5 Tips to Improve Executive Team Communication

5 Simple Tips for Running a More Successful Executive Meeting

 

An executive team is meant to function collaboratively and strategically to act as the guiding force behind an organization’s future progress.  Often, executive teams fall short of their potential due to politics, differing opinions and posturing.  These 5 simple steps will help an executive team get out of their own way to operate more collaboratively in order to drive superior results and innovation.

 

Step 1: Check your titles at the door

 

Regardless of your corporate culture, a hierarchy exists in meetings.   Therefore executives may be less willing to share, especially if their idea is new, due to a hierarchal atmosphere. As  a result, an environment that creates a safe space to for sharing ideas and discussing problematic situations is essential.  Only when an executive team decides to check their titles at the door, will an open line of communication ensue.  Without this preliminary step, subordinates may feel too cautious to share or challenge ideas and superiors may not receive the proper feedback on ideas that may not be the best course of action.  By checking your titles at the door, you create a safe space where ideas can flow and safely be challenged. It redirects the focus away from political posturing and instead focuses on what’s best for the company, its employees, stakeholders and clientele.

 

Step 2: Colleagueship

 

Colleagueship is professional respect afforded to one another.  Colleagueship is essential to creating a safe space necessary for innovation to occur.  Colleagueship does not mean pandering to one another or saying “great idea, let’s think about it” when the idea is garbage.   What colleagueship does, in conjunction with checking titles at the door, is create an environment conducive with sharing ideas while not having to worry about other’s opinions or losing face for a poor idea.  Colleagueship coupled with checking titles creates an environment for communication to foster.  Now that we have created an appropriate environment, let’s learn about how to properly communicate for the most effective results.

 

Step 3: Suspending of Assumptions

 

Before we jump into how to properly communicate ideas and issues the company faces, we need to understand how our brain processes the information we hear.  Every one of us operates with a perceived reality.  A personal lens in which we view the world. This lens has been shaped through our own personal experiences.  Since each of us is unique, how we view the same situation may vary based on our perceptive reality.  To make this simple, let’s look at it this way.  Whenever we have a conversation with someone, there are two conversations actually happening.  The objective and perceptive.  Objective reality is what is said in the conversation and nothing more.  The perceptive reality is how you interpret what is being said.  What you perceive may or may not be correct. It may or may not be what the other person is honestly trying to convey.  Since most executive teams don’t know how to discuss the perceptions that are being made, they are often left as an undercurrent that over time begins to shape how the team deals with one another.  Confrontation is not a comfortable situation for most.  As a result, assumptions often go unchallenged or are not discussed.  This creates a pathway to resentment and dysfunction within an executive team.

By utilizing the tool of “suspending one’s own assumptions” we are afforded the opportunity to safely talk about the perceptive aspect of the conversation. This affords us the opportunity for confirmation of our assumption or correction.  This is a very important step so I want to make sure you understand this concept fully.  Let’s use an example to illustrate the point more clearly.

 

Conversational Example:

 

You and your colleague John are talking about an issue the company has been experiencing with attrition at a management level (level directly below your and John’s level).  Prior to the conversation, you have noted that John’s division has experienced more turnover than the other divisions.  You have heard through a 3rd party that his division’s increased attrition is due to John’s management style.  This is the information you enter the conversation with.  The quotes are what was said in this conversation; objective reality.  The information in the parentheses are your internal thoughts during the conversation; perceptive reality.

 

John: “I’ve noticed our company has been experiencing increased turnover over the last 6 months.”

 

You: “I’ve noticed that as well.” (Maybe it’s because of your poor management style)

 

John: “I think that we need to consider looking at our wage scales or profit sharing to retain our management talent.”

 

You: “That’s one way we could address it.” (Or you could adjust your management style so that your people don’t leave.)

 

John: “What do you think about us jointly taking this to the CEO to see if he approves increased raises during subordinate reviews?”

 

You: “Maybe, I’ll think about it and get back with you.” (I’m not joining forces with you so that we’re lumped together when speaking with the CEO in order to cover your ass on why your people are leaving.)

 

As you’ll note in the above example, the objective reality was what was said in the quotes and the perceptive reality is what you were thinking during the conversation.  A large part of your assessment from the conversation was based on your preconceived notions prior to the conversation. Whether or not your assumptions were correct, by not airing them out for review, the conversation was completely unproductive.

Let’s assume your assumption of John’s management being the problem was correct.  Through holding up your assumptions for peer review, it would create an opportunity for progress. Example below:

 

John: “I’ve noticed our company has been experiencing increased turnover over the last 6 months.”

 

You: “I’ve noticed that as well, what do you think the driving force behind that is?”

 

John: “I think that we need to consider looking at our wage scales or profit sharing to retain our management talent.”

 

You: “That’s one way we could address it.  However, with your permission, I’ve heard some things from a 3rd party and rather than make assumptions, I’d like to hold this information up for confirmation or review if you’ll allow me.”

 

John: “Sure, what have you heard?”

 

You: “I’ve heard that your management style may have rubbed some employees the wrong way.  I know how difficult it can be to manage a team the size of yours and I didn’t want to assume that it was solely a management style issue.  However, if we are going to jointly ask the CEO for flexibility on raises, I want to make sure we exhaust all other options that don’t cost the company money first.”

