To be truly successful at the executive level, effective communication is key. Not only can strong communication skills make your job easier by reducing confusion, they can encourage open dialogue, maintain transparency and vastly increase collaboration and the productivity of your staff.
“Executives can sometimes get by without great communications skills — they compensate with other skills or knowledge that are critically important to an organization’s success. That said, it makes them less effective and can put them at professional risk. I’ve had clients that were ultimately jettisoned by organizations because of communication issues, despite their functional excellence,” says Howard Seidel, senior partner at Essex Partners.
The communication skills you hone as an executive might be different from the skills you needed in management, or in other lower-level positions. These six tips will help you master the communication skills necessary to thrive in the C-suite.
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1. Drop the jargon
At the executive level, you’ll need to interact with more people outside of IT — so you’ll need to adjust your language.
“I had to drop all the cybersecurity jargon. Finance, marketing, sales, operations, all have jargon the rest of us probably don't understand. I found success by using language that was more neutral. Like using ‘risk’ rather than ‘zero-day exploit,’” says Kip Boyle, founder and CEO of Cyber Risk Opportunities.
As you move into the C-suite, you’ll want to gain a better understanding of the lingo and business-speak other departments rely on. It will boost communication and help solidify bonds with other executives if you can speak and understand their language.
2. Learn what other executives value
Communication skills at the executive level aren’t just important when you are interacting with the public or employees — they’re also important when working with other executives. If you learn what other leaders in the company value, you can find the best way to explain things or present new ideas.
“For example, the COO liked more reliability of operations and the CEO liked more indemnity. So, I was always trying to explain situations in those terms — either good or bad,” says Boyle.
Figure out what matters to each department and try to keep that in perspective when you interact with other executives. Communication skills can help you make sure every interaction helps establish you as a leader, especially when dealing with other leaders.
3. Consider tone and cadence
Every department within a company has its own culture, goals and personalities — and that’s something to consider when you address individual departments. And sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
“What makes sense to the engineering department may not always resonate with the marketing team. That’s why it’s important for CEOs to adapt their tone, cadence and even diction to each team to truly motivate them,” says Neil Lustig, CEO of Sailthru.
If a team is high-energy, then you might do well with conveying that energy back to them, but the same might come off as insincere with another department that operates differently. You shouldn’t change how you act completely, but read the room to figure out how to deliver your message.
4. Know your audience and keep it simple
Executives are the face of a company, so it’s important to get to know your audience — whether you’re speaking to clients, employees, customers or the public.
“The C-suite represents the brand of the company, so he or she must always be ‘on message.’ At the end of the day, executives must always factor in the audience, what is meaningful to them, and how their message impacts them,” says Sabrina Horn, managing partner at Finn Partners.
Understanding your audience can help you prepare any message you need to deliver, says Horn. She suggests “preparing and outlining three key messages or themes” that you can use to frame communications. Don’t overthink it either; keep your messages “simple, understandable, focused and effective.”
5. Go beyond just listening
Listening is one of the most obvious communication skills, but as you climb the corporate ladder you should do more than just listen. Once you take on a leadership role, people expect you to follow through on resolving concerns, complaints and questions.
“To me there are three essential communication skills: listening, advocating and inquiring. All three are important at all levels, but as professionals welcome more senior positions, the ratios change,” says Seidel.
Listening is always important, but at the executive level you also need to know how to “inquire” so you can “fully understand another person’s position,” while also advocating your own opinion. Seidel says that inquiring without advocacy can feel like an interrogation, while simply advocating your own opinion without asking any questions can make someone feel like you are bulldozing them.
6. Rehearse any important messages
You want to have comfortable communication skills for daily interaction as an executive, but you’ll need to communicate differently if you are speaking to the entire company, the press or addressing a difficult topic.
“C-level executives are in leadership roles, and as such, have more of a voice and an impact on the audiences they speak to. From internal employees to the media, and from customers to prospects or investors, what an executive communicates and how he or she communicates key messages can make or break acceptance of a new product, program or service, a partnership, customer deal, or company direction,” says Horn.
She suggests videotaping yourself delivering important speeches, so you can play it back and watch your body language, listen to your tone and hear how fast or slow you are speaking. Ultimately, being a leader with strong communication skills takes a certain level of self-awareness, so watching yourself with a critical eye can go a long way.
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