I was talking with a client about communicating to the C-Suite. They were struggling with how to retain an executive’s attention, to make sure their points are heard…and remembered.
I’ll be honest, the higher you go the shorter their attention span seems to be. It’s easy to feel frustrated when you get cut off mid-sentence, or they take the conversation in a completely different direction, and you’re left with three minutes to make a case that needed a full ten.
There are several factors at play here, including your proximity to them (direct report vs. several layers down) and their own personality. But let’s focus on the main one: vantage point.
Think about the quantity of areas and topics they’re involved in. An executive needs to see and respond to dozens of different people, topics, projects, strategies, and issues. They can cut across the company, so their vantage point is one of standing on a mountain, watching a river twist across the landscape but not seeing the bear fishing in it. Their view is “wide & shallow.”
You’re on the ground. You notice the bear but can’t see beyond the next bend in the river. Your vantage point is “narrow & deep.”
Bringing this back to business, the CEO is responsible for many areas, but their role is to gather information and make decisions, rather than do the work in all these areas personally: “wide & shallow.” And the lower down the hierarchy, the more “narrow & deep” until an individual contributor is focused on accomplishing their daily tasks, like the bear fishing in the river.
This is natural…and relative.
Think about your own project. Your role here is considered “wide & shallow.” Your job is to understand, assess, schedule, and resolve, but as a PM, you don’t do the actual “building.” Your resources are “narrow & deep,” digging into the work itself, raising issues, and preparing information.
When your team member is faced with a challenge, you, as the leader, don’t need to understand every nuance; just enough to get to the heart of the matter and make a decision. While talking with your resource, you may realize the problem they’re facing is actually the symptom of a very different issue, and you’ll start asking them questions to understand how big that one is!
So while you are “wide & shallow” on your project, you’re seen as “narrow & deep” when you present to an executive.
Given this perspective, it doesn’t make sense for your executive meetings to focus on the details. Their vision is about a thousand feet up, and miles wider.
Even understanding why the higher up you go the less likely you are to have an executive’s full attention, how do you effectively communicate with them?
First, think carefully about what outcome you’re looking for. Is it advice? Help? Money? A “Go” decision? Maybe you want to convey confidence in your team/timeline/project?
Whatever your goal, the rest of your communication (meeting, email, phone call) should support that. I know it’s nice to tell the CEO how great your team is, but if the meeting is to get a decision to purchase new testing equipment, talking about your awesome team is just an opportunity to get sidetracked. (That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever praise your team, but in this circumstance, they’d probably appreciate the equipment more!)
If you’re having a 1:1 meeting, make sure to leave time for discussion. If you have a half hour, expect the first five minutes to be “How are you doing?” questions…if your executive is on time. Then you need a few minutes to set up the discussion. Remember that while you’re living and breathing your project, it’s only one of a dozen they’re following. So start with a status or reminder of where you are in the project schedule. (“As you probably know, we just finished training everyone on the new process and we’re getting ready to roll it out next month.”)
Plan some room for detours. (“How did the training go?”) If you load up the meeting with details, it will be tougher to know what to cut out when time runs short. The risk is you’ll rush through all your data, hoping you hit on the information they need to make a good decision.
I’ve mentioned it before: The more important the communication, the more time I spend preparing for it. If I need that purchase decision, and the CEO doesn’t know too much about it already, or I only get this one shot to ask, I can take hours…or days to prepare. Because the message and the outcome are too important to risk anything other than crystal clear communication.