Communicating with Executives: Delivering Value when Time is at a Premium

Nathan Olson   •   06.21.2019

Taco Night

What do tacos have to do with communication with executives?

Executives

As a parent with two young kids, my home life is often hectic. The craziest part of the day is dinner time. The kids are hungry and vocal about it, and I’ve got a time limit before their hunger outgrows their patience. I’m trying to stay on top of washing dishes, browning the taco meat, resolving sibling quarrels, and keeping an eye on the new (not-so-housebroken) puppy. I’m just barely managing this, but then a wrench is thrown into it all.

We’re out of taco seasoning.

This should be just a minor setback. There are thousands of simple recipes to make my own seasoning just a click away on my phone. However, instead of finding ingredient lists, my google results are all cooking blogs. Cooking blogs that are chock-full of information I don’t need. Paragraphs detail the history of taco seasoning. Accounts of how this particular recipe was fundamental to the blogger’s upbringing. Dozens of artisan photos of taco seasoning spices (plus hundreds of ads). Getting to the actual information I need (chili powder, cumin, oregano, onion powder, garlic, salt, and pepper) involves sifting through all of this irrelevant information.

By the time I get to the recipe, the meat has burned, the puppy has had an accident, and the kids are staging a mutiny.

Executives

I have to imagine that the frustration I have with cooking blogs mirrors how executives often feel. They are working to manage many competing prioritizes with constant interruptions and precious little time. Our role in business intelligence is to deliver valuable insights to executives, which enables them to make informed, timely decisions. However, if we aren’t careful, we can bury the insights we’ve found in a great deal of irrelevant and less critical information. All too often, that means executives miss the message entirely.

The Work Pyramid

As developers and architects, we spend most of our work time in the details. We love the minutia of database designs, query performance tuning, and test plans. We can visualize this priority as an upside-down pyramid. The top section shows the research, planning, and actual development of a project. This represents the majority of the weight. The next tier down represents how we funnel that work into major themes and areas, ultimately working towards the final solution at the bottom level.

Communication with Executives

Although we should always keep the bigger picture in mind, and be working towards our end solution, the heart of the work lies at the top of this pyramid.

The Communication Pyramid

When we communicate with executives, the most natural thing for us to do is talk about the details. It’s what we’re most comfortable with and knowledgeable of. We often feel the need to show off our technical prowess to our boss or client. But when we’re talking with stakeholders, we have to cut out this level almost entirely. These details are only important where they affect the bigger picture, such as when they contribute to a big gain in the project or present a setback.

Communication with Executives

We need to flip that previous pyramid on its head and always start with the big picture. Every email, phone call, and presentation with an executive should have one primary purpose. That central point is where we should start.

After that, we can move to important themes and alternate solutions. We can address obvious questions and add relevant details that impact these major themes.

And the rest of the details? Leave them out. You can trust that if your stakeholder has questions about the details, they’ll ask them, and you’ll be ready with the answer.

Emailing Executives

Communication with Executives

Let’s talk about how this method of communication could be used in an email. Let’s take the example scenario of a project running into an obstacle which could jeopardize that project’s deadline. Here’s an example of how not to communicate:

Hey [boss],

I’m emailing about the Annual Sales report you had asked the team to create last week. We dug into ACME’s data warehouse and it looks like all of the sales information for domestic sales is in there, which is great! The problem is that international sales information isn’t in the main data warehouse, but in the legacy EDW. Additionally, the marketing information is stored in a separate database as well. We looked into just pulling from all three of these databases into the report, but the linked server connections were causing the report to take forever to run. The best solution seems to be to build a process to move the international sales and marking information all into the central ACME data warehouse, but that’s time we didn’t account for when planning our deadline of 7/15. The team thinks it would take two weeks to migrate the data, so it looks like if we want to pursue this course of action, we won’t be able to deliver a report until the end of July.

Let us know your thoughts, thanks!

Let’s go through some of the problems here:
  1. The entire first half of the email expands solely on the details of the situation and the thought process of the developer.
  2. There’s a lot of technical detail here that isn’t essential to your message. If the stakeholder you’re communicating with doesn’t have a technical background, they may misinterpret the email or stop reading altogether.
  3. The main impact of the email isn’t stated until the end. Until then, the stakeholder doesn’t have a good idea of why they should care about the email.
  4. The developer didn’t clearly share their recommendation of the course of action. While our executives are the ultimate decision-makers, as developers, we’re equipped with a more detailed knowledge of the situation. We need to share our recommendation on the best plan.
Now here’s the same email, but worded differently:

Hey [boss],

We won’t be able to deliver you the Annual Sales report until 7/29. Data for domestic sales, international sales, and marketing live in three separate databases. We need to migrate international sales and marketing into the ACME data warehouse with domestic sales. This process will take an additional two weeks to create. We could create the report on top all three of these data sources as is, but the report performance would suffer. We believe migrating the data is worth the delay in timeline. This will help performance and make future reporting easier.

Please let me know if you disagree.

With this email, we get right to the point, right away. From the first sentence, the executive knows why they’re getting the email, and why they should care. We expand with enough details to outline the problem, but not too much to dilute the message. We end with our recommendation on the best course of action. If the executive agrees, it will take them less than a minute to read the email and reply. If they disagree, there is still space for them to recommend a different plan.

Get to the point

We have an obligation to get to the point quickly and clearly. Executives have competing priorities. For a message to rise above that noise, we need to keep the message lean. As Benajmin Franklin once said:

“I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”

It takes extra effort to distill the message to just what’s essential. But when effort saves times for our stakeholders and ensures that better decisions get made, it’s well worth it.

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Nathan Olson

Senior Consultant

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