Tips for Communicating with Senior Leaders: How to Get Your Message Heard

January 2, 2007

When I travel the country, I sometimes talk to leaders who say they feel frustrated because their boss does not listen to them, is not receptive to their ideas, or does not implement their suggested improvements. In my experience, one thing that is helpful is adjusting your communication style. Here are some thoughts on how you can get better buy-in for your ideas and create advocates internally.

When a CEO or vice president asks you—as a leader in the organization—that simple question, “What is going well?”, how do you respond? Before I was a vice president, I used to offer a lot of detail about the steps I was taking and the tools I was using to get results. I wanted leaders to understand I was committed to achieving our goals and I thought this approach helped.

However, consider the following examples of two medical unit managers, Leader A and Leader B. While both communicate the same results, they deliver them differently. Then ask yourself which message the senior leader would better hear.

When asked, “What’s going well?”, Leader A replies that things are fine. He explains that since he read an article on hourly rounding in the American Journal of Nursing last month, they’ve implemented hourly rounding on the unit. “All staff have now been trained,” he says, “and we have systems in place to round on patients every hour from 6 am to 10 pm. We especially pay attention to pain, potty and positioning.” Then he adds, “Some of the staff pushed back at first, but now they see the benefit. The call lights go off much less frequently, so the staff can spend more time doing what they love: taking care of patients instead of crisis management.” He finishes by explaining, “We have been tracking the results, too. We’ve reduced falls this quarter from a historical average of three to just one. Because we’re more efficient, overtime has decreased from 4.5 per day to one hour volume-adjusted. This will save us $4200 per month or $50,400 on an annualized basis…not including the reduced expenses and better risk exposure from reducing falls.”

Leader B, when asked the same question replies, “Things are fine. In the last quarter, we’ve reduced volume-adjusted overtime by $4,200 per month or $50,400 annualized. Patient satisfaction is now up to the 89th from the 59th percentile while falls are now one per quarter versus three.”

If you think that CEO or vice president perked up quickly when she heard Leader B’s results, you’d probably be right the majority of the time. Because leaders juggle so many challenges and responsibilities, they are especially grateful to get a quick overview of results first. If you start with the outcome, they will often ask to learn more or how they can help. In the first example, Leader A opened with the process and finished with the outcomes and probably lost the listener’s attention before he got to the good stuff. In the second example, Leader B delivered the outcomes first. He immediately created an engaged listener in his senior leader.

In working with many organizations daily across the country, I notice that many leaders use the Leader A approach. Instead, I recommend you always lead with outcomes for better communication.

Use these tips:

  1. Open with results and outcomes.  Make sure you can quantify what you achieved. Good effort is no excuse for lack of results.
  2. Be prepared to explain more.  Once a listener has been provided the results, be ready to outline “the how” if asked. This helps the listener know the key steps for success. Great organizations always look for ways to replicate strong results in other departments or take them system wide.
  3. Show calculations if requested. For example, by lowering the left without being treated from 3% to 1%, 554 patients received care that otherwise would not. With an average collection of $276 (554 x $276 = $152,904) an additional revenue of $152, 904 is generated. (Be careful not to overstate results, however, as you risk your credibility.)

Give it a try. Next time you are talking with your supervisor or staff, begin with the outcome. You will be rewarded with more engaged listeners and learners.

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12 Responses to “Tips for Communicating with Senior Leaders: How to Get Your Message Heard”

  1. Becky Nissila Says:

    This is outstanding counsel! Operations people often forget not everyone needs to be (or should be) intimately involved in operations. Executives are outcome oriented. I see great benefit in playing to their greatest interest. If they ask further, all the better. Then I know I have a captive audience.

