April 29, 2007

Communication With Senior Management

(Click on the image to enlarge).

Have you ever evaluated the language you use, when speaking with Senior Management?

Database Marketers are in a challenging situation, when it comes to communication. You cannot share the technical aspects of your work with anybody outside of your company, because your work is proprietary to your organization.

In some instances, you can use "coded" language to speak with peers. I recall attending what used to be called the "catalog conference", back in 2001. Two of my managers and I were to meet with the executive and two managers of a competitor of ours. Our list management vendor organized the meeting. We had six of us from our two companies, and ten individuals from at least three list vendors, sixteen folks in total. In a small hotel room. One bed. Maybe five chairs. One hour. A small assortment of Diet Coke and Seven-Up.

I wouldn't share the true state of our business (we were missing plan by high double-digits), my peer from across the hotel room wouldn't share the true state of her business. I recall saying that "business was close to meeting our re-forecasted expectations, and that we were optimistic about some of the changes were were implementing". That's "coded" language, alright! It's not easy to say that the internet is destroying our business model, and that we'll be lucky to have three of the sixteen folks in the room still in their jobs in five years.

So we use "coded" language when talking with folks outside of our company.

Within our company, we get a small number of opportunities to dazzle Senior Management. These are the two or three times a year we are requested to share business findings with the leaders of the company.

Unless the political climate stifles candor, this is our one chance to "rock somebody's world". So we craft a spectacular Powerpoint presentation. We try to cram facts, useful metrics, sage-like insight and strategic direction into the document, slide, or presentation. We share the slide with our co-workers. Everybody offers their opinion. A font should be larger. Cones should be red, not pink. One axis should be labeled, the other not because it is in the legend. Numbers should be listed above the cones, so that Senior Management can see the relationships, or read the actual numbers. An appendix is included, with all of the detail. We're ready!

We dress up for our meeting. We wear extra deodorant. We might spend $75 coloring our hair. Appearance matters!! We arrive to work early. We kibitz about the meeting with co-workers. We chew on a few mints. And then we're called into the boardroom.

Inside are thirteen stressed, semi-pleasant individuals. Some give us a half-hearted smile. Our Vice President introduces our team, and invites us to share our findings.

We present our carefully constructed slide, and after six minutes of explanation, everything goes sideways. One member of Senior Management wants to know the difference between DMPC, Dollar-Per-Book, RFM, Click-Thru Rates and Shopping Cart Abandonment. Another is busy using her thumbs to type a text message to a member of the information technology team via her Blackberry. The gruff individual at the end of the table just received a written message on a pink piece of paper from his administrative assistant about a labor dispute at the distribution center.

We spend another three minutes desperately trying to save the presentation. We answer a few pointed questions, we perceive that the entire Executive Team completely misinterpreted our work, we cringe when they decide to do the exact opposite of what we recommend.

And then the worst part of the meeting happens. The CEO looks directly at us, and tells us that next time we are to avoid using "geek-speak", to "stop using so many numbers". "Just tell me what I should do." are the words we're left with as we leave the board room. We're convinced that "management doesn't get it".

In my new role, I see this happen repeatedly. Well-meaning Database Marketers, Web Analysts, Catalog Circulation Experts and Online Marketers use the language of their peers, their niche, to dazzle Senior Management. Senior Management just gets crabby, in response.

When business is good, our language, our "lingo" is tolerated. When business is bad, we're just 'geeky twits'. Our credibility is hurt.

It can be tough to be in our profession. We can't share much with our peers, folks at other companies who would understand us. Our leaders don't understand our jargon, our communication style.

In my final months at Nordstrom, I recommended we talk like "we were talking to Oprah". Sometimes, it has to be simplified to that level --- simplified so that Oprah's entire audience can understand it. This at least gives your Executive team a fighting chance!

The art of storytelling has never been more important in Database Marketing. Business models are being transformed, and Executives don't know how to interpret what they are seeing. Find everyday language that is culturally appropriate, and create a niche for yourself (or a co-worker of yours) as the "translator" ... the person who takes technical information and converts it into everyday language that an Executive can understand.

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