One of the leadership communications distinctions I’ve been thinking about a lot this year is the difference between communications that are episodic and those that are longitudinal. Back in January, I wrote a post about how leaders need to pull the thread through so their teams can see how their work fits into the longer arc of the work.
Lately, I’ve been advising a lot of clients on how to frame their communications for C-Suite executives who, because of the nature of their jobs, are bombarded throughout the day with bits and bytes of information, and requests for resources, decisions and approvals. It’s all really more than most human beings are equipped to process in a day or a week. If you’re a leader who regularly communicates with your organization’s senior executives, it’s vital to your success and theirs that you communicate in terms of an ongoing narrative and not just give them the random episode of the day.
A strong narrative can provide senior executives the context they need to make important decisions around strategic direction, tactical moves, and the resource allocation that makes things happen. For you as the communicator, a strong narrative provides a framework for you to set a clear direction and then provide a series of methodical updates on the steps you and your team are taking to get there. The net impact of all of that is that things get done with less friction and pushback because you and your team are viewed by the senior executives as credible people with the competence to set a direction and get things done.
Here are three things to pay attention to when you’re creating a narrative to connect with senior executives.
Start with What and Why – When you’re taking on a major initiative, it’s vital to invest time up front in developing a clear explanation and picture of what you’re working to accomplish and why it matters to the organization. That’s the North Star you’ll keep coming back to. In almost every executive presentation or conversation, you’ll want to start with a quick reminder of what your big goal is and why it matters. Another way to frame it is, “We’re doing this so that this outcome happens.”
Set Milestones: Especially at the beginning of a major initiative, you need to set key milestones that break progress up into visible chunks along the path of the narrative. You can think of milestones like the chapters in a book. In a good book, the end of a chapter leaves you wanting to start the next one. The story has been advanced in such a way that you want to keep reading. A milestone is like the end of a chapter in a project that creates momentum for the next chapter to start. You need them to create a compelling narrative that keeps senior executives feeling confident about your work, focused on your outcomes and engaged in how they can help and support.
Recap Progress: Every time you meet with senior executives on your initiative, you need to spend a little bit of time up front recapping recent progress. Think of it like the recap at the beginning of a television episode. You know what I mean. The announcer says, “Previously on…,” and then you get 45 seconds or so of artfully edited clips that get you back up to speed on what’s been happening in the show. The best “previously on’s…” set up a sense of what to expect in the episode you’re about to watch. You need all of that because your life is busy and it’s not always easy to remember what happened in the last episode or to get yourself focused for the one you’re about to watch. It’s the same with briefing senior executives. Since their plates are overly full, you need to help them get back into the flow of the narrative with a “previously on…” progress recap.
To extend the media metaphors, you’re the showrunner of the initiatives you’re charged with leading. Like any good showrunner, if you want to connect with senior executives, you have to create and stick with a compelling narrative.
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