How Do You Communicate with C-Level Executives?
Let me ask you… how would you approach a meeting with a high-level executive?
As a leadership coach, I’m sometimes asked if I communicate the same way with different people across all levels of an organization, especially in terms of top management communication. Essentially, should we speak with executives and senior leaders the same way we speak with colleagues?
It’s a great question, and the answer is both yes, and no.
Yes, because humanity is the heart of all communication, and we connect best with each other on that level. No, because top executives often work at a different pace and level of responsibility. For interactions to go well, it’s key to be aware of those differences, and to create ways to work with them.
If you’ve ever met directly with a C-level executive (“C” as in CEO, CFO, CTO, CXO, etc.), you know there’s a different vibe than in other types of meetings. Efficiency and directness are expected, and time wasting is not an option. It can be a jarring experience if you aren’t used to it, but with guidance and preparation, communicating with C-level executives and senior management, can start to feel a lot more human and accessible.
Meeting with upper levels of leadership can be a meaningful opportunity. Even if you aren’t interested in climbing the ladder (which is perfectly ok as there are so many ways to grow and expand your life beyond your career), it can still be an opportunity to bring new perspectives into your field of vision, and expand your experience of this area of your life.
One thing to be aware of is that an exec’s time and attention are at a premium. This isn’t because they’re not interested in getting to know the people who keep their organization running. In fact, many of the executives I work with really do want to connect with everyone, but their schedules don’t make that possible. Remember that execs aren’t only accountable for corporate success, but also for dozens – sometimes hundreds or even thousands – of people’s job security, as well as workplace safety, ensuring an inclusive environment, and much more. It can be a heavy weight that consumes a lot of time, focus and energy. That “different vibe” I mentioned earlier often stems from this pressure.
If that has you feeling intimidated, don’t worry. You’re not alone! How to communicate with executives is not just a question I get from clients, it’s a common discussion topic at professional events and conferences, and even among the high level leadership teams I’ve worked with!
In this article, we’ll explore:
The Number 1 Mindset Shift for Communicating with Executives
This may seem like a simple shift, but I want you to remember that execs are human.
Yes, that’s the shift! This shift will help put you at ease, but also empower you to better connect with executives and upper management.
What does it really mean to accept senior management as human? It means realizing that the very human worries, anxieties, struggles and even embarrassments that everyone else deals with in life… execs also deal with.
They aren’t some higher level of being that never messes up. They’re just people. They have laundry that needs doing. Dentist appointments to make. Lifestyle goals they struggle to reach. Cluttered closets they hope no one sees. In-laws that drive them crazy. Kids to take care of. Pants that no longer fit. Abandoned hobbies. Guilty pleasures. Bad habits. Stress. Simple joys. They’re. Just. People.
When I first started working with C-level clients, I admit that I felt intimidated. However, I quickly realized that, not only did they have as many fears as anyone else, but that they also felt more isolated and in need of more support. In fact, they tend to be the clients who struggle most with their Saboteurs!
Because of that, it really is ok to let your masks drop. Let your weird out! Yes, communicating with them is a bit different because of their role, but you don’t need to perform to some unattainable standard. Really and truly be yourself. Your best and most polished self, but yourself.
8 Tips for Executive Communication
1. Get yourself in the right mindset.
Your mindset is your foundation for everything that follows. It’s about setting your intention with clarity, and stepping fully into self leadership.
Make a plan for whatever you need to do in order to show up with clarity and confidence. Maybe you do best after you meditate, take a walk, practice grounding, practice breathing exercises, read inspirational quotes or passages, go through a favorite yoga flow, spend time in visualization, or listen to music. Decide ahead of time what you need and book that activity into your schedule, immediately before your meeting.
By starting with your mindset, and being intentional and almost ritualistic in taking control of it, you’re able to show up as your best and most authentic self, and to lead yourself from your heart. You’ll feel more at ease and that will come across in how you speak and carry yourself. Yes, you need to get to the point of the meeting, but equally important is to create a point of connection – with yourself, and with the people/person you’re meeting. Entering the meeting with a clear, confident mindset will allow you to do that.
2. Begin with the purpose.
Get clear on your vision and set the intention to enroll them into it!
What is the end goal of the meeting? What do you want to achieve? When I think about how to deal with senior management and executives, I start with what’s important to people in their position. Getting things done is often at the top of their list. If you just say you want to discuss ideas, that can come across as low priority. Not because your ideas don’t have value, but because execs are often under pressure to make things happen.
