Communicating With Executives When Your World's on Fire

Communicating With Executives When Your World’s on Fire

When your world’s on fire, and you’re working around the clock to survive, it feels like the last thing you have time for is formal updates. And of course, the bigger the fire, the more the senior team needs to know what’s going on. What’s the secret to communicating with executives efficiently so you can stay focused on critical operations?

Communicating With Executives: Lessons Learned

It was 2012 and  I was leading the outsourced call center channel at Verizon Wireless when we found ourselves in the middle of a literal firestorm.

The Waldo Canyon Fires were raging through Colorado Springs and were wreaking havoc on the Garden of the God’s adjacent to the call center which had 1100 human beings taking Verizon calls. Just across town, we had another call center which, with just a quick shift of the wind, would also be in the path of the fire. Most of the homes in the area had been evacuated and the firefighters had turned our call center parking lot into a base camp for fighting the fire.

First and foremost we had employee safety concerns. Was everyone accounted for? How could we best support those in distress? Who needed help? How would we communicate?

The next concern, of course,  was the massive operational impact of 20% of our team not able to get to work, and the growing wait times, frustrated customers, and the downward customer experience that comes from the cocktail of angry waiting customers and overloaded humans doing the best they can.

What’s our capacity at other centers? How fast could we cross-train the specialty functions that were handled from those centers? Could we bus employees to the nearest centers? How much overtime could we squeeze out, and for how long? What if the centers were destroyed? Could IT pull off a temporary center or a work at home strategy? How would we keep customer data safe in a scene like that? How should we modify our HR policies during this time? The list was long…and complicated.

We were doing the best we could, my team had been working around the clock. Everyone was completely exhausted.

The C-suite needed an update.

So I scrambled. I quickly pulled together all the details. I summarized our HR and cross-training strategies in an email. Sent another update on the IT concerns. Then another email with the real estate contingency plans.

My phone rang. It was the senior leader headed into the meeting for a C-level briefing.

“Karin, I’ve just searched my email for the name Karin Hurt. Oh, lots of emails here. Now guess what I’m doing now? Highlighting them all and hitting delete…yup now they’re all gone.”

She continued.

“I get that your world is literally on fire and what you and your team are doing is very important. I trust that you’ve got it handled. But I can’t handle all this info. I’ve got five other major issues to read out on and I’ve only got 20 minutes.

Send me a new email with five bullet points. Tell us how you’ve got this under control and what else you need.

5 Questions to Answer When Communicating With Executives in Times of Crises

I was crushed. We were working hard! I wanted the C-level team to understand the brilliance of our plan and to see how hard the team was working. But at a strategic level, what they needed most was to know: What happened?  So what? What’s next?

If you find yourself in the midst of a firestorm, here are 5 questions that can help you form your executive briefing.

  1. What happened?
    Consider this a newspaper headline. What happened and what’s the current and potential human and business impact?
  2. What have you done?
    Summarize key actions, timelines, and impact.
  3. What’s next?
    Outline next steps and timelines
  4. What’s in jeopardy?
    Ditch the Diaper Genie™ and be real with what’s at stake and what could go wrong, as well as the downstream impact on other projects and business priorities.
  5. What do you need?
    Where do you need help? What additional resources or support do you need?

Of course, you need to be prepared with all the details and to engage in deep discussion of why you chose your path and other options you considered. But a strong executive summary will save everyone time, get you the support you need, and and let you get back to what matters most– fighting the fire.

Your turn. What are your best practices for communicating with executives in times of crises?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons DIVDSHUB

The 9 Biggest Mistakes When Presenting To Executives

The 9 Biggest Mistakes When Presenting to Executives

Executives are naturally a tough audience. They have limited time, competing priorities, information overload, demanding bosses, and pressure to make great decisions quickly. When presenting to executives, your job is to give them all the information they need in a way they can easily digest. Most of us have stories of times when the message we tried to send was not the message received, and the tidy PowerPoint presentation spiraled downward in a frenzied fiasco.

9 Mistakes To Avoid When Presenting to Executives

1. Undermining Your Credibility. The execs will only buy your message if they believe you know what you’re doing. It’s vital to show up confident and strong,

One of the smartest women I know stayed up late every night the week before her presentation doing deep research and getting the presentation just right. No one in the room knew a tenth as much as she did on the subject. But when one exec made a snarky remark, she lost it and burst into tears–a tragic credibility buster. Exhaustion and too much caffeine prevented her from responding calmly and redirecting the conversation.

Other credibility-busters include weak words such as: “I guess” “This is above my pay grade” “You all are a lot smarter than me.”

Remember, you are the expert. Show up strong.

2. Lack of Confidence in Your Own Argument. Do your homework so you can answer the tough questions well. Be confident enough to challenge faulty thinking in a professional and respectful manner. State your argument with clarity and confidence.

3. Lack of Humility. At the same time, these men and women are in their positions for a reason. They’ve got perspective you may not have. Listen carefully to really understand their concerns. Write down their suggestions. Be sure they feel heard. Know that as much as you know, you don’t know it all.

4. Unclear Objective. When I’m working with leaders on honing their executive presentations, I’m often surprised how few can articulate their primary objective. Be sure you can complete this statement in one sentence.  “As a result of my presentation she/he/they will ____________.”

5. Underestimating the Audience. Executives can often be hard to read, but there’s a lot going in their quick-thinking brains. Do everything you can to learn about the executive’s goals, competing priorities, decision-making styles, and political dynamics. This isn’t easy, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Talk to those who’ve presented in the past. Talking to key members of their team is another great option.

6. Failure to Connect with a Stakeholder. If the topic is complex and/or controversial, it’s going to be tough to get traction in a room of opinionated execs. Seek out a few key players to ask for their opinion in advance. Incorporate and acknowledge their thinking. It will show you’ve done your homework and also have a few friendlies in the room supporting your argument.

7. Boring Delivery. It’s likely yours is the fifth or sixth PowerPoint deck they’ve seen that day. Spice up your data with a strategic story, metaphors, or illuminating statistics with powerful comparisons. Classic research by Hermann Ebbinghaus shows that most people forget 40% of what was said within the first 30 minutes. Be sure your message is memorable. A great, easy read to inspire better presentations is Get to the Point: How to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want.

8. Overstuffed Slides. You know a lot, or you wouldn’t be in the room. Resist the urge to throw it all up on your slides. Use clean visuals (not cute clip art) that represent your message with a few key points per slide. Always include a punch box at the bottom with a 5 to 7 words that articulate your main idea for that page. If you can’t come up with a punchy summarizing statement, consider if you really need that slide.

9. Failure to Ask for What You Need. This sounds so obvious, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes I see. Be very clear on your proposed next steps and what you need specifically from whom. Funding? Support from above? Communication with their organizations? Resources? Sure, some details may need to be worked out later, but be sure you can answer the question, “What do you need from us?”