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This short video is a great illustration on how IT departments often communicate with other functions within their organizations. Same language, same office, same coffee… yet a world apart…

Media seems to have a significant influence over the way we interpret certain words or phrases. Certain passages become cliches as they are used consistently in  connection to recurring events (“Acme Inc swung to a $1B loss” … why do they always “swing” to loss? ). Even the most innocuous of them may create an unwanted impression if you inadvertently include them in your communication.

Here is one example.  As you know, there are introverts and extraverts among us and one is not any better or worse than the other. If I wanted to describe an introverted person, I could say something like

“He was a very private man”

Who do you picture ? I think of a scholar or a dignified gentlemen who lived on his own with a dog as his sole companion. 

If you please, another way to say it: “He kept to himself”.  I don’t know about you, but I picture a creepy criminal, likely a child molester or something equally heinous. This is a cliche newspapers use often and in my head, the association is very strong and clear.

Whenever you have a message to deliver, use phrases that evoke the feeling in listeners that you are looking to call to their minds. Beware of cliches as they are not only old and boring but can also be a source of an unwanted effect.

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.

Editor in Chief of Techrepublic, Jason Hiner, recorded a video based on my earlier article on the subject.

It is an interesting experience to hear your ideas vocalized by somebody else. Jason does a superb job of it.

Watch the video

Really, not a fresh  subject.  Why on earth would anyone want to tell the world how important it is to communicate, yet another time?

Actually, after the recent plane flyover accident that cost the White House Military Director Louis Caldera his job, it is quite appropriate to write a few lines about the effective communication.

If you are initiating a change or a project of any scale, remember:

– to identify all stakeholders (those who will be affected by it )

– to plan communication: determine how you will communicate with them (time, frequency, means)

– to communicate as per the plan without fail.

Watch the video below to see how White House staff would benefit from memorizing the three lines above.

Business is about common sense, which is not as common as the name implies, but that’s a different story. If you are not happy about performance of your team, results, project outcomes, or whatever else, there is no need to engage in flagellation.

Just change, do what needs to be done.

In a recent workshop with a group of incredibly smart managers, someone told me about the need to improve  communication among the participants and asked an advice on how to go about it.

I said that they should talk to each other. There is nothing recondite about it.

Here is a timeless skit with Bob Newhart, which demonstrates the effectiveness of the “common sense” approach.

I came across this video which demostrates so wonderfully how diverse English language really is. I find that some people understand different accents well, while others become lost in no time.

Similarly, in business, you will find that there are people (I am happy to be one of them) who can understand the language of any organization, diagnose issues promptly and suggest correction. In often find myself acting as a translator between IT departments and the rest of my clients’ businesses. I wrote an article on this for CNET (link to article).

Perhaps, I’ve just learned to listen.

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