Instead, opt for definitive statements, such as, “As my goal today, I would like to see if we can agree to our next steps,” or “I would like to determine a solution for our staffing issue,” or “My hope is to get final sign off on this budget today.”
If your intention really is to discuss or brainstorm, include the ‘why’; the purpose. That might sound like, “I would like to get clarity on some issues today so that I can make a firm decision about the future,” or “I have an idea I want to discuss so that I can either begin putting things in motion, or go back to the drawing board.”
Making things happen matters to executives, and it will reflect well on you if you share that priority.
3. Get to the point.
You’ve stated your purpose, now get to the heart of the matter. What’s your bottom line?
Your bottom line may sound like, “With our current staff, the deadline for this project will mean significant overtime. We made overtime demands for the previous project and I strongly believe that if we repeat that, it will have a negative impact on the organization.” Or it may sound like, “We’re all aware of how the economy has shifted in recent years. As a result, this budget proposal is larger than in past years. Let’s start with what’s changed and why.”
Don’t shy away from difficult issues, or pussyfoot around bad news. No one likes to hear – or deliver – bad news, but a strong leader appreciates honesty and the efficiency of getting it out in the open. Transparency builds trust. Be courageous, confident and clear.
4. Provide structure.
One of the biggest challenges executives face is that they have to quickly switch topics throughout the day. And almost every topic will be urgent, high priority, or both. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. Remember that mindset shift: they’re human.
Providing structure to your discussion will help them quickly wrap their head around the key points of the issue. If you are giving a presentation, quickly and succinctly state the 3 points you will be discussing (or whatever number, but there’s a reason 3 is referred to as the “magic” number). Along with courage and confidence, I coach clients to always go in with compassion as well. A well-structured, easy to follow presentation is an act of compassion.
If it’s a more informal meeting, you can simply state the points you want to cover. Better yet, have them written on a notepad in front of you so you don’t stumble, and you show how prepared you are. Be sure to make this brief.
5. Include metrics.
Metrics, stats and data are the “hard evidence” of presenting your case or idea. Executives know that the impacts of their decisions can be far reaching, and they don’t take that lightly. When you have metrics to back up your ideas or concerns, you’re showing that you take this seriously, and you’re providing important context to help execs make decisions.
Ideally, your metrics will show a direct link to organizational performance. For example, you may be able to show that while the initial cost of switching suppliers will be higher, the long term savings will be greater. You may be able to show overall dips in productivity or quality when project timelines are tight, or how certain sales initiatives are not having a high enough impact.
If your metrics are not a direct link, make sure they are powerful and come from credible sources. Let’s say you want the company to consider more remote-work opportunities, but there are no internal metrics available to back up your idea. In that case, you may look for research on employee engagement and productivity, as well as organizational cost-savings in terms of remote work. Ensure your sources are respected and credible, and that the details of any studies can be applicable to your organization as well.
6. Align everything with corporate objectives and values… as well as your own.
Senior level managers, leaders and execs are already doing this, every day. It’s usually the single biggest influence on their decisions – does this align with our objectives?
If what you’re presenting isn’t clearly aligned with those goals, you’re very likely to get a ‘no’. Sometimes that ‘no’ comes as something like, “Interesting idea. Let’s circle back next year/quarter.” Either way, it won’t be a priority.
It may be possible that your idea should become part of the corporate objectives. If this is what you believe, then this should be your starting point – your bottom line. Be prepared for pushback because, as I said, existing objectives are front of mind for execs. Don’t shy away from it if it’s something you feel strongly about. Just know that it will likely be a harder slog.
Overall corporate objectives should be accessible to all employees. Before even outlining your idea, print out or write down these objectives and see how your idea aligns. If it doesn’t, it’s time to go back to the drawing board (and/or ask yourself some deep dive questions around your purpose and ikigai, especially if you feel strongly about your idea).
If it does align, great. Make that alignment abundantly clear in how you present and how you answer questions.
In terms of your own objectives and values, ask yourself how this fits in with your big picture vision for yourself. Sometimes, when we want to get ahead in our careers, we forget to ask ourselves if the steps we’re taking actually align with that vision. That can result in taking on projects to be a team player, when those projects actually take us away from what we want. Or going for a promotion we don’t really want, but that does look like “getting ahead”.
