Helping Tech to Talk Exec

You’ve seen this challenge. It’s in every meeting where strategy connects to implementation. It’s where vision meets tactics. And it’s one of the biggest communication challenges in most companies.

Here’s how it happens:

The leadership team wants to expand a product into a new vertical. They’ve seen the numbers to support market size and they know there’s a window of opportunity. They’ve also been told there’s a “little tweaking” that will need to be done in the product’s application to make it viable in the new vertical. So, the next meeting calls for the engineers to come in and explain what’s involved in “tweaking” or converting the product.

The leadership team is looking for a 15-minute explanation to quantify what needs to be done and how long it will take. Instead, they get the step-by-step details of how it will be done.

In an effort to get out of the details and move toward answers, the leaders jump in with questions and assumptions. It was meant to speed up the discussion, but instead it signals to an engineer that the leaders didn’t understand the information. So, the engineer provides more explanation.

The leaders want the bottom-line. The engineers communicate in process and details. And whether the disconnect goes on for several minutes or more than an hour, it’s frustrating to both the executive listeners and the technical communicator.

As a coach I’ve been asked many times: “Why is communicating to the executive level so hard for engineers and technical teams? After all, they are arguably the smartest people in the company!”

Both points are true. Engineers are some of the smartest people in a company, and communicating with executives is a common challenge. It always has been. But companies are noticing it more because technical input has become more critical as a point of influence and essential to making smart decisions.

So, why is “executive talk” hard?

I’ve coached on both of sides of the table for decades and solved for the challenge when I wrote Leading Executive Conversations. But I wrote the book for all audiences who want to solve for the executives’ perspective…and the tech group is a little unique.

Through the years, I’ve learned that it really comes down to how people think, because how they think impacts how they speak. And engineers think in details, steps and precision. And thank goodness they do! Would you want to drive an automobile that was built from a sketch instead of a blueprint? Can you imagine working on a computer that can do 20 things but can’t connect those things to each other?

Whether process-thinking is innate or developed over time, engineers add the greatest value by bringing precision and detail to vague concepts. It’s no wonder that they communicate in details. To tell a leader that they can build a new capability in eight weeks isn’t how they think. And in fact, they wouldn’t be comfortable with that answer unless someone took them through details of what was planned over those eight weeks. It’s how they think, it’s how they work, and that’s why it’s how they communicate. I describe it as communicating from the bottom up.

Yet most leaders think in the opposite manner. They let go of thinking through details of HOW some time ago. They need the What, and the Why. They start with the big concept and challenge whether the WHY has enough value to pursue. They listen to implementation just enough to buy-in. Most leaders think and communicate from the top-down.

And the disconnect comes when the leader feels impatient working through the HOW to get to WHY and the engineer feels the value isn’t justified unless you communicate detailed steps to prove out the HOW.

But it’s a disconnect that’s solvable because you’re dealing with some of the smartest people in the room! And once we figured out why the challenge exists, we developed a process for solving it. And we’ve found that technical teams can be some of the best students of communication.

To help Tech to talk Exec, we developed a process that is based on key insights and a formulaic outline. We’re prescriptive in defining the executive perspective and building specific examples that illustrate how the outline works against common technical topics.

It’s our storyline formula with two key components: a Message and a Framework. This gives an engineer a blueprint to follow that lifts the altitude of their conversation. The details don’t disappear entirely. But the flow of communication is organized with a top-down approach that starts with what executives value and then leads to the technical steps that can be reduced or expanded based on an executive’s interest.

It’s solving for one of the biggest communication challenges in companies today. And it’s helping technical teams become key influencers at a time when their expertise is essential to smart business decisions.

Do you need help coaching tech to talk exec?  We’d love to share our insights and some great success stories about strengthening the voice and the impact of technical teams.

We’re here when you need us!

Sally Williamson