Richard Arnott explores communication strategies that prove effective in executive-level interactions
At the core of successful executive-level interactions is the importance of effective communication. As an Assistant, you play a vital part in facilitating clear and concise communication among executives, stakeholders, and team members. Mastering the skill of communication within this ever-changing setting enables you to collaborate, establish strong relationships, and contribute to organisational success.
Know Your Audience
Only you know your executive, your colleagues, and your stakeholders. Understanding how they tick is essential to effective communication.
For example, your executive may be a “details” person. You know that they will read everything and probably more than once, so you need to align your communication accordingly. Make sure the detailed content is all there.
Alternatively, they may only be interested in summary data and will only delve into detail if they find something that they are concerned about in the executive summary. In these cases, then focus on the executive summary and ensure that it contains everything your executive needs to make decisions.
Also important is to understand how your executive likes to be communicated with. Are they a “people person” and respond better to face-to-face discussions? Or do they prefer email or messaging as a communication medium? Try to establish this by understanding your executive’s behavioural profile.
Most executives will have undertaken some form of personality profile such as DISC / Belbin or Myers–Briggs in their career. Ask them if they would share it with you. It will enhance how you interact with your executive if you understand who they really are.
The biggest bugbear of any executive is wasted time, so it is essential to communicate succinctly.
Executives tend to read the executive summary only, which should include as a minimum a summary of conclusions and recommendations. Only if the executive does not like what they read in the executive summary or conclusions and recommendations are they likely to delve into the detail. It is a rare executive that reads every line of every report that lands on their desk, but some do, so remember what we said about understanding who your executive is.
- Give priority to essential points and communicate them clearly and concisely.
- Utilize bullet points, visuals, and summaries to effectively convey complex information.
- Remove jargon and unnecessary details, ensuring that your messages are easily comprehensible for your executive to make well-informed decisions.
Remember, the goal is to communicate information effectively and efficiently, ensuring that the message is easily understood without unnecessary complexity or ambiguity.
The old adage of “prepare prepare prepare” covers communication as much as anything else.
The worst thing any executive can receive is information that is incomplete or has not been properly researched. Make sure that you have all the facts to hand and try to anticipate what questions you may be asked. You know your executive, so you know what they usually ask for or what questions they always ask. Use this knowledge to prepare responses to questions that you know are almost certainly going to be asked. Put yourself in your executive’s shoes; what questions would you ask if presented with this report?
You might be hearing the words, but are you actually understanding what is being said?
Being able to listen effectively is a lot more than simply keeping quiet and letting the other person speak, although that does help!
To truly listen, you have to eliminate distraction, clear your mind, stop thinking about your next answer, and importantly, watch for strong verbal and non-verbal cues (body language) which can give an indication of what your executive is trying to say, although the words may not be conveying the same meaning.
But be careful, as there are many myths around body language, such as that it somehow supersedes the spoken word…it doesn’t. Body language cannot exist in isolation; words are needed as well.
Very early on in my career as an organisation and methods officer, I learned the hard way that executives want solutions and outcomes, not problems.
It was one of my first-ever sole projects and I was looking into how efficient our postal department was. I spent days, if not weeks, researching every process and every activity and identified a number of activities that in my opinion were inefficient or indeed unnecessary.
I produced wonderfully colourful graphs, data tables, and reasonings for my findings and proudly presented my final report (including an executive summary) to my executive before sitting back and awaiting praise for a job well done.
After a few days I was called in by the executive, who floored me with one simple question: “So what are we going to do about it?”
Looking back, I cannot believe that I had not realised that the solution was what he was after, but it is a lesson I learned and never forgot.
Over the years spent in the same department, I soon realised that this same type of project was given to all new hires and was this executive’s way of making sure that that particular lesson would always be remembered.
Foster Trust and Confidentiality
Every Assistant knows that confidentiality is paramount when dealing with your executive; it is probably Rule #1.
Once trust is lost it is rarely ever recovered, so be conscientious and be careful with the information that you have access to.
Without trust, there is no effective communication.
Utilise the Written Word
In these days of ever-changing technology, we tend to lose sight of the value of effective written communication.
How many times have you been put off by poorly written emails? Would you start a Board report with “Hi everyone, Happy Monday”?
Even in these days of emojis and “millennial speak”, well-structured emails and reports that convey key messages clearly and succinctly are important.
Grammar still has an important place, as do attention to detail and ensuring a professional, business-like look and feel.
Finally, whether you agree or disagree, spelling remains important. It shows a degree of maturity and professionalism, especially if the communication is going external to your organisation.
Of course, it can be more efficient to send WhatsApp-type messages, or even pick up the phone. But try to challenge yourself and ask if this is really going to get the message across, especially if it is urgent or important.
Nothing ever happens if nobody is allocated the responsibility to make it happen.
Simply writing a report that recommends X, Y, and Z are changed does not mean that X, Y, and Z will be changed. It is important that actions are clearly allocated to specific individuals and that all parties are clear on the next steps and deadlines.
The RACI Matrix
RACI – Responsibility, Accountability, Consult, and Inform – is a tool that enables more effective stakeholder management and ultimately communication.
By simply jotting down tasks and clearly identifying and communicating who has the responsibility (who actually does it), who has the accountability (who owns it), who should be consulted (in a two-way conversation), and who should be informed (one-way conversation), you will go a long way to improve the way you communicate.
Developing effective communication strategies tailored for executive-level interactions is vital to the success of an Assistant.
By knowing your audience, being succinct, engaging in thorough preparation, listening, adopting a solution-focused mindset, building trust, and demonstrating professionalism in written communication, you can establish your value as an indispensable asset to your executives whilst enhancing overall organizational effectiveness.
Effective communication not only facilitates ease of decision-making by your executive but also strengthens your relationship with them.