 

John: “What about my management style rubbed these people the wrong way?”

 

You: “From what I heard, they stated that you gave them an end goal to achieve but minimal direction on how to get to that result.”

 

John: “At their level, they should know how to get there on their own.”

 

You: “Well, perhaps you’re right. However,  if they don’t know how to get there on their own, a wage increase may not be the right course of action.  If they are a bit too junior to know how to get there on their own, I don’t think rewarding them with additional compensation would fix the problem.”

 

John: “Then what do you suggest?”

 

You: “I would recommend that you focus more on staff development so that in the future, when you give direction, they can run with it without hand holding.  Once they are at that level, it may be justified for them to receive a raise as they’ve grown to earn it.”

 

By holding up your assumption for peer review, you and John were actually able to have a productive conversation.

Now let’s assume your assumption of John’s management style was incorrect.  Example below:

 

John: “I’ve noticed our company has been experiencing increased turnover over the last 6 months.”

 

You: “I’ve noticed that as well, what do you think the driving force behind that is?”

 

John: “I think that we need to consider looking at our wage scales or profit sharing to retain our management talent.”

 

You: “That’s one way we could address it.  However, with your permission, I’ve heard some things from a 3rd party and rather than make assumptions, I’d like to hold this information up for confirmation or review if you’d allow me.”

 

John: “Sure, what have you heard?”

 

You: “I’ve heard that your management style may have rubbed some the wrong way.  I know how difficult it can be to manage a team the size of yours and I didn’t just want to assume that it was a management style issue.  However, if we are going to jointly ask the CEO for flexibility on raises, I want to make sure we exhaust all other options that don’t cost the company money.”

 

John: “I’m pretty sure I know who told you this, however that is not the main issue.  The R&D department (John’s department) has had higher turnover than other departments in the last 6 months due to competition stealing our talent.  When Tim left (Tim is a former employee of John’s and was his lead R&D engineer), he started his own rival company.  From what I understand, Tim was able to secure a good amount of VC money and has been luring our talent over to his company with inflated salaries and promises of being the next big startup that will take off.  He is offering equity and positioning the roles as a “be your own boss” type of situation.  I’m not saying that I, or any of us for that matter, can’t improve on our leadership abilities, but that will happen over time.  In the immediate, I have an attrition issue that my department is facing and the compensation factor is a big part of it due to our competition.

 

In this scenario, by holding up your assumptions for peer review, you uncover additional information that not only affects John’s department but also gives you insight into a competitor that is challenging your market share and stealing your talent.  Again, this conversation is more productive than the original.

Now that we’ve learned how to suspend our assumptions and hold them up for peer review, let’s talk about how to properly communicate as an executive group.

 

Step 4: Dialogue and Discussion; there is a difference.

 

Often these two terms; dialogue and discussion are interchangeable in our society.  However, there is a stark contrast in the terms which needs to be defined.  This contrast should be communicated to your executive team upfront.

 

Dialogue is the free flowing of ideas.  Think of dialogue as an inquisitive process where the team proposes ideas and asks clarifying questions.   During the dialogue session, ideas should not be challenged.  I repeat, this is not a time to challenge ideas.  The dialogue session is designed to ask more questions to fully understand the basis of the idea, how it would work and what it could do for the betterment of the organization.   This process is one where each member truly seeks to understand one another’s point of view.  No decisions are to be made during the dialogue session, only inquiry.

 

Discussion is the time one advocates what they feel is the best course of action uncovered during the dialogue session. The discussion period is meant to be challenged by peers.  This is where the team advocates and defends positions to reach a consensus among the group for direction.  It is in the discussion stage that decisions are made.

 

Step 5: Practice

 

A championship sports team does not simply step onto the field and win.  They practice.  They design plays and use repetition to execute more effectively and consistently.  Initially, the team doesn’t function optimally and they may fall down or miscommunicate often.  However, over time, a disciplined team will begin to function fluidly.  They begin to know each other’s moves better and can anticipate each player’s next move.  This type of team has superior collaboration and communication.  This is a winning team, but it takes practice to get there.

This premise holds true with business as well. Communicating as an executive team using the previous 4 steps does not come naturally.  If it did, we’d all communicate that way.  Over the course of our lives we’ve learned to safe guard our status and positioning.  High School is a prime example of this.  Unfortunately, too often, executive teams function with a high school type of mentality and are afraid to challenge the status quo. Confrontation is not a bad thing when handled appropriately.  If everyone always agreed, how would we ever learn?  Confrontation handled properly through dialogue and inquiry creates the opportunity to view varying perspectives.  Holding assumptions up for peer review makes sure that you fully understand that counterpoint to your thought process.  Finally discussion allows the space for advocacy and challenging of ideas.   This allows an executive team to focus on reviewing the idea and not the person whom suggested the idea.  When we focus on the idea and not the person, we can look at it objectively, free of personal feelings, and evaluate its validity towards achieving our common goals.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

It may be advisable as your team is getting its feet wet, to utilize a 3rd party as a moderator to ensure that the guidelines discussed in this article are being adhered to.  I also recommend that you read The 5th Discipline by Peter Senge.  He is an MIT professor and the one whom developed the process and strategy mentioned throughout this article.  Best of luck with your executive team and remember, it may feel uncomfortable in the beginning when trying these methods of communication but it will pay major dividends when your team gets it down.