Communicating with Senior Executives About Your Project: How to Get Them to Listen to You

Mary Federico

If you’re leading a process improvement project, chances are you’ll need to communicate with a senior executive about some aspect of your work. Whether it’s a presentation to a group of leaders or a one-on-one meeting, how do you get executives to listen to you?

You’ll have a better chance of success if you:

  1. Understand what’s different about communicating with executives
  2. Adapt your communications to take those differences into account

What’s different about communicating with executives?

Ever find yourself watching in dismay as an executive went directly to the final slide in your process improvement project presentation deck? You were about to reveal the mystery of the root cause…and the executive interrupted to ask about hard versus soft savings.

If so, you’re not alone. Variations of this experience are surprisingly common among Lean Six Sigma Belts. The executive has to leave before you’ve made your key point. You arrive for your meeting to learn that you have only 10 minutes, not 30. And so on.

Obviously, every leader has different preferences and interests. But two aspects of the executive role make communicating with these leaders different:

  • Time: The amount of time/attention they can spend on a single issue is extremely limited
  • Focus: They must focus on the financials

You know this already! But do you communicate accordingly? It’s easy to take it personally, but better to stay neutral and focus your energy on adapting your communications approach.


Adapting your communications to senior executives

This five step approach to adapting your communications will help you get and keep executive attention.

  1. Clarify and validate your communication objective(s)

    What, exactly, are you trying to achieve with your communication? If you can’t answer that question — or if the answer is "I want to keep the executive informed" — it’s time for further thought.

    What do you want the executive to do with the information you provide? Approve resources? Agree to fund process improvements? Help you get buy-in from another leader? Change a policy? Recognize you at bonus time for your excellent performance?

    If you don’t know what your objective is, you’ll never achieve it. Worse, you’ll be wasting both your and the executive’s time. That will make him/her less inclined to listen to you in the future.
  2. Identify the executive’s communication objective(s)

    You know what you want…but what does the executive want?

    Worst case, nothing. The executive may have no interest in hearing from you. If so, you might want to wait to communicate until you can identify how it would benefit the executive.

    Best case, the executive does want something. You just need to know what that is. Then you can make your communication focus on it rather than something else. One executive might need to know the cost of your proposed process improvements. Another might want to learn the short-term effect on production schedules. Yet another wants to hear about savings for this fiscal year.

    How do you figure this out? Ask! If you can’t ask the executive, ask others. Consider any past experience with the executive. Learn more about the executive’s specific goals vis-á-vis the initiative/project. Do some investigation! If all else fails, start with (and test) the hypothesis that the executive wants to know about resource requirements, return on investment, and the like.
  3. Understand how the executive wants you to communicate with him/her

    Most of us have preferences for how we get information. In-person, phone, or e-mail? Details or highlights? Reasons or bottom line only? Big picture before specifics, or vice versa? Text, pictures, or spreadsheets? Blackberry or laptop? Morning, noon, or night?

    Again, you find this out by asking the executive, asking others, etc. If you have absolutely nothing to go on, assume a preference for the least time-consuming and most focused approach and work from there.
  4. Craft a message that meets your and the executive’s objectives; deliver it in a way appropriate to that executive

    You want the executive’s approval for your implementation plan. The executive wants to know the financial effect on operations of two alternative implementation schedules. You learn that the executive prefers face-to-face meetings and likes a "one slide" presentation approach. He’s known for asking pointed questions about spreadsheet data and hates wasting time.

    Before the meeting, you reconfirm logistics (and available time) with the executive’s assistant. You forward your detailed spread sheet "in case he wants to look at it in advance." You put information about the alternative schedules on the first slide of your deck: the spreadsheet, one bullet point summarizing your conclusion, another stating what you need from the executive. You have four other slides of financial detail "in reserve."

    At the meeting, you don’t spend any time on what a great job the team did. The words DMAIC, Kaizen, cell, etc. never pass your lips. You say nothing about your search for root causes. You focus on the numbers, you use extra slides only if necessary, you finish in less time than allotted…and you get your approval.

    If such an approach feels uncomfortable or incomplete, that’s natural. (And of course this is just an example.) But one of the biggest mistakes Lean Six Sigma Belts make in communicating about their process improvement projects is confusing what they find interesting/important with what the audience cares about. If you want executives to listen to you, you must adapt to their objectives and styles. Don’t expect them to adapt to yours.
  5. Reflect, assess, adjust

    Take a tip from the U.S. Army and try its After Action Review (AAR) process. This is a simple but powerful approach to learning and improving. It involves reflecting on an action to ensure understanding of what actually happened (vs. what should have happened), why it happened, and what could be done differently to get a better result the next time.

    After you communicate with a senior executive, do your own AAR. You presented just the bottom line and basic calculations, and your resource request was approved? You now have good information on how to communicate with that executive. If instead you got the third degree about how you derived your numbers, you know to have that detail ready the next time. Did you plan to be crisp and focused, but found yourself tangled up in the data and cut off early? Now you know your plan was good, but that you need more practice in sticking to it.

Summing Up Communicating with Senior Executives

The key to good communications — with anyone — is to know your goal, know your audience, and adapt accordingly. (If you want to continuously improve, add some reflection.) Communicating with senior executives is no different in this regard. But it’s important to consider their time constraints and typical interest in the financial implications of your project. If you approach them with this in mind, and with clarity around your own communication objective(s), you have an excellent chance of getting them to listen to you. Good luck!

First published on Six Sigma IQ.