Work from home continues to get lauded for efficiencies and innovative approaches. The pandemic years will be remembered for a major shift in how and when we work. But there are also some real pain points, and supply chain is one of the groups dealing with a lot of those challenges.

Lockdowns prevented the flow of goods at every step. We’ve seen every industry impacted by manufacturing shortages. And consumer demand has driven inventory shortages. It’s hard to miss the struggles of supply chain.

Supply chain leaders are managing against an uncharted set of circumstances and external factors that are causing real consequences to businesses. That’s why they’re in the hot seat. Not because they did anything wrong, but because they’re managing one of the biggest pain points felt in companies today. Company Boards and top leaders are pushing for answers and insights on what’s happening. They feel the business disruption and need to know how to resolve it quickly.

So, they create “hot seat” moments for supply chain leaders. Those managers and leaders come prepared to communicate specifics and details of the problem rather than packaging the full picture of what’s happening. In fairness, they’re communicating what they’re asked to share: how to resolve pain points quickly. But it’s a rookie mistake at a senior level within a company. And it’s causing many supply chain communicators to feel caught in the hot seat.

Here’s how it happens. Supply chain leaders are asked to explain the problem and quite literally, that’s what they do. They come into executive-level meetings and communicate where the pain points are. They tell senior leaders what they’re working on to solve the problems, and they share details of steps and timetables to manage expectations.

The communication gap is this: what senior leaders ask for doesn’t translate into what they actually want. They want the full story, not just today’s problem. And when a supply chain manager or leader brings them the details of the problem, senior leaders worry that the leader is too reactive and managing against the problem of the day versus managing toward a broader view of what’s ahead of them.

It’s the difference in someone who is viewed as a strategic thinker versus a tactical thinker, and it all comes down to communication. It’s solvable, and it’s how we coach functional managers and leaders to organize their thoughts from a senior leader’s perspective.

Here’s how we build the broader view:

First, set context.
Before you give the details of your company’s problem, set context for the senior leaders.

Offer perspective on what’s happening and why you believe it’s happening across supply chain processes. Build your credibility as someone who understands the challenge from the factors outside your company to the impact those factors are having within your company. Company leaders and Boards like to hear what’s going on all around them. We call it external perspective, and it’s illustrated through examples of other companies and industries.

Context raises the altitude of a conversation and tells the full story from the beginning rather than just the problem which feels like starting in the middle.  Senior leaders find common ground with a communicator when they understand the full view of what’s happening and why it’s happening. It’s a broader view that makes it easier to see how a manager or leader got to the details of what they’re solving today.

Second, clarify the ideal state.
Senior-level audiences and boards ask for information about where things stand today, but they always contrast it to a snapshot of where the company wants to be tomorrow. Their perspective is that a clear sense of where we want to be leads to good decisions about managing today. While they ask for input on a current situation, they really want a clear picture of getting beyond the problem.

It’s the difference in someone who talks about a moment in time versus someone who can paint a picture over time.

Third, lead to a recommendation.
While every communicator should make recommendations to guide senior leaders’ decisions, they should also position options that show well-thought-out choices for decision making and compromise. Clearly define the way you think things should run. Then, explain the choices and options that senior leaders have to get there. This is where they consider resources, technology and all factors that can be managed to get to a modification of the recommendation.

Options are often based on moving slowly or quickly, comparing least disruption to greatest disruption, or considering lowest impact to highest impact. Three is the magic number when highlighting options that lead to a final recommendation. And because options are presented, it validates the communicator’s considerations and gives a senior leadership team some room to negotiate the best step.

Fourth, define the big steps.
Even with a strong storyline, every manager or leader wants to show the full range of steps and details behind actionable items. Organize the specific steps into broader steps. Keep the actions to three or four big concepts framed in a way that makes it easy to see there is detail below it. When you show a senior team 20 steps, they get into the weeds with you and analyze each and every step. That’s how conversations get off track, and it’s difficult to get them back on track.

Company challenges create visibility moments for individuals. And with the pressure on supply chain today, those moments are quickly becoming career-defining. Some managers and leaders will leverage those moments to illustrate their ability to think and communicate strategically. Others may miss the opportunity by focusing too much on the details of today and not offering a broader picture of what’s ahead.

It all comes down to communication. And with a little help on senior-level communications, you can turn your hot seat moment into a career-defining opportunity.

Call us when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Can I Get Back to You On That?

