By Gary DePaul, CPT, PhD

At the past few ISPI conferences, several practitioners expressed to me that they have difficulty communicating with executives. Some conveyed that executives seem to misunderstand their messaging or seem disengaged. What can you do to improve your executive partnership? Change your behavior. I have five suggestions that may help.

Communicate the business or media structure rather than the academic structure
When presenting to executives, start with your recommendations and then explain the conclusions that led you to the recommendations. Here’s why: Executives are busy and do not have the time or the interest to listen to your step-by-step journey.

After presenting your recommendations and conclusions, let executives lead the discussion with their questions. You may find this more engaging than the traditional academic approach.

Begin your email with the message and then the action needed
For each email, ensure that your first sentence is your message and your second one states the action or request. Everything else should support your first two sentences. Often practitioners and even executives unintentionally hide the message and action in the middle or the end of the communication.

If you believe that you have more than one message to communicate, then send multiple emails, use your phone, or schedule a meeting. By using the message-action-detail structure, you save everyone’s time.

For executive training requests, listen for the intent
When executives want training, do the following:

  • Ask questions to discover the underlying intent. Usually, executives have a problem that they want to solve or a workforce behavior that they want to change.
  • Use empathy. Assure them that you hear and understand the problem.
  • Explain that you can resolve the intent for the requested training.
  • Ask for permission to talk with managers and employees so that you can better understand the problem and successfully design the right solutions. Obtain a list of recommended people.
  • Ask if they would be open to a different resolution if you come up with less costly ways to resolve the problem in place of or in addition to training. Tell them that you want solutions to have the least amount of organizational intrusion as possible.

Without discounting the training request, these steps most likely will help you obtain permission to conduct your analysis. This is a great way to make this request without alienating the executives.

Speak their language
Listen to how the executives talk. Ask yourself:

  • What acronyms do they use?
  • How do they label employees, teams, departments, technology, and processes?
  • What industry jargon do they use?
  • Do they use human performance technology, process improvement, or training terms?
  • What metrics are important to them?

Integrate what you hear into your own language. Avoid speaking from your training and performance improvement jargon. If you introduce jargon, listen carefully how they receive it. Do they incorporate the new jargon in their dialogue? If not, stop using it.

Persuade with data
Provide data that are meaningful to executives:

  • Find out what data they believe are important.
  • Use comparative industry trends to identify opportunities.
  • Present evidence of the current state.

To do this, you may have to work with other departments such as finance, human resources, and operations. Some argue that these data do not exist or that they cannot access the data. Most likely, though, they have not tried asking for help from these departments.

Here is what to avoid doing: Persuade with your credentials. Having a PhD, CPT, or PMP might get you noticed, but executives want evidence rather than trusting in your expertise.

As you adapt to these behaviors, pay attention to executive behaviors. Use this feedback to adjust what you do. By doing so, you will be on your way to developing a valued collaborative relationship.

About the Author
Gary DePaul is a manager at Lowe’s where he practices performance consulting. He frequently presents at ISPI conferences and recently facilitated a Bagel Barrel roundtable presentation based on this article. Gary is a Charlotte Chapter board member and a past president of the Tampa Bay Chapter. In 2010, he served as the Chapter Partnership Committee Chair. He also is a member of the Armed Forces Chapter. He may be reached at