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Summit 2019 Highlights: The Secrets of Talking to Executives

May 09, 2019 | By Robin Whiting

  • At this year’s SiriusDecisions Summit, Monica Behncke and Phil Harrell shared their secrets for communicating with executives
  • All executives have certain things in common – they have little time and they’re under constant pressure
  • They also have their differences, and leaders who want to their message across must learn to speak to these differences

There’s more than one kind of stage fright. One is the kind you get when you have to stand up in front of a crowd of anonymous faces – people sitting in an audience waiting for you to perform – most of whom you may never see again. Another is the trepidation you may feel when you’re communicating with a senior executive who has the authority to approve or deny your ideas as well as the resources you need to turn those ideas into a reality.

phil harrell and monica behncke on stage at Summit 2019

At SiriusDecisions Summit in Austin yesterday, Monica Behncke and Phil Harrell provided advice on the latter scenario during their keynote presentation, “The Essential Secrets of Talking to Executives (and Getting What You Want).”

“Unlike your computer, the executives you work with don’t come with a manual or a list of instructions,” said Phil, and the skill of communicating with executives is not generally taught in school, so Monica and Phil introduced the Summit audience to two levels of instruction: “Exec 101: Always On,” which involves three universal tenets for communicating with executives, and “Exec 201: Situation Dependent,” which explains how to handle five types of communications scenarios. 

Key points at the Exec 101 level include:

  • Follow the Golden Rules of Executive Communication. When communicating with executives, get to the point quickly. If the executive is receptive, follow up with the thought process behind the initial concept. “Go deep when asked. The optimal words are when asked. Don’t go down that proverbial rathole just to show how brilliant you are,” said Phil. The two also advised leaders not to rest on their laurels if they get approval – take the initiative to bring the project to fruition.
  • Determine the outcome you are going for. There is more than one reason to approach an executive. It may be a matter of survival – making a case to save your job, your budget or other resources. It may be to build your personal brand – to make a positive and lasting impression. Or it may be to get the executive to make a decision (hopefully in your favor). “Just like the very best salespeople who go into a call with an outcome in mind, go into your conversation with an executive with an outcome in mind,” said Monica.
  • Know your executive. There are some things executives have in common (e.g. they don’t have much time to spare, they are constantly under pressure, they see the big picture). However, they also differ from one another. For example, a marketing executive may be more focused on the creative side or demand generation. Sales and product executives may have their own idiosyncrasies. Know what’s important to your executive so you can speak to that set of priorities.

The Exec 201 level explains how to apply these best practices to the following types of situations:

  • Go fund me. When seeking budget and resources, it’s one thing to state what you want, but it’s another to make a convincing case. Avoid abstract concepts in favor of demonstrating the problem you’re trying to solve using props and demos. “You can’t get executives to want to buy a mousetrap if they don’t realize there’s a mouse problem. You need to get that mouse out there, into the office, on the desk, right in front of that executive until they’re screaming on top of the desk like they’re in a slasher movie,” said Monica. 
  • I have bad news. Missed numbers, delayed projects and product problems are common types of bad news in business. From an executive’s perspective, it’s how a leaders handle these pitfalls that defines them. Don’t avoid sharing bad news. Instead of giving excuses, leaders can turn a bad situation into a positive by being accountable. Use data and offer solutions to get performance back on track. 
  • The feedback ambush. Be prepared to respond to your executive’s requests for feedback by using a structured approach. Your personal brand is built as much by how you handle unknown, stressful situations as how you handle situations you have prepared for.
  • It’s complicated. Complexity is the enemy of clarity. Yes, sometimes the problem is difficult to explain, but long lists and convoluted sets of correlations are not helpful when communicating with an executive. Use categories and frameworks that guide the executive to your recommendation and their conclusion. 
  • All good here. Leaders get into trouble when they excessively boast about achievements but fail to share credit with team members and colleagues. Leaders boost themselves in the eyes of executives when they share credit for success and point out opportunities for further performance improvements.

Throughout their talk, Monica and Phil emphasized the benefits of following a structured approaching to communicating with executives. While functional leaders often struggle to secure resources, drive changes or achieve other outcomes, applying the principles of communicating effectively with executives can transform this situation and result in faster approvals and elevation of the leader’s personal brand.

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Robin Whiting

Robin Nicole Whiting is a senior editor at SiriusDecisions. She has more than 20 years of experience as a communications professional, covering a wide range of industries. Follow Robin on Twitter at @RobinWhiting1.

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