How to Communicate with CEOs and Other Top Executives

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Having interviewed over 6,000 candidates for jobs reporting to CEOs, and having coached the candidates who were hired, I kinda know what ticks CEOs off day in and day out – and one thing is how people communicate with them. This blog spells out 3 of the most irritating ways people communicate with CEOs and, frankly, with all high-level managers.

To make this blog less wordy I’ll refer to communicating with CEOs, but the points pertain to everyone who communicates with any high powered executive.

Communications Irritant #1: “It depends.”

It drives CEOs nuts when they ask a question and the response is “it depends.” Of course it depends. Anyone can say “it depends” as a response to just about any question — what’s the weather going to be like, who do you think will win the ball game, what do you want to be doing in 5 years, will the strategy work? “It depends” is usually a stalling technique for people who either don’t know the answer or don’t want to tell the truth for fear the CEO will criticize them.

CEO: “What do sales look like for the second quarter?”
A: “It depends on how much confidence there is in the pipeline.”
CEO: “Of course it does, I just want to know what your best guess is for Q2 sales, given how we estimate pipeline probability.”

The CEO is thinking: Quit avoiding my question – just answer it! A better answer would be, “My best guess is $35 million for the second quarter, which of course comes with some important assumptions.” If the CEO wants more of an explanation, wait to be asked.

Communications Irritant #2: “Let me explain how to build a watch.”

The metaphor is this: When a CEO asks what time it is, don’t explain how to build a watch. This is related to #1, but a bit different. The CEO asks a question and the subordinate is fearful that a direct answer will be rejected, so the temptation might be to respond, “It depends.” An alternative way to beat around the bush is to build a case for the answer using a wordy rationale first, before finally answering the question. But that will irritate most CEOs, who don’t like waiting, waiting, waiting for the answer.

CEO: “What do sales look like for the second quarter?”
A: “Well, it looks like the economy will grow at 3%, our top two competitors have new products that will eat into our sales, offsetting our 20% revenue growth projection and I hear Pat, our top sales rep, is looking for another job. Add to that our faltering international strategy, blah, blah.”

The CEO is apt to say, “Stop with the long answer – just answer my question.” If the subordinate asks, “I’m sorry, what was your question?” you know the CEO will be even more irritated.

Here’s some advice for Human Resources or any interviewers of candidates for jobs reporting to the CEO: Watch out for these irritants! As a professional interviewer I ask, metaphorically, what time it is and when interviewees respond by saying “It depends” or by telling me how to build a watch, I cut them off: “Joe, please just give me the answer, and based on that answer if I want a longer explanation, I’ll ask for it.”

A players get the hint, C players don’t; so I’ll give them one more chance: “Joe, the CEO insists that when she asks a question, people answer directly and not build a wordy case for the answer first. I’ve asked you to answer me directly and sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but so I can judge whether you and the CEO would get along, please listen carefully to my questions and answer more directly for the rest of this interview.”

Communication Irritant #3: “I wanted to solve the problem before worrying you with it.”

Why would anyone hide crucial information from the CEO? Simple — they know the CEO will blast them with questions: “Why didn’t you anticipate this? Why didn’t you do A, B, and C to prevent it? Why haven’t you done X, Y, and Z to fix it?”

Too often CEOs are part of the problem – they punish open, prompt communications when people say they discovered a problem. What can a manager do who is aware of a serious problem but hasn’t yet dug into it and hasn’t notified the CEO? Manage their boss, the CEO. Here’s an example:

Early in his career Bob Smith, Division VP at Acme (I changed names), was offered a promotion to Division President. Bob would report to a CEO who, if he thought a division president was hiding anything, would send an army of analysts to question everyone. Bob knew this. Shortly after Bob was promoted to Division President he said to the CEO, “I know you hate to get negative surprises, so I promise that within an hour of my learning of a serious problem (and taking that hour to verify it), I’ll let you know what I know. And I ask a favor of you – please give me a day or so after that to investigate why it occurred and then I’ll get back to you, hopefully with what should have been done to prevent it, what we’re doing to correct it, and how we’ll prevent a recurrence.”

Bob never was visited by that “army” of analysts. He managed his boss, the CEO, well.

Hopefully this has been helpful advice:

  1. Answer the CEO’s questions directly;
  2. Get to the point. When CEOs asks the time, tell them; do not explain how to build a watch.
  3. Don’t hide problems from the CEO. Manage the CEO by asking for a day to research the problem.

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