A five-step plan for communicating with leadership

Communication is key, in and out of the workplace
May 20, 2024

Often, you have only one brief chance to engage your organization’s leadership. Think of this as your “elevator pitch" moment. You need to hit the high points, make your recommendations, and solicit leadership’s buy-in and approval — usually in a few minutes — when they are likely distracted and multitasking.

Below are five tips to help you do just that.

Tip 1. Hone your information to the appropriate level

You’re an expert in your area, and you want leadership to see that. This eagerness, however, can tempt you to over-explain with too many details. Leadership often wants a high-level map of the forest, with the big trees labeled and the paths clearly marked. But you’re in the undergrowth, showing them the underbrush and wildflowers. While it makes sense to you, to them it’s a confusing tangle, and they are unsure what you are telling them and why.

I struggle, too, with over-explaining. I like the details. I’ve invested a lot of effort in acquiring those details, so shouldn’t they be included? Learning how to take something down to the nuts and bolts for instant decision-making did not (and still does not) come naturally.

Think of it this way: If a child tells you they have a science project and need your help, you hear the call to action and respond. If they start by telling you about their day and showing you their favorite toy, and only later mentioning the assignment, you might have lost the thread of the conversation’s main point and missed the request. As a matter of fact, you might have stopped listening. It’s all important, but not all equally actionable. Only one item required your action, and it was buried in a tangle of information.

Keep this in mind when talking with leadership. They presume you have come with an ask, and they want you to get straight to the matter. Get to the point.

A good way to structure the conversation is to:

A. Define the problem or issue and why it matters
B. Provide recommended solutions or options
C. Give a recommendation
D. Ask for their action

Tip 2. Be actionable; what’s your solution?

Anticipate their first questions: Why can’t you solve this on your level or with your team? What are the solutions?

Always go to leadership with a defined problem and always include solutions.Do your research first to understand its impact, and go to leadership with ideas.

“A tree has fallen across the path, and we have three plans to remove it. I’d like you to approve one of those plans. I recommend option No. 2 because it is the quickest and most cost effective.”

Have support ready. Work as a team. Show that the team has worked on the problem, and that you have support and a structure in place. You just need a yes. Come with a one-page proposal, a graph that shows the problem and its solution. This gives leadership confidence in your solution.Only recommend workable options. Yes, hiring more people would solve problems, and leadership knows that. But it’s not likely in the budget. Nor is recommending big policy changes or pricey solutions. Think about what is practical and affordable.

Finally, treat pushback as an opening, not an obstacle. Anticipate questions. Be open to leadership’s suggestions or even criticism. This isn’t about winning and losing, but about collaborating with leadership and communicating effectively. This is why researching and planning before talking to leadership and asking for their decision is critical. They are testing the viability of the solution, and it shows they are engaged. Embrace it, and use it as a moment to explore the solutions with leadership.

Tip 3. Engage and ask for feedback

Leverage your opportunity to engage with leadership on a more personal level. Ask them about their vision, leadership goals, and for feedback. Build a relationship and be open to learning. Actively listen without becoming defensive. Don’t plan the next thing you are going to say, instead, have a real conversation with a real person.

This relationship will give you critical insight into leadership’s goals, and the overarching vision of your institution and how the dynamics work. It will help you tailor your communications more successfully and, if you have a good leader, opens up the possibility of finding a mentor whose advice and insight can help you improve your own career.

Tip 4. Find out their preferred communication style and use it

Determine how your leaders like to receive communications while you’re building this relationship. Some supervisors dislike emails and would rather engage face-to-face, in-person, or virtually. Other supervisors prefer formal documentation at a set time and location. There is no right or wrong way. Follow your leaders’ communication preferences.

Take the time to learn what your leadership prefers and honor their preference. If you know that they find emails tedious, don’t constantly send stream-of-thought messages to their inbox. (Yes, this is another of my own personal pitfalls.) If your leader finds slide presentations or handouts to be effective, use them. If you’re not sure what your institution’s leadership prefers, then just ask.

Tip 5. Choose the correct time and place to talk with your leaders

Judge the situation for appropriate timing. Does your leader appear distracted? Are they frantically checking emails? Packing up to go home? Dealing with an emerging situation? Choose a time to communicate when they can fully concentrate on you. Ask them for coffee or somewhere away from distractions, and honor the time they give you. Be concise and clear about how you want them to respond.

Communicating is an art form. Keep trying and keep learning. Adjust your communications to the individual, ask for feedback, and take that feedback to heart. Try to think from their perspective, and make your communication — and the resulting action you would like to see — clear and attainable.