.

4. Know the right place and the right time to deliver your message.An idea, any idea, is not going to come across well if it is delivered out of context, or if it is delivered in an inappropriate way. Many opportunities have been lost, due to a case of the jitters, when trying to share ideas with an executive. For most people, however, communicating with executives is like anything else: The more they do it, the more effective they become. While your access to the executive suite may be limited, you can still prepare for these opportunities. Develop various situation-appropriate messages in advance. The company picnic may not be the place to discuss specifics of a product line you would like to develop, but it could be an opportunity to introduce your concept at a high level. Be prepared with details, however; asking next-level questions is instinctive for many executives.

5. Be yourself. No one comes across as sincere or intelligent when they are putting on airs. Executives generally have pretty good radar when it comes to obvious posturing and people pretending to be something they are not. Sincerity is critical to establishing trust, which is the basis for meaningful communications and relationships with executives. Their decisions are only as good as the information you supply and executives need to know they can count on you.

In our information-overloaded and economically challenged business world, being heard and getting what you need, especially from executives, is a growing obstacle. Ultimately, successful people get paid for their ideas, and learning to communicate them effectively is a required skill for those who wish to advance. Developing and fine-tuning communications skills will enable you to move your organization effectively and, ultimately, your career path, too.

Mark Bashrum is v.p., Corporate Marketing and Strategic Intelligence for ESI International, a project management training company. He is responsible for providing thought leadership to the market and to the company’s strategic multi-national clients. Contact him at [email protected], or visit