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Do this, not that: 7 tips for communicating with the C-suite

Mary Lorenz, CareerBuilder Writer

 “It all comes down to how they want to be communicated with and what they value,” says business adviser and author Beverly Flaxington about communicating with the C-suite.

 As many human-resources professionals can attest, getting buy-in from the often time- and attention-challenged C-suite isn’t always a trip to Disneyland. It doesn’t help that there seems to be a fundamental difference between the way HR and the C-suite each communicate. Flaxington, a certified professional behavioral analyst, shares her tried-and-true tips for human-resources professionals to effectively communicate with executives and gain leverage to achieve their goals.


Do this: Be direct

Not that: Don’t give too much information

Sending an email to a C-level executive? The shorter and more direct it is, the better. Use the email as a means to open up the conversation, not as the medium for the conversation itself. “No senior executive is going to take the time to read one lengthy email,” Flaxington says. Try this formula: Use the subject line of the email to state your issue; in the body, briefly explain what that issue is, what you need from them and when you need it (using bullets to outline the high-level issues you want to address). End with a question such as, “When would we be able to discuss?” which opens up the door to have a follow-up conversation.

 Do this: Show the business impact

Not that: Assume they already know

Even if it’s clear to you that taking care of your employees is good for business, the C-suite doesn’t always make that immediate connection. When addressing an issue, frame it in a way that speaks to its impact on the business, whether negative — a potential liability or risk to the company’s reputation — or positive — opportunities to increase profitability, revenue or efficiency. These are the matters to which C-level executives take notice and respond, Flaxington says. Another way to get their attention? Talk about what the competition is doing.

 Do this: Be a confidante

Not That: Forget that C-levels are employees, too

Keep in mind that C-level executives are employees of the company, too. “They’re dealing with interpersonal issues; they may also have questions,” Flaxington says. “By extending the olive branch and showing the C-suite ‘We’re here for you,’ you can secure inclusion in higher-level meetings, because you’re seen as a confidante.”

 Do this: Leverage your insider information

Not that: Keep your opinions to yourself

Flaxington says that gaining leverage with the C-suite isn’t always about being part of the fundamental decision-making team; you have just as much influence by positioning yourself as a facilitator or an objective third party. After all, HR workers have access to information to which the C-suite isn’t always privy and can provide valuable insight on various organizational issues. “By volunteering to be the objective outsider, you get the opportunity to get your ideas heard, hear the decisions going on, and get access to information you wouldn’t have had access to before,” Flaxington says.

 Do this: Cater your approach

Not that: Go in blind

“You need to be somewhat of a detective,” Flaxington says about trying to decipher your leader’s communication style. Look at how your leader communicates: Does she talk at length? Or is she short and to the point? Does she use a lot of data? These nonverbal cues will inform the tactics you should employ to influence them. Asking those who interact with your leader is another effective way to decipher how you should cater your approach. Determine if this person prefers email to talking on the phone, or vice versa and whether she takes time to think about things or simply makes decisions on the spot. “Think of it as data-gathering,” Flaxington says.

 Do this: Focus on need-to-knows

Not that: Focus on want-to-knows

Again, keep in mind that the C-level person’s time and attention are short. Therefore, it’s important to “think in terms of what they need to know versus what you want them to know, because those are two different things,” Flaxington says. Their needs are different than yours, so “frame your comments and ideas in a way that shows you’re thinking about it from the C-suite seat … Be able to say, ‘This is the most critical aspect of our organization. This is time, this is money and this is effectiveness.’”

 Do this: Stay objective

Not that: Take things personally

Dealing with C-level executives can be intimidating, Flaxington says, because they have a tendency to come across as dominating. However, their behavior doesn’t necessarily mean they do not respect you or your role. They just have a different way of communicating and might not be aware of how they’re coming across. Stay objective and avoid taking things personally when you don’t get the response or reaction for which you hoped. Remind yourself that it’s your job to address the issues you’re bringing up, and remind your leader, too. “You need to be able to explain why this particular subject is valuable to them, and why it’s important that you work together on this,” Flaxington says.


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