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Welcome to the first candid conversation with one of our Executive Authors, Louis Johnston. Candid conversations are frank interviews I have with business executives regarding a personal story or some lesson they learned from their career.
Today, the topic is upward communication – how to effectively communicate with your boss and senior executives. Louis has a wealth of knowledge, and is very humble at the same time. I love doing these interviews, and I learned a lot from his story. I hope you will, too.
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Audio transcription of the podcast:
Lei: On my blog I talk a lot about the importance of effective communication. Today I want to talk to you about how to better communicate upwards. I know that you managed a team of seven or eight people, and I know you’ve mentioned that you’ve seen some challenges with these, that some of your team members have. So thank you for your time, and could you tell me a little bit about, from your perspective, why do you think communicating upward is so important to your team members’ career advancement?
Louis: Well, I think one big thing is it builds trust from the upper manager down, and having that rapport. It’s amazing how if someone at that level doesn’t understand what you’re doing, get insight into it, they’ll completely kind of push it off to the side. A lot of times you just, all the hard work that you do can go unnoticed, even though you think it’s being noticed because you’re saying something.
Louis: The challenge is, what you’re saying is not something they may be listening to.
Lei: Or may not translate to mean something that you intended.
Louis: Correct, which means, why I’m saying they may not be listening to. They’ve got 20 things that they’re looking at every day, especially an executive. An executive is literally, I’ve heard stories that they’re going through 250 to 300 emails a day. So that’s basically, think about it, information overload at that point. They don’t need something more to clutter that process.
Lei: So what do you think are sort of some of the common challenges you see your team members when they communicate to you on having difficulty or when you see them communicating to someone senior. What are some of the things that they’re doing that you think people normally kind of do but really shouldn’t?
Louis: I think two things that I saw was that they’d dive into the weeds very quickly about details, and the other things is rambling on. What that shows the upper manager or an executive is that it, they’ll tend to have questions about how your organize your thoughts, if you think logically, and it’s not just about presenting, it’s about if you can communicate clearly.
Louis: You don’t want them questioning, because if you can’t think clearly, or if you can’t communicate it clearly, their idea is that you can’t…
Lei: You can’t think clearly.
Louis: You can’t think clearly and you don’t have a logical process, which is why the first thing they always ask for is a plan, right? Because they immediately want to see how you organize things and how your, your plan of attack.
Lei: And what’s the second challenge?
Louis: Well, those are the two things that I immediately saw. The one was diving into the weeds, and the second thing is rambling on.
Louis: Where they just continuously talk, and its like they just keep branching off into different areas of those details.
Lei: Do you get the sense that when that happens, yourself or a senior person starts to question whether that person really understands how their work fits into the bigger picture, whether they understand whether they’re diving towards the results you’re hoping they’re driving towards.
Louis: Yeah I think there can be questions around if we’re on the same page, but I think immediately it’s more of a frustration thing. I think in the immediate, it’s frustration that, I have no idea what this person is talking about.
Lei: And why are they taking up my time.
Louis: That’s exactly it. That’s the second piece.
Lei: Great. So if you were going to mentor one of your team members about effective upward communication, what are some of the, let’s say three things that they could, that you would recommend that they could do tomorrow if they had to talk to a senior person?
Louis: Well I’ll give one concept with three things or sub-points to that. I think the one thing to practice is really being able to succinctly say what you’re talking about, and let me give an example Have a format in your mind. What I used to do was have a format and practice, and my format was, number one, setting context for what the discussion would be. Number two, giving any supporting bullet points to that context so that you could fill in the color a little more for that person. And then the third thing was, what is my asked? Why are we talking about this and what do I need from that executive or upper management? There may be some supporting points, to that ask. And then, the final piece that you may want to keep in your mind. You may or may not need to, is a timetable. Sometimes it’s like, where you give context around the timetable of what you’re, why you’re doing this, why you need this at this time. So for example, if you need them to act on something, you may not need it exactly at this moment. We may need it in three days, because we’re, on the seventh day, we’re going to be launching something.
Lei: OK. Would I be correct to say then, that’s part of the ask of be specific?
Louis: It could be.
Lei: And how you ask, so not only ask them to approve something, but say, hey, I need this approval by this time to meet this deadline.
Louis: I’d say so. I think that’s fair enough, just so that they can get it in their mind, because sometimes they’ve got, once again, I’ve seen executives have 200, 250, 300 emails they’re just going through. Sometimes they can’t wrap their head around that thing immediately. They may need to digest what you’re asking, what you’re talking about, and it helps to have some idea of when you need either feedback or what you need from that person.
Lei: Would you say that this recommendation is for any form of communication? Like email and personal?
