Communicating Like an Executive

Effective communication is critical for leadership success. Communication may even be the single most important capability of a leader: almost any time there is a problem or failure in an organization, it can be traced back to an act of communication that didn’t happen, or happened poorly, or didn’t involve the right people.

Given how important communication is, it’s odd that it's not taught more thoroughly in universities and business schools. Going back to the Middle Ages and the roots of the university, an institution which in turn was influenced by classical thinkers as ancient as Plato, Rhetoric (the ability to use language to instruct or persuade) formed the bedrock of learning. The "Trivium"—Rhetoric, along with Grammar (an understanding of the mechanics of language) and Logic (the ability to analyze and determine what is factually correct)—was understood as the foundation of education; until this “Trivium” was mastered, one did not move on to study more advanced subjects such as mathematics or philosophy.

Without having been taught the fundamental principles of communication, most executives are left to figure it out for themselves, with varying degrees of success. If you can’t communicate well as a leader, orally and in writing, your knowledge of the business, your analytical capability, or your ability to write beautiful code will only take you so far. Communication is the means by which leaders explain, convince, encourage, debate, sell, motivate, and transform. In our experience as coaches and advisors, the challenges faced by even the most senior executives often come down to learning how to communicate more effectively.

All of us can become better communicators, and your communication style should be something you give deliberate thought to at key points in your career: when you join a new organization; when you are promoted to a more senior role; or during periods of crisis or significant change.

The topic of “communication” has filled many books (even whole libraries), but following are a few basic principles that come up frequently in our work with executives. As you read them, consider how you can enhance your own communication capability as an executive.

  • Be sensitive to “the corporate language”—every company has a different one, and the differences can be significant from company to company. Speak the right language for the culture, as well as for the sub-group you're working with: salespeople will speak a slightly different “dialect” than finance or operations. If you are new to an organization, once you have learned the language then work on losing your “accent”—this means being careful not to revert to the communications style that worked at your last organization. (One give-away is using “we” to refer to your prior company.)
  • An especially important organizational sub-group is the boardroom or C-suite. For very senior-level audiences, practice “leading with the answer.” Don’t bury the lead or go for the big reveal; rather, put your conclusion out front, and if you’re asking for something get to it quickly. (The “ask” should be clearly stated, with hard links to benefits, and within the power of the audience to accomplish.) Failure to project “boardroom presence” with senior audiences will endanger your credibility.
  • Be mindful of the best way to use data to make your case. Take heed of the unforgettable saying of one of our CFO clients: “Feelings are not Facts.” Ensure your claims are well-supported; use graphics powerfully; anticipate the questions your audience is likely to ask; and be in complete command of the details and implications of the topic at hand so that you can engage in productive dialogue. The value is almost always in the dialogue, not the presentation.
  • Seek to understand your audience’s preferences and try to meet them. This means communicating at the right level of detail and in the right style. Focus as much on whom you’re communicating to as on what you are saying. Executives are pressed and don’t have the time or attention span to listen to things that aren't obviously relevant to the key issues. That said, some politically sensitive topics will benefit from asking rather than telling, so consider how best to balance advocacy and inquiry. Make sure the audience you’re addressing is the appropriate one for your objectives—and if it’s not, then consider holding off until you can engage the right one.
  • Keep interpersonal style in mind. For example, extraverts “think out loud” and are comfortable working through a problem with others. Introverts, on the other hand, need quiet time to assess and analyze, and will not respond well to being put on the spot. Some of us like to start with the big picture—concepts, theories, the future state—whereas others want to understand things in tangible and pragmatic detail with “real-life” examples. Some people make decisions based mostly on logic and rational analysis; others are more attuned to principles and how people will be affected by a decision. Choose your style according to the audience. (If this paragraph doesn’t make sense to you, consider learning about Myers-Briggs or Social Styles.)
  • Choose the right mode or medium for your communication: e-mail, formal meeting, phone call, informal conversation over coffee. When in doubt, opt for richer media (for example, face-to-face is richer than a group e-mail), especially if the message is a sensitive one. Also, don’t use e-mail for real-time communication as if it’s IM or texting: many senior executives don’t have regular access to their e-mail.

If you have other examples of important communication principles for executives, we’d love to hear them—send us a note at If there is enough reader interest, we can turn “Communicating Like an Executive” into a regular topic for the newsletter.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
—Hans Hofmann