A Primer on Working with Executives:Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten Alive (Part 2)
In part 1 of this series, I introduced 3 keys that can help to work more effectively with executives.
Key #1 was to understand executive communication styles and how to respond appropriately to each to put executives at ease and earn respect.
Key #2 in this executive primer is that executives can be influenced to make better decisions. I don’t mean they can be fooled, manipulated, or tricked. What I mean by influence is “the ability to proactively shift the thinking, actions, and even emotional states of other people” (Neitlich).
To that definition I would add project professionals (Business Analysts, Project Managers, and others) are influential by recommending solutions of value that lead to solving organization problems. Recommending valuable solutions is integral to the very definition and promise of our work. Our most effective and most valuable way to work with executives is to influence them to make the right decisions. We’ll return to decisions in part 3.
Again, I’m not ashamed to admit that starting my career I was scared silly of executives. It took me years to realize they are just people playing their role. They can be brusque, certainly, but you can use that kind of trait to learn how to frame your communication to them (as described in key #1 of this series).
What also helped my effectiveness was recognizing that as a project professional I only had two forms of “power” to influence executives. Executives have position and reward power to influence decisions and direction. We need to reply on personal power and “expert” power to be influential, both of which are covered indirectly in this part of the series.
The Influencing Formula
A few years ago, my wife and co-author Elizabeth Larson and I wrote a book called The Influencing Formula. It provides a practical framework to avoid being “eaten alive” and for being influential when working with executives.
The 3 main elements of influence we found in our experience are:
Trust + Preparation * Courage
Following are short descriptions of each “variable” in the formula.
The Influencing Formula has dozens of ways to help build trust. I condensed those down to a dozen in Figure 1. We each do some of these items automatically, and others are areas we could improve on. For example, I am honest and act with integrity without thinking about it. However, communicating bad news is something I need to work on as is acknowledging mistakes. (The latter goes along with my “blue” nature I mentioned in key #1.)
Hopefully you can use this checklist to good effect since all the points will help you build trust with executives. One way to use this list is to do a self-assessment and find 2-3 main areas to work on.
Figure 1: A dozen ways to build trust with executives
Of the 3 variables in the Influencing Formula, Preparation is the most visible part of working with executives and is the basis of “expert” power. Because of that, we need to do our homework and be thorough when we interact with them. In school we heard about the “3 R’s”. Here are 3 different ones plus a bonus “R.”
- The first R is Research – discover what you can about your audience, their communication preferences like in key #1, and the business issue at hand. Prepare thoughtful, strategic questions. Be thorough with your analysis and be ready to provide data to back up your findings.
- Root Cause– always focus on solving business problems, and not systems, technology, or on symptoms. Then be relentless in getting to the root cause and not be satisfied with putting band-aids on symptoms. I can’t stress this one enough, although it can get tricky because it can be political.
- Recommend – perhaps the most important part of being a strong BA or PM are the recommendations we provide. For instance, the core definition of business analysis in the BABOK® Guide is:
“… the practice of enabling change in an enterprise by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders.”
- The bonus “R” is Respect – executives are always busy and we don’t want to waste their time. Start and stop all sessions on time. Note their communication “color” style and respect it. For example, with a “Red” style, get right down to business. With a “Green” type, give them time to think about a proposal. Acknowledging and acting on communication preferences is a form of respect.
Have you ever worked directly with your CEO, CIO, or senior executives in your organization or given presentations to them? How did you feel? If you were nervous at first it would be understandable.
A common fear of working with executives comes from focusing on ourselves and a fear of failure, which I mentioned in Part 1 of this series. It can sometimes be paralyzing. And, blaming others for not listening to us or adopting our recommendations is also not courageous or productive.
On the other hand, have you ever made recommendations that countered what the executive or executive team initially wanted? I am sure that took courage and some “personal power.” For example, let’s say executives wanted to solve a problem by replacing an existing system with a new software package. After you analyzed the situation and did some root cause analysis you feel that better documentation and training would solve the problem more effectively and be much cheaper.
What do you do? If we have done our prep work and focus on what’s best for the organization, it can be an important boost to the courage needed to propose an alternative solution. It also helps reduce personal risk, especially if the favored solution was one proposed by the executive you are working with. I’m not saying there is value in being labeled a contrarian and going against the grain. But executives will notice if we are open and transparent and show that we always keep the best interest of the organization in mind.
To recap, project professionals are influential by recommending solutions of value that lead to solving organization problems. Making valuable and viable recommendations is integral to the very heart of what we do. Part 3 of this series covers the 3rd key to working with executives which are things to know that affect executive decision making.
 Andrew Neitlich, “How to Master Influence Skills,” Sitepoint.com
 The Influencing Formula, © 2012 by Elizabeth Larson and Richard Larson.
 A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK® Guide), © 2015, International Institute of Business Analysis