You Have to Speak for the Work October 23 2012

Lots of us grew up believing in the idea that if you just do good work, the work will speak for itself.  That’s one of those beliefs that’s true until it isn’t. When it isn’t is that when so much is going on that top management probably won’t notice good work unless you speak for it.  The more senior top management is, the more likely this is to be true.  They simply have too many things to pay attention to to recognize or acknowledge all the things that are going right. The further up you go in any organization, the work stops speaking for itself.  You have to speak for the work.

Here’s what I don’t mean by that. Speaking for the work is not about jumping up and down saying, “Hey, look what I did!”  You’re speaking for the work, not speaking for you. More specifically, you’re speaking for the work of your team. Part of your job as their leader is to advocate for them and get them the exposure they need to succeed. Another part of your leadership role is to make sure that your boss has the information she needs to successfully brief her boss.

So, what’s an effective approach to speaking for the work? Here are five road tested steps that most senior execs appreciate:

So What? – Before you share anything, make sure you answer the question, “So what?” from the executive’s perspective. What do they care most about and how does your information help them with what they care about? Make sure you know the answers before proceeding.

Context – You need to briefly but substantively establish the context for what you’re sharing. An example would be, “You asked for an end of quarter update on the Acme Project; here’s our report.” Setting the context helps the executive cut through the clutter.

What You Said You Were Going to Do – This is a brief recap of what you agreed to accomplish on the initiative the last time you checked in. If you’ve made progress, this is the reference point that will establish that you did.  If you’re not fully there yet, this sets you up to discuss the progress made and what you’re going to do to break through.

What You Did – If things are going well, this is where you give credit to your team. Cite a few examples of how they did it and what they learned in the process. Tell a brief story that provides some color commentary on the facts. If you’re not there yet, focus on lessons learned and what adjustments you’re going to make to get there.

What’s Next – Most top managers want to know what they’re supposed to do with the information. Some of their options include sharing it, making a decision with it, using it to recognize good work (e.g. an quick email to or visit with your team), or taking some other sort of action. Have a clear idea of what you want your boss to do with the information and make the request.

What other advice do you have about speaking for the work instead of assuming that it’s going to speak for itself?

7 Responses to “You Have to Speak for the Work”

  1. @undefined says:

    This is a great habit for leaders at all levels. I know I appreciate it when those who report to me point out the good work they're doing when I'm too busy to notice because I truly want to recognize them and this gives me the opportunity to do so.

    I also think it's good advice to "Tell a brief story that provides some color commentary on the facts." It's been my experience that a story is far more memorable than a statement or fact. The human brain seems to latch on to a story by creating an emotional connection with the characters involved, which goes a LONG way toward establishing appreciation for the work your team is doing to the leaders above you.

  2. Cindy Thorne says:

    Pictures help make the point. The saying is still true pictures say 1,000 words.. I always try to take before and after or work in progress and final product pictures.

    • Shawn says:

      Cindy – good idea! and if the product isn't photographable, the picture can be painted in words, as @undefined noted, above.

  3. Great points! All business owners, executives, sales people, managers, and other employees need to learn how to sell themselves! Otherwise they lose out on awards, recognition, jobs, promotions, sales, etc. etc. etc. But, they must learn to do so in a business savvy manner. (

  4. Bud Bilanich says:

    This is great advice. One of the biggest career inhibitors is thinking that your work will speak for itself. I love the way you've turned this around to speaking for your work.

  5. Jelena says:

    great tip / comment and I absolutely agree!

  6. MJ James says:

    I've struggled with promoting the team accomplishments at work simply because I assumed the work spoke for itself. I've changed my approach and have been more vocal and specifict about the progress the team has made. I still think the team struggles for exposure to top management because there is competition from other managers to do the same. That impacts the team success in the long run. Any comments about how to address this issue would be appreciated.

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