Remember, above all, your job is to lead yourself. No one else will do it for you, and no one else can do it as well as you can.
7. Be open – REALLY open – to feedback.
The most important thing with feedback is to practice non-attachment. Non-attachment means not attaching your identity or sense of self-worth to anything outside yourself. This practice empowers you to listen to feedback objectively, and not take criticism personally.
If executives are asking difficult questions, it can feel like you’re under attack. But it’s actually a sign that they’re taking your ideas seriously. It’s their job to dig deep, so if they’re doing that digging, it means they’re engaged. Practicing non-attachment in that moment allows you to respond with greater clarity and confidence, while keeping your sense of self-worth intact.
Non-attachment also empowers you to objectively consider where you may be wrong, or need to reconsider your position. Recognizing that openly is a sign of great maturity, professionalism and willingness to grow.
When you’re truly open to feedback, you open up pathways for co-creation. This is when you both become fully engaged and start working together to design solutions. It becomes not just about the task at hand, but also an opportunity to build a relationship. When you’re fully open to feedback – open to your idea being a work in progress – great things happen. Sure, it may result in you going back to the drawing board, but part of that result is that you’ve had a co-creative interaction with high level leadership, and that leaves a powerful impression.
8. Close with your ask.
You’re meeting with this particular executive/senior manager/leadership team for a reason. What is it, specifically, you want from them? This is so important. Many of us freeze at this point. We’re afraid to make demands. But, if we don’t ask, we can’t move forward.
Your “ask” may sound like, “Given that information, do you feel open to approving the hiring of two additional staff members?” or “Personally, I’m leaning toward option 2 because of the cost metrics. Are you open to signing off on that?” or “I understand there are factors for you to consider. Would it be possible to make a decision for Friday?”
How to Prepare for a Meeting with Senior Management
When meeting with execs – or anyone with a busy or stressful schedule – brevity matters. However, you also need to get your core idea across. Preparing for that – ensuring you are using the right words in the right way, and ONLY the right words – takes time.
It also takes time and preparation to get yourself at ease for a group or one-on-one with senior leadership. Feeling at ease is more than building confidence. It’s also about the ability to feel at peace in your body, and with your voice.
The good news is, putting in the work to achieve brevity, helps you get confident with your subject matter.
For a deep dive into giving presentations (which can also help with informal meetings), this article on preparing and delivering great presentations will help.
Beyond that resource, here are a few tips to help you prepare:
- Ask yourself, “What is most important here?”
- Determine the influence you want to have.
- Write down everything you want to say, then edit. Mercilessly.
- Practice what you’re going to say, out loud.
- Practice messing up. Yes, you read that right! When you make a mistake in practice, resist the urge to start over; the need to be perfect. Instead, try dancing it the moment; seize the opportunity to embrace professional vulnerability and create something wonderful. This will also help with the fear of messing up, so that you don’t freeze if it happens “live”.
- Practice even more with people you trust (including the messing up part).
- Ask a trusted friend, colleague or coach to play the role of the executive and ask you some difficult questions.
- Consider your BATNA to empower you to stay focused during a discussion.
- If you struggle with imposter syndrome, consider how your workplace may contribute to that, and prepare yourself. You may want to run through some scenarios you may encounter and decide how you will respond.
- Explore your own mental models and those of the people you’re meeting with to help you uncover potential blindspots, or alternative pathways.
- If you freeze up or are turned down, ask “What else is possible here?” to open up more possibilities and co-creation.
- Take unconditional responsibility for your approach and response.
- Let go of the outcome. The only things you can control are your approach and response (see point above). If you get sucked into worry about the outcome, you aren’t putting the full force of your energy into bringing your best self forward.
- Practice some more.
It’s true that we live in a world of outdated social structures, limiting beliefs, and toxic behaviors. All of that can make effective communication feel daunting. However, it’s also true that we live in a world where those things are shifting, and better ways of being are coming forward. And it’s true that each of us has a hand in creating a better world by bringing our best and most unique selves forward. Keep going back to that one, simple mindset shift. Executives are human. And so are you! You’re in different roles, but both equally worthy of being heard, respected and appreciated.
If you would like guidance – for yourself or your team – in strengthening your communication skills, and practicing more conscious leadership, I invite you to connect with me.