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How to Talk to a C Level Executive (And How Not To)

This week, I’m successfully doing reader question Monday on an actual Monday.  So the week’s already off to a good start.  Let’s double down on that momentum and look at how to talk to a C level executive.

Like last week, I’m running afoul of my attempts at a FIFO model, but I just got this question and it set my brain in motion.  I think this should be an interesting post to write.  It’s another fairly straightforward one.

I was sent a Gartner article today and found it nearly unreadable. Buzzwords, new terms, etc. Yet I can follow, say, ThoughtWorks articles. Is this a language I need to speak to talk to the C suite or is it just hype? Thanks!

Let’s Quickly Examine the Article

The Garnter article in question has 4 authors, and they originally collaborated on this thing about 18 months ago.  They then “refreshed” it in October.  I won’t lie — it’s a pretty brutal read.  Let’s take a look first at the summary of the article.

Addressing the pervasive integration requirements fostered by the digital revolution is urging IT leaders to move toward a bimodal, do-it-yourself integration approach. Implementing a hybrid integration platform on the basis of the best practices discussed in this research is a key success factor.

Do you remember this post, where I quoted descriptions of enterprise architecture?  In it, I remarked how each quote tanked the post’s readability score.

Well, those quotes had nothing on this one.

That block quote above, singlehandedly slaughtered my readability by 13%.  The writers designed it for shock and awe — not for consumption.  And that’s the summary — the part that’s supposed to say “hey, I’m an easily digestible teaser for the real meat of this thing.”

So you can only imagine what the “meat” includes.

Gartner has defined “pervasive integration” as the act of integrating on-premises and in-the-cloud applications and data sources, business partners, clients, mobile apps, social networks and “things” as needed to enable organizations to pursue digital business, bimodal IT and other modern business and technology strategies. The proliferation and growing importance of decentralized integration tasks — driven by these business and IT trends — are forcing directors of integrations to rethink their approaches, organizational models and technology platforms.

Readability just went through the rhetorical equivalent of sublimation with that paragraph.  Straight from green, past orange, and right to red.

The "naked emperor" shown here is not a good look when talking to a c level executive.

Mercy, William, Mercy

I tried to read this article.  Seriously.  I gave it a good faith effort.  But it was like walking through a swamp, wearing concrete boots.

I spent some time as a CIO, myself.  And, for years after that, I’ve advised CIOs (and boards of directors, CEOs, VPs, directors, and managers).  Whatever purpose that article serves, it’s not simple comprehension and groking by leadership.

It’s hard to speculate about the purpose of something at the intersection of technology, marketing, guest posting, and public presence.  I can’t imagine exactly who, if anyone, these four people hoped to reach and persuade with that buzz-word carpet-bombing campaign.

But it’s not as hard to speculate about how and why people talk like this within organizations.  And it’s really not hard to speculate about how you should talk to a c level executive.  In fact, I can, quite easily, speak to that last bit.

But first, let’s revisit the corporate pyramid and help ourselves to a lesson in how people in it speak to one another.

The Emperor’s New Clothes, Revisited in Modern Corporations

I’d like to present a slight spin on the Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Let’s adapt it slightly to square with the corporate pyramid.

Forget the emperor.  He’s essentially a prop.

Instead, let’s talk about a couple of opportunist nobles responsible for both the emperor’s wardrobe and the empire’s budget.  Dressing the emperor in gold and myrrh and whatnot became expensive, so they had an idea.  “Hey — instead of dressing the emperor in these really expensive clothes that cost a whole lot of money, let’s dress him in…. nothing.  What’s cheaper than nothing?”

So they hatched a plan.

“We’ll just send him out naked.  We’ll tell everyone that he’s actually wearing clothes, but that they’re magic clothes that and only the wise, the competent, and the true believers in the empire can see.”  Magnificent bastards.

What do you think happens?

The opportunists, obviously, play along with their own charade.  The pragmatists see the naked emperor and think, “that guy’s naked, but I like my peasant job, so I’ll just roll my eyes and fawn over his nice clothes.”

And the idealists?

Well, unlike in the Andersen tale, they don’t tremble and worry at seeing the emperor naked.  Instead, they manufacture such a strong delusion in order to assuage their cognitive dissonance that they actually see him standing before them, resplendent in his rich furs and silk gowns.

The Corporate Owner’s New Clothes

My reworking of this tale probably best suits the idea of corporate culture.  Opportunists invent this concept out of whole cloth and use it to keep a sense of existential nihilism out of the larger corporate experience.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once said:

“A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.”

So it goes in a more mundane sense at corporations everywhere.  It’s depressing to spend your career getting another day older and deeper in debt, but it’s a little less depressing if you can convince yourself that you’re “bringing the world closer together” instead of just helping them waste time.

So opportunists manufacture culture for everyone else.  Pragmatists shrug and say “whatever pays the bills.”  And idealists?  Well, they eat this stuff up.

However, you can apply this more than just to the fiction of corporate culture.  You can also see it in speech patterns among the residents of the pyramid.

Idealist Speech Patterns

In a manner of speaking, that Gartner article is the emperor’s (lack of) clothes.

It represents a concept of idealized language that nobody finds useful.  It reads like what would happen if you asked a few random people to speak the way they think executives would want up-and-comers to speak.

And, as with manufactured cultural ideals, this sort of thing fits snugly into the world of the idealist.  They talk the way they think executives want them to talk, subconsciously valuing posturing over communication.  Indeed, the point of such language is not to communicate at all, but to showcase.

Idealists speak a language — a business-ese creole — that communicates nothing directly.

Instead, it aims at mimicry.

Pragmatists speak in plain terms, and opportunists naturally develop a jargon-heavy, competent form of shop talk.  Idealists seek to distinguish themselves from pragmatists by incompetent aping of opportunists.

How You Talk to The C Level Executive

Luckily, for this advice, I don’t need to distinguish between aspiring opportunists and free agents.  I’d offer the same advice either way, since I’d suggest you operate as an opportunist in either situation.

The last thing you want is for opportunists to assume that you’re a non-strategic idealist.  So whatever you do, don’t talk like one.  Don’t participate in the nudity delusion acting like buzzword babble is meaningful.

What you really want to do is speak to them pretty plainly.

There’s a cachet in this of the same sort that the Zuckerburgs of the world have by wearing jeans everywhere.  You’re competent enough to speak in straight, competent language.  For instance, when I write proposals to execs and leadership for things like retainer consulting, I keep them short and tonally much like a blog post.

But bear one more thing in mind.

This works well for one on one audiences, where the exec will appreciate simplicity and clarity.  But in group situations, you need to preserve the new clothes illusion along with the opportunists.  This means not tipping your hand about the lack of clothes, but while subtly signaling to your intended audience that you know what’s up.

How do you do that?

A lot of practice with opportunism and its powertalk.  But you’re not going to get there using rhetorical puffery.  Start with plain language and tune as you go.

By the way, if you liked this post and you're new here, check out this page as a good place to start for more content that you might enjoy.
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6 years ago

So, Gartner is essentially in the business of manufacturing new vocabulary for posture-talk? That makes sense. Here’s my attempt at a translation: As we use computers in more places and in different ways, it’s getting difficult to manage how to get all of the software applications running on those computers communicate and work together. Centralized, process-heavy approaches don’t scale, so here are some ways in which teams developing software applications can integrate in a more decentralized, light-weight manner. Now, it doesn’t help that the cyclopean vocabulary of Gartner makes it hard to actually have a conversation about the trade-offs involved… Read more »