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Spur ReplyMay 15, 2020 11:07:06 PM2 min read

A How-to Guide for Difficult Executive Communications


Our client, a senior corporate VP, had to deliver a difficult message to the other CEO direct reports – and the news was about them! She was fantastically successful. She got agreement. She got action. She was praised by everyone involved for her insight and practical suggestions. It was good for the company. It was good for her. Question is… how did she pull off such a miracle?

That is the subject of this blog. When you must critique someone, how can you do it in a constructive way?

Let’s start with why this type of thing usually fails.

People don’t believe you. You make claims that are subject to debate: “The problem is crippling our performance.” These should be avoided.

You are embarrassing people. If you tell a team of people that they are doing something poorly, in front of their boss – and it is true – what reaction do you expect them to have? Even if you are right, expect push back.

It is too big a problem to fix. Sometimes what you are saying is true and people agree, but they don’t have the energy to solve the problem. This means it is a problem that is not a high enough priority in the minds of the audience. So, either make it a higher priority, or forget doing anything other than make people feel bad.

Here are the 5 things our client did.

She had her facts straight. Everything was straight-ahead true. The numbers, the facts and findings were all fully vetted and agreed. From that solid foundation she started to draw conclusions.

She sought agreement from the CEO ahead of time. She discussed her perspective with the CEO. She told me, “I told him what I thought and he just paused thinking. And then he said, ‘You are absolutely right.’” This is a fantastic case of executive communication and executive judgment all around.

She tethered what the audience hated to hear to something they loved. This is a group that prides itself on high performance. She attached each of her findings to that performance and talked about how the problem they needed to solve was impacting what everyone in the room loved – even cherished.

She offered practical steps forward. She made the first steps of the solutions very clear. She pinpointed specific actions the executives needed to take and the impact those actions were likely to have.

She requested and got commitment. She had them on the ropes by then. They agreed she was right. It was regarding things about which they cared deeply. She offered specific steps they needed to take. And she requested they commit. Individually. She got it.

It was text book execution. She avoided each of the common communication problems and deftly executed her strategy of factual comment and emotional connection.

Have you ever had to critique an executive group? How did it go? What did you learn?


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