The Secret To Communicating With Executives

Without executive support your project will fail. You need funding, headcount, and time. Your team’s counting on you to manage up well. You’re looking for the secret sauce to convince your boss. Start by avoiding these 5 mistakes.

5 Big Mistakes When Communicating with Executives

  1. Over Confidence – Executives are suspicious of rose-colored glasses. Water down you exuberant optimism. If it’s going great, speak to “early positive indicators.” or about being “cautiously optimistic.” Throw in a few things you’re worried about for good measure. Execs like to worry. Throw them a bone.
  2. Lack Of Confidence – Don’t send him to bed at night worrying if you’re the right guy for the job. Show up strong and knowledgeable. Listen to his questions carefully and share your expertise. Balance accomplishments with plans to resolve your biggest concerns.
  3. Over Disclosure – Tell the truth elegantly, and then shut up. You know a lot, avoid the temptation to prove it. You don’t want that exec getting involved in minutia. Unless you’re a big fan of more readouts and escalations, share what’s relevant and move on.
  4. Forgetting To Breathe – The tendency to spew will undermine your credibility. I’ve been in more than one exec review where the speaker was instructed to “take a breath.” Pause for questions. Make it a conversation.
  5. Ignoring The Ask – Even if they don’t ask, have an ask. Execs want to contribute, but aren’t sure where to jump in. They’ll feel better, and you’ll get what you need.

The Secret

The secret to executive communication is credibility. Work on building trust and connection in every interaction. Trusted advisors build a track record of solid decisions and successful projects. Layer on appropriate confidence and carefully crafted words, and your project and relationship will prosper.

Posted in Communication, Results & Execution and tagged , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of several books: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020), Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. This is a great list. One of the things I try to remember is they put their pants on the same way I do… one leg at a time. They are also human and need to be treated the same way you would like to be treated.

    • Dave, Fully agree. One of the biggest challenges I see comes from how nervous people get when presenting. The nerves hijack their confidence in what they know and they forget that they, indeed, are the expert.

  2. Go somewhere outside the normal work environment.

    Almost 25 years ago, the president of our company ended his opening day kickoff speech by saying he was going running the next morning. “Anyone interested in joining me. I’ll meet you in the lobby at 6am.”

    I was the only one to show up.

    I’m 6’5″ and he’s 5’1″. We looked like Mutt and Jeff trekking down the streets of Scottsdale.

    This was one of the most memorable moments of my career. We talked mostly about things unrelated to business.

    There was one thought he left me with. “You’ve got to figure out who you want to be when you grow up.”

    • Steve, Fantastic story. I’m so glad you did figure out what you wanted to be…. oh wait, did you grow up 😉

      I had my entire organization in for a conference one time. I invited anyone who wanted to run with me at 5:30 before the sessions to meet me in the lobby. I even put it as an optional event on the agenda. One guy showed up (and the meeting planner at the hotel). The 3 of us had amazing conversation. I know there were other runners in org. I do think folks are intimidated. It’s worth getting past that and getting to know people outside of the normal context.

  3. I think #3 and #5 could stand on their own as perfect advice. Most people are busy and just need bottom line answers – this is especially true if talking with someone in a different functional area of the company. They probably don’t care about the specific details of why you did X vs Y, they want to know the consequences.

    As for #5 – people can’t read minds. You might think your ask is obvious. It isn’t, I promise.

    • Josh, thanks so much… The ask often seems to be the tough part. I’m amazed at how often someone will present to me, and I ask what they need… Or how I can help, and they look at me with a blank stare and say “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” It’s important to have thought that through.

  4. Loved your suggestions, Karin and especially feel the absolute need to be trustworthy. Once that trust level is established, one can be highly successful.

    I would just add for leaders to have open, clear and direct communication so that their message is transmitted the way they want it to be. Also, look at the non-verbals to see if the execs seem to be receiving the information accurately. And I love the ASK!

    Great job Karin!

    • Josh, thanks so much… The ask often seems to be the tough part. I’m amazed at how often someone will present to me, and I ask what they need… Or how I can help, and they look at me with a blank stare and say “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” It’s important to have thought that through.

  5. Karin,

    Nice column. Well done.

    Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to facilitate staff meetings for several high-level executives. Having witnessed countless presentations delivered in this environment, I would say that the most common mistakes presenters made were 1) not being able to quickly get to the point, and 2) not knowing their audience well.

    Sometimes, meeting agendas get squeezed. Presenters expecting 30 minutes to tell their story can find themselves cut to 15 minutes. When that happens, presenters must be able to do an effective job of thinking on their feet and making their points – and getting to their “ask,” as you mentioned – in the time they have available.

    As for the latter point, presenters should ensure that they know before they enter the room who the key players in the room are, how they like information presented, and what sort of things “push their buttons.” Adminstrative assistants and other staff members can be valuable sources of this kind of intelligence. Presenters who don’t go to the trouble to brief themselves in advance do so at their peril.


    • Tony, you are the master executive communicator… I learned many a trick from you. Both of your points are so critical. In fact, when helping my team to prepare for presentations, I often ask them to give me the 5 minute version… Just in case that’s all they have.

      Know your audience is so important… I should have included that in the main list. Thanks for adding that.

  6. Karin, this was timely! Used it today when I met with an important Director. The balance between 1 and 3 is always the true test for us middle managers. I’m always tempted to present all the negatives, my boss always focuses on the positives. As a team we can be confident and appropriately concerned, we just need to avoid going off the deep end into detail.

  7. Timely indeed Karin! Recently, I hear the word “Practice” more than ever. Today, I am reminded that lack of preparation is a big mistake. Also, delivery of my KEY POINT up front is a strong focus. Now, I can drive home the supporting facts, insert an ASK and fight to stay on track. Breathe and Shut-Up are the most difficult mistakes to avoid (yikes), practice, practice! There is tremendous elegance in a crisp communication style. Love the stories of today, there was the unintentional note-to-self. I really need to run more often! Thanks everyone, have a great day!

  8. Many great words of wisdom. This is a reminder that our relationship with the executive is not what is in our heads. It is not what we thought before the meeting. It is not a make-believe hierarchy that forces us to be uncomfortable. The hierarchy might be part of the situation, but what is important is that both parties have the same goal — to develop something great. What is important is not yesterday (the time we might have “fumbled the ball”). What is important is Now. There is a relationship Now. Be present Now. Be sincere Now. Connect Now. With this attitude, we put aside how our mental constructs and instead focus on how we can make a difference in each other’s lives.

    • David, amen! Staying present in the now creates deeper connection and awareness…. Without all the psychological clutter. Such an important addition, as always.

  9. As usual, Karin, you hit the main points squarely on the head. Since most execs have considerable ego at stake, “throw them a bone” is one of the best pieces of advice you can give. It always works….

  10. LOVE ‘ throw them a bone’! This really speaks to knowing and understanding the style of the folks you are presenting to/dealing with/working with – so that you can ‘be/do something for them’, give them what they need to be successful and in the end, so too will you be successful.
    Another great post Karin, thank you.

  11. This should be a little hand out, or card, maybe laminated, from some great training course for middle managers (or more).

    A poster on the wall?

    I know its woven into the points above, however I’d reinforce the points around ‘its ok for there to be silence’. This gives the exec time speak and you time for your (smart) brain to catch up with your mouth by taking the suggested breaths.

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