  2. michael jay spearman Says:

    I like the article, but if my boss has the attention span of a 2 year old, then I’m doomed as a key figure to give them what they need. I see this as micro managing, the small talk. Numbers are the drivers of conversation, but if numbers drive your conversation what about adding the meat to the numbers. As americans we are constantly trying to be better and faster, but when we do, we forget our our purpose or the purpose of what we are doing. When explaining whats going on, we need to make sure that data drives the solution, so if I had to explain my increase in efficiency, I would start with the process, and feed the numbers later. Its like 4 quarters of footbal, the 1st quarter i give some prelim on what was going on, the second i lay the process out, 3rd i give you some facts and numbers, and finally i close it with the results that i kinda mention in the 1st quarter. The more we streamline the less data we can take into the next conversation, I was told back in the day, that a good captain knows his ship and his people, and he didn’t get that from petty conversation, but knowing how they think from structured conversation. I will try that new way.
    MY 2 CENT.

  3. Oakleigh Ryan Says:

    The tips you have provided are so practical. Time after time we hear the #1 barrier for leaders is time or lack there of. Teaching leaders to communicate more effectively will utlimately lead in time savings for all. From a clinical perspective teaching clinicians how to effectively communicate with each other is key – here you are helping to create a leadership language for better outcomes. Many thanks.

  4. Diane Tayor Says:

    This tip is right on target. As a teacher, I communicate often with the leaders of my school. When asked a question, I always try to provide them with the least amount of information necessary to answer the question. She is very busy and justs need to know if the mission has been accomplished so to speak. If she needs more detail she will ask. Thanks for the insight!!!

  5. BG Porter Says:

    The advice in this communication technique is to be outcome focused because this is what drives an organization’s mission. It is metric driven for measurability and straightforward – which supports the leadership attribute of decisive. Thanks for the counsel.

  6. Ang Law Says:

    Thanks Quint – this technique works – ever since you shared this, I have had nothing but success with senior leaders. The knowledge also easily transfers to others who wonder why their senior leader “does not have time” on the agenda to hear one out – with this efficiency creating technique, suddenly they do!

  7. Marj Moses Says:

    This is one of the most helpful coaching articles I have read from you. While we as leaders understand that we are expected to adjust our communication style with our employees in order to get the best results, we tend to be less conscious of the fact that we also should adjust our style to what our senior leader will best respond to. I am more “global” like Leader A above: I want to paint that total picture;however,I am pretty certain my senior leader would prefer to hear from Leader B. Your clear example will help me be a better communicator both up and down the management ladder.

  8. Beth Bond Says:

    Hi Quint,
    Thanks for the tips in your article on how to be direct and outcome oriented when communicating with your senior management. I am an infection control practitioner and due to the nature of what I do I tend to want to give you the process as well as the outcome so that you have an understanding of what I do in my position. Accrediting agencies also tend to like to see your processes related to outcomes too. I am eager to try your tips and am hopeful my senior management will inquire on process too.

  9. Hank Fanelli Says:

    Thanks for the reminder of an excellent communication approach to any management stratum not just senior managment. Perhaps less management meeting time and more “out of your office and into the operation by all management would also be helpful.” I never call a member of my team when I am in the office I always go see them face to face.

  10. Tom Wiedell Says:

    I don’t agree on this approach to effective communication. I believe it starts with understanding the other person’s preferred “management style” and adapting one’s communitation to the other person’s style. The “one shoe fits all approach” has never worked for me.

    Leadership and its dynamic depends upon the situation and the followers. That’s why some hospital’s really struggle with the “pillar” approach.

  11. Quint Studer Says:

    I would like to add something. Tom, I very much agree in that spending time to learn which way a person best works with communication is great. For example , say to a boss, how best do you want material? What is best way to present information to you? What is best way to follow up? Then we agree and move on. I notice you add a comment some times. I think this also makes it more interactive.

  12. Karen Weed Says:

    Thank you for your article. Like others I can see the importance of getting someone’s attention, then go for the kill. All too often I find it is what I bring to my management style that helps or hurts me. I too am not a cookie-cutter manager. As a registered nurse I deal with patients, families, staff, and senior management. It is the nature of the beast to want to explain in detail what happened to get you where you are. More and more we see this happening. The bottom line, the end result. I want you to know how hard I worked and how creative I was to get there. If you don’t let me tell you then I feel that you only care in the end result and not me. Does that make sense? I am always open to suggestion, will give your advice a try.


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