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A week ago, I spoke at a Project Management Institute event in Toronto, in front of a room full of project management professionals. The talk was about the key success factors in communicating with executives, a topic that has proven highly popular. I shared the top management perspective gathered during my consulting work.

It is because of the strong response I have received that I am going to outline the key points from the speech here. Whether or not you are a project manager, I believe you will find them useful.

Twelve suggestions that will make your communication with senior executives successful.

1. Speak your audience’s language. Minimize the use of professional jargon. Describe impact, benefits, ramifications, costs, etc in business terms. Don’t confuse this with “dumbing down”, which is unacceptable.

2. Prepare for the opportunity which will come as one of the following three types of scenarios .

  • You bump into them in the elevator or on the floor – 30 seconds
  • They want to know a little bit more – 5 minutes
  • They want a full blown conversation – 30 minutes

On your way to work every day, think of what you could say if the scenario were to materialize. Come up with a message that is pithy, assertive and upbeat. The full blown conversation rarely comes as a surprise, so you will probably have the time to prepare, but it is not the case for the first two scenarios.

3. Understand the priorities, pressure points, and political landscape. Do not confuse what is said with what is thought.

4. Communicate confidently and establish a partner relationship. Your counterparty is not omnipotent and you don’t want to appear as an obsequious supplicant but as a confident, knowledgeable and reliable partner.

5. Do not let them tell you how to do your job.

6. There are several types of power that an individual can hold within the organization, such as legitimate, reward, coercive, referent and expert. The last two are most potent. Know a lot about your project – be on top of things, know everything there is to know about your project. If you don’t, people will go around you.

7. Don’t merely bring up issues. Suggest solutions, give options but imply freedom to choose. Be a solution, not a problem.

8. Geert Hofstede developed a framework for assessment of world’s cultures. Among the five dimensions comprising it is the Power Distance Index (PDI), which denotes how the less powerful members of organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. In Australia, a low PDI country, subordinates view their superiors as equals. In Malaysia, a high PDI country, the superior is looked at as an authority not to be argued with. While it is dangerous to stereotype, understanding the prevailing beliefs within a given culture allows you to communicate with executives with different backgrounds more effectively.

9. Always get an agreement on next steps, responsibilities and timing. You will not be able to be in control unless these are set.

10. Know when to escalate. Too early and you may be talking about something which should have been addressed at your level; too late and the opportunity to rectify the problem may be forever gone.

11. Decide on the communication medium based on the executive’s personality, preferences, proximity, as well as the time constraints.

12. Choose the right level of detail in your message given the professional realm and the preferences of your counterparty. A CFO is likely to pay close attention to numbers, while a CEO may prefer to stay at a high level (but remember not to stereotype). It is always safe to start at 30,000 feet being prepared to quickly descend into the nitty-gritty. Have the numbers and other detailed info ready in your back pocket.

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