Jeff is leading a strategy discussion about a new product that his team hopes to roll out in 2022. His team has invested a lot of time and effort to get product capability and customer needs aligned. It’s been an 18-month journey, and it culminates today in this meeting around this ask of the executive team. He feels the pressure of representing the team and getting a green light to move ahead.

Ten minutes into the presentation, he feels confident. He has a compelling storyline, and he sees heads nodding as he connects the opportunity and describes the market gap for his listeners.

And then the Head of the Western Region jumps in and asks:

“How do you see this product performing in 2023 when we accelerate our global growth strategy?”

Jeff can feel the rush of adrenaline, and his flushed cheeks, and he realizes that he has no idea how this product would perform on a global scale. His team and his effort have been so focused on driving 2022 revenue in the US market that the road ahead of that wasn’t even considered. He’s caught off-guard and tries to recover with “Can I get back to you on that?”

Every executive-level conversation is different, but they all involve questions and answers. It’s the most dynamic part of the conversation and the hardest part to prepare for. Some say the virtual setting has made it worse because communicators can’t read body language on leaders or anticipate the emotion and reaction behind the questions.

Like Jeff’s experience, many communicators feel that the effort in the storyline gets forgotten if the Q&A doesn’t deliver the right responses. It’s not quite that cut and dry, but handling questions effectively is an “in the moment” skill to develop.

It helps to understand both perspectives in a Q&A discussion.

The communicator feels like they’re in the “hot seat” when questions are fired their way. They feel pressure to get answers right, and they worry about giving the response they think leaders want to hear. As a result, they tend to overload a response which makes their answer hard to follow.

Leaders don’t view Q&A as a test. In fact, some of the questions they ask don’t have clear answers. Their interest in Q&A is all about connecting ideas. Their role is to think about a topic more broadly to see how it impacts other initiatives. As a result, their questions aren’t easy because they leave out context that helps a communicator understand why the question was asked.

Communicators would feel less pressure if they understood more about the leaders’ intent. Leaders could clarify their intent with more context around their questions. So, there’s room to improve on both sides, but the pressure to improve Q&A falls heavily on the communicator.

There are three things a communicator can do to improve the outcome of Q&A:

Anticipate the questions. Not from your perspective, but from the leaders. More than 75% of questions are predictable. You just have to learn to think from the leader’s perspective. What are the priorities across the company? What are they talking about in town halls and quarterly meetings? If you think through how your topic connects to their priorities instead of waiting for questions that stretch the conversation, you’ll feel prepared for what they’re likely to ask to broaden the topic.

Adjust the questions. All communicators jump in to answer whatever they’re asked. But the better practice is listening to the question and resetting the scope of the question, when needed. Because if the first question seems a little vague, the follow-up question is guaranteed to make the communicator uncomfortable.

Consider Jeff’s question above. He could “guess” at an answer and say:

“I think the product will continue to do well into 2023 and will support our global expansion plan.”

The leader will come back with:

“How much revenue can you commit to the plan and how will we adjust the product to global requirements?”

Now Jeff is out on a limb, and his lack of knowledge is going to feel more exposed. He’s in danger of saying the wrong thing and misleading a leader. His better option is to adjust the question. It’s too broad for what he’s comfortable owning about the new product.

His adjustment would be:

“I can’t speak to a global impact or two years out in 2023. But I can tell you what we’re projecting for the US in 2022 and the momentum we expect to have at the start of 2023.”

Answer in a single sentence. In an attempt to answer with confidence, most communicators start talking while they’re forming an answer. Their plan is to talk their way to an answer. The problem is they ramble a good bit along the way. The leader gets lost in the rambling details and feels as if there wasn’t a definitive response. The best way to answer a question is with a clear, single sentence and then provide the context to support it.

And if you don’t know the answer? “Can I get back to you on that?” Yes, you can always get back to them. But get back quickly. Within the same day, when they’re asking for a missing data point or number you referenced but can’t recall. Within 48 hours, when they’re asking a more complex question like the comparison to a different product or historical data that supports trends. And if you can’t get the answer that quickly, be sure you manage expectations of when you will have it.

And what about the question that’s out of your sweet spot like Jeff’s was? As the meeting wraps up, ask the leader if they want you to expand your topic to include it. In many cases, they don’t want to go further with the question or they don’t mean to add it to your plate. They’re simply bringing their perspective and forward-thinking into the conversation.

Handling questions is a critical communication skill, and coaching all aspects of executive-level presentations is our sweet spot. And we can help you and your team strengthen the skills it takes to manage questions.

As always…… call us when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates