Communicating with Executives

RightArrowWhen you have discussions with executives, do you commonly feel like they aren’t listening to you?  Do your recommendations fall flat?  Are you quickly dismissed?  Does it seem like you’re talking to a wall?

It that occurs are a frequent basis, it’s time to check your communication style.  The further up the management chain someone is, the more a) scope of work they are managing, b) issues they are dealing with, and c) disconnected they are from operational reality.  A good executive will listen, but realize that they only have so much time and only have so much context.

As a simple leader, there is a lot you can do to adjust your communication style to this type of audience:

Get straight to the point:  Right at the beginning, state your bottom-line.  Don’t lead the audience on a long journey to your takeaway point.  By the time you get there, nobody will be listening.  Don’t think out loud.  Your internal thought process should stay internal.  If they want to know how you reached the bottom-line, they will ask.

Speak bluntly and plainly: Don’t hide the message behind the words.  Don’t try to use extravagant vocabulary or long sentences to try to sound smarter.  It will backfire.

Simplify the complex: Your job is complicated.  So what?  The point of communicating isn’t to convince everyone of how difficult and complicated it is.  Whatever you are trying to communicate, demonstrate your expertise by boiling it down to the most impactful levers.

Don’t know how to get started?  Pull up a recent email or document that you recently sent.  Challenge yourself to put an executive summary at the beginning with a one-sentence bottom-line at the very beginning.  Challenge yourself to identify what your key messages are, then eliminate all text that does not directly support those specific points.  How short can you make it?  How plain can you make it?  How simple can you make it?

A sign that I am told an ex-CIO had on his desk: “Be brief. Be blunt. Get out.”

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Honing Your Edge: Tenacity

Sydney2000 GebrselassieTergat 10k

Going for gold in the 10,000 meters (6.2m) at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Haile Gebrselassie matches Paul Tergat stride-for-stride at the finish line.

Setting yourself apart in the competitive business world really is not that difficult if you are willing to engage your brain and put in some hard work.  One area to develop an edge over your competition is tenacity; defined as grasping firmly, persistent, tough, tending to adhere.

The easy and therefore common behavior is to dive into a new project with hard work and good intentions, but as surprises occur, as issues pop up, and as resistance is encountered, that drive starts to waver and quickly becomes diluted.  Giving up is the worst reaction, but more often the reaction is much more subtle; that drive loses steam as people go through the motions but excuses tend to pile up faster than creative thinking and hard work.

Do you believe in the work that you are doing?  Then don’t despair when others put up resistance.  Don’t lose your energy level just because it takes time to achieve your goals.  Expect surprises to occur and be ready to work through them as they occur.  Stay focused, be sticky, and work hard.  As track runners will hear from their coaches, “run through the finish line without letting up.”

Run with persistence.  Finish strong, my friends.

P.S. – Here is a video to watch on this topic:  If You’ve Never Failed, You’ve Never Lived

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How to Soar During Times of Upheaval

breakthroughDuring times of chaotic change, most people in the workplace will retract into their shell in a defensive posture and wait.  We wait for the layoffs to cease. We wait for the organizational announcements to settle down. We wait for the new leadership to define goals and strategies for us.  We wait for someone to tell us what we should do, on the assumption that what we were previously doing is now incorrect.  This scenario repeats itself over and over again in business, whether it is as dramatic as a corporate restructure with massive layoffs or as simple as a change in leadership or strategy.

This behavior demonstrates a risk averse nature.  Only a few demonstrate the courage to push limits and boundaries and to challenge.  Most people want to play it safe and are far more comfortable being told what to do.  During periods of change, this group of people go into paralysis.

If you are serious about being a leader and influencer, this is absolutely the wrong behavior.  During times of upheaval, that is when you should go into hyperactive mode.  All of those ideas that no one would previously listen to or take action on?  Start sharing them again with anyone who will listen to you.  All of those initiatives that you have underway that are not yet complete?  Now is the time to accelerate them to a major milestone for visible achievement.  All of those stakeholders that you were shielded from communicating with directly?  Reach out to them and foster relationships.

In short, if you really want to be a leader and a change agent, you should be giddy during times of upheaval.  This is the time when you have a blank sheet of paper to influence outside of the lines.  There are no lines, they are being erased and redrawn.  Don’t wait for the new paint to dry on the pavement before you try to make an impact, get yourself into gear and make it happen now.

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4 Simple Ways to Beat Your Competition

soccer chaseWhether you are seeking an edge over other companies in the marketplace or other contributors in your organization, there are four, simple themes to distance yourself as a high performer rather than a mediocre one:

  1. Adaptive
  2. Hustle
  3. Applied
  4. Reliable

Adaptive is the practice of seeking wisdom, of listening to stakeholders and clients, of absorbing coaching, of learning from both successes and failures

Hustle is the dual activity of working hard and of working with urgency.

Applied is the practice of using your wisdom, experience, and urgent, hard work together towards value-add. It is seeing the non-obvious, putting action behind that finding, and getting the work finished to deliver the value.

Reliable is the quality of bringing your A-game all the time.  Every discussion, every email, every presentation, and every deliverable is contributing good or bad to perceived performance. Your stakeholders and clients need to be able to count on you.  If they can’t, they will find someone else.

How did you do on all four dimensions today?  Chances are, there is opportunity to do better tomorrow to further distance yourself as the go-to performer.

Share your thoughts below.  These topics will be covered in greater detail in the weeks to come.

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Be Vigilant for Crisis

Looming CrisisIt is easy to execute according to normal, everyday conditions.  It is more difficult to recognize when a trend is leading to an emergency situation that requires extraordinary action and resources.

As a leader, you are in a unique position to see portents and to make connections before others do.  Also as a leader, you are in a position to respond by marshalling critical resources and by providing direction and energy into the system to steer around the problem.

Unfortunately, many leaders have a hard time recognizing and responding to crisis.  Many times, it’s senior management or a client that forces a leader into critical situation mode, and by then it is too late.  You don’t wait to see a doctor until your heart stops beating, you see the doctor at the first symptoms of disease.  You don’t wait to call the fire department until after the house has burned to the ground.  The same is true in business.  You can’t wait for someone to point out failure, you have to recognize that without extraordinary action, failure is in the future.  You call the fire department as soon as the grease on the stove catches fire.

Have a normally effusive client go dark?  Have a metric that occasionally blips just a little before returning to normal?  See a milestone slip on the critical path?  The hairs on the back of your neck should stand up.  Be on the lookup, take notice, ask questions, constantly be on the lookout for the next crisis.  Catch it before it happens.

Once you recognize it, then it’s time to determine what extraordinary resources and what extraordinary actions are required to prevent disaster.  Don’t fool around with typical resources and typical actions to deal with a looming crisis.  Bring in the experts.  Sound the alarm.  Get what help you need.

As recently discussed, the role of a leader is to:

  • Dispel confusion by simplifying what needs to be done
  • Provide energy into the system
  • Remove blockers

Notice that all three of these apply to not only day-to-day operations, but to recognizing and responding to crisis.  You may not get a gold star for preventing your next crisis, but you will form a reputation for being someone who gets things done and avoids disaster.

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People follow people — Let your personality shine

ShineIt takes a number of traits to spark a positive, emotional response when leading people.  One trait that is often overlooked by the inexperienced is to let your “real” self shine through the professional filters.  People follow people, they don’t follow empty suits.  The inexperienced often work so hard at scrubbing their workplace image that they end up coming across as an automaton.  Nobody gets charged up by robotic leaders, they want to feel a personal connection to you as an individual.

If you want to lead, you have to show your personality.  Let others see your emotions, character, and idiosyncracies.  Vary your temperament depending on the circumstances.  Make yourself vulnerable.

Of course, you can go overboard. We’ve all known people in the workplace that act unprofessional at times or share too much personal information.  Demonstrate some self-control by letting your personality shine, but don’t forget that you’re a professional.

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De-Clutter Your Leadership: 3 Simple Areas

Tire ClutterWe have a tendency to make things complicated.  If a list of 5 optimal behaviors is good, then a list of 10 must be better, right?  Wrong.  As is often quoted from Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Being a leader is no different.  We tend to make the job complicated.  We burden ourselves with lots of rules and lots of ideal behaviors.  We read books by the latest consultant guru’s.  We watch videos of inspiring people telling us how to change.  It’s exhausting!  Hard work is a virtue, but shouldn’t we be putting hard work into getting results in our business instead?

Just like we need to de-clutter our closets and garages on occassion, to clear out the flower beds in our yards, and to purge our email inboxes, we need to make time to de-clutter our leadership jobs.

Our leadership focus is quite simple:

  1. Dispel confusion by simplifying what needs to be done
  2. Provide energy into the system
  3. Remove blockers

It’s really that simple!  Yet how much of our energy goes into “other stuff” that might be easy, but not important?  Let’s cover the list quickly, starting in reverse order.

Remove blockers.  If your team is encountering obstacles of any kind, be it behavioral, resource, or otherwise, your job is to either personally knock the obstacle down or to teach the team how to do it themselves.  Your judgement, of course, will be key is deciding when to teach vs. do.  This one isn’t typically difficult, but a lot of “leaders” think that they sit back and direct orders, which entirely misses 1/3 of their job!  Roll up your sleeves, understand what is slowing your team down, and help them either plow down those barriers or find a way over or around them.

Provide energy into the system.  Your teams will get discouraged.  They will get distracted.  They will feel like their contributions don’t matter or aren’t cared about.  Your job is to constantly combat this.  Remind them of their progress.  Remind them of how their contributions tie to top-line objectives.  Remind them of the stakeholders that are counting on them being successful.  Get them emotional, inspired, and putting in the extra effort.  If you are a “manager” but not a leader, this may be your biggest barrier to becoming a leader.  Find that emotional side that will compliment the analytical side.

Dispel confusion by simplifying what needs to be done.  For many, this may the most difficult part of the job.  Your mission will constantly be barraged with complexity.  What seemed simple and straightforward at the beginning encounters unforeseen problems, complications from stakeholders, and shrinking or underperforming resources.  You will be presented with lots of data and issues that seem like doomsday scenarios.  Your job is to strip away the complexity, to remove the resulting confusion, and to point and focus at the very few items that will make a difference on succeeding or failing.  This takes experience, intelligence, and judgement.  You can’t learn this by taking a class in your MBA program, but you can constantly challenge yourself to de-clutter your leadership and to de-clutter your team’s focus.

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