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Senior executives smiling

How to speak to senior management

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28th Apr 2015
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Jasmine is concerned with practical, tactical ways to bolster employee engagement, diversity and ultimately improve organisational cultures. She gives actionable advice to help HR professionals improve their organisations one step at a time and is known as a trainer, consultant and public speaker. Prior to moving to London in 2008, she was a professor teaching international business majors at the State University of New York. Her clients include PepsiCo, CBI, HarperCollins and Prudential. Jasmine's book, 'Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas,' is available to buy.

About a year ago, I arrived at a company to do some communications training. The senior manager who’d hired me met me at the front desk. As we arrived at the room, he turned to me and said, “I just want you to know you’re going to have a great day. My employees are amazing.” Then he left me to it.

I entered the room, closing the door behind me. Four men sat at the table. One of them said, “we saw you talking to our manager just now. We just want you to know that he’s a snake. Whatever he just said to you – it’s a lie.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “Because he was just telling me how great you are.”

The men looked surprised and a slightly embarrassed. Talk about crossed wires!

Six months later, I returned to deliver a refresher course. It was the same four men, but this time there was a big difference. Something had changed. Now they wanted me to know that they really liked their manager. I wondered what had happened? They had learned how to communicate with him.

Here are a few tips that are important to consider when speaking to senior managers.

Tip 1: Talk to senior managers about strategy – don’t go to them with questions that only pertain to one individual.

First of all, think about the person you’ll be speaking to – is this the right person to answer your question? For example, if your company is going through change, and you go to a senior manager with a question about what is happening specifically to an individual employee, how likely do you think you’ll be to get an answer? Not very!

Senior managers are big picture thinkers; they simply will not have the answers to those individual questions.

Tip 2: Focus on potential outcomes – given the hand you’ve been dealt, realistically, what outcomes can you work toward?

Secondly, think about how you want to frame your question. Since you’re speaking to someone whose day job is about deciding strategy, then using the company’s strategy as a frame is always a good idea. For example, if your company is dependent upon government funding and that funding has been cut, make sure your question is shaped by that knowledge.

Tip 3: Ask questions that will help you judge the quality of your manager’s decision-making process.

In my experience, people are much better at accepting difficult decisions if managers can show that it’s for a really good reason – for example, to keep the business afloat and to remain competitive. If employees think that change is a result of fire-fighting or is poorly thought through, they will become disengaged.

If you want to be able to assess the quality of the decision-making process, you have to have the right information about it; and the only way to get that information is to ask precise questions about it.

What kinds of questions might these be? Anything that will help you understand the strategic narrative – where the company was, where it is now, and where it hopes to be in the future.

Your questions will most probably fall into these categories:

  • Strategy
  • Timelines
  • Measuring success
  • Risk / contingency
  • Communication strategies

To come back to the story I began with, those four employees had learned to speak to their manager about what he knew best – organisational strategy. They learned to frame their questions within that context, and they therefore started to ask better, more relevant questions.

And that meant that nobody was talking at cross-purposes. Everyone had started to feel like they were really communicating.

Do you have questions about the specific kinds of questions I would use? Let me know in the comments below.

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By jonesc
14th Sep 2019 17:39

This is a good post. I've learnt a lot. I am new to this company and will be meeting the Managing Director for orientation. Help me with specific pointers to ask

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