Louis: I’d say, yeah, it’s a good question. I’d say that it’s a very fundamental basic way of looking at it for different forms of communication. One person told me, it might have even been you I think that said, when you communicate to executives, think in slides.
Lei: [laugh] Yeah.
Louis: And it’s really like bulleted form. Now, when I say slides I don’t mean the slides that some people do by writing out every single detail on a slide, which is basically writing a book with bullets. It’s really summarizing your thoughts in a very succinct way and being clear.
Lei: You mentioned succinct, is there a, what does that mean? Is there a time you’re saying, we need to get you across something in 30 seconds, in three minutes, in ten minutes?
Louis: So, I say succinct because I believe you need to be clear enough and focused, because if you’re not focused, things could go haywire really. It’s like you will not get to where you need to get to.
Lei: How long would you take, would you give one of your team members, to give you…
Louis: My attention span?
Lei: Yeah, exactly.
Louis: A trick that I used to use when I was communicating with my bosses before was, hey, can I grab three minutes? I would know what I want to talk about in those three minutes, and I would let them drive the process if they wanted it longer or if they let the discussion go longer, because then they’re driving it. They’ll ask questions. We’ll have a discussion, but what happens is, I believe, and maybe this was just for me, but I would disarm them by saying, I need three minutes, because in their head they’re like, great, let’s talk.
Lei: I only need to donate three minutes, and if…
Louis: Exactly, and the other thing that I felt, and maybe this is just my opinion. They want to know that you’re basically in control of the situation yourself.
Lei: Oh, i see.
Louis Now when you sit down, and this is one thing I was always careful of, and you start asking for too much time, you start tending to ask for direction is what they’re really hearing, You don’t want to really get a reputation of, this person needs too much direction.
Lei: Mm-hm, absolutely.
Louis: So that’s why I kept very brief, and if they wanted to provide more feedback, I always welcomed it, because of course, that’s what you want, right? And if they gave you more color around it, even better, because then you got more of their head space of where they’re at. So those were my ways of being able to kind of finesse.
Lei: So, in my mind, a summary of what you’re saying is, come across succinctly and actually set the expectation with anyone senior that, hey, I only need this amount of time, maybe three minutes, and in that three minutes comes across with three things. One is setting the context. Two is summarizing what you really want to talk to them about with some key bullets, but not all the details.
Louis: Just to give them color.
Lei: And make sure you actually have a very specific ask, so that they know what they’re supposed to help you with, but no ask in a way like, can you take care of this problem for me, because that becomes then, oh this person is needing me to carry them, not this person needs me to guide them. Very different perception.
Louis: Correct. Correct. Now you can use this format, you brought up a very good point is that, you don’t want them to solve the problem for you unless there’s a very specific thing that you need to escalate and it takes their level.
Lei: To tell, right?
Louis: Yes, because that’s very important also. They need to know that you will escalate something important to them.
Lei: But I think to be able to tell them exactly what you need them to do, like can you go talk to this person because really your level needs to be there to kind of sign off on this.
Lei: So that they know the details of, it’s like a defined task that they can just do versus an open ended thing that they have to think about and try to figure out what they should do.
Louis: Yeah and it’s really fill in the gap, right? Where there’s a gap there, they can just get plugged in, because they’ll say, I’m here to help or if you need help, and what that really means is, you tell me what you need when you need it. I trust that you’re advanced enough.
Lei: And how hard was it for you to think about practicing this or getting into it, because you mentioned that you practiced this and when you coach others you talk about how you did it.
Louis: So, this is a very good question because actually, I didn’t even know the problem existed. I always though when I was a lot younger, I thought it was in reverse. If you showed how much detail you can give, people would be impressed because you knew your stuff. The reality of it was, that was so counter-intuitive to what is needed when you’re communicating upwards and managing upwards that it was a complete mistake, and that was one of the lessons I learned.
Lei: I love the fact you say three minutes, because not only you keep yourself in check of what you understand and really need from the other person, but you actually also have an open mind to gauge if that person is with you
Lei: Because a lot of times some people will just go talk talk talk and they think the other person is with them, and the senior person may never even mention that they’re either confused or they feel like this person really needs a lot of help and all that stuff, so that advice is so key, remembering that you only have three minutes of someone’s attention.
Louis: I think so, and the one commodity that people can’t get back is time. That is the most important commodity, and as you go up the levels in rank, time becomes your enemy, right? It becomes more important to be able to respect someone’s time, I find, more and more.
Lei: At the end of the day, it seems like, I don’t know if you agree with this, if you communicate effectively upwards, then you are in effect showing that you understand where they come from, which means that you are gradually ready for that level.
Louis: I would agree. I would definitely agree. I think it just builds confidence from the senior manager down to the junior manager.
Lei: Great. Thank you for your time.