Four tips to clarify communications with managers and executives
I used to write long emails. When I say long, I mean pages upon pages long. You would have to scroll and scroll and scroll some more to get to the end. This was not every email, just the ones reporting on outcomes or providing instructions on a program I created or when someone asked for clarification.
Then one day, one of my managers after a team meeting pulled me aside. He asked me, “You know those emails you write?”
Not knowing what this was about or where he was going with his question, I replied, “Sure.”
“How do you think your recipients perceive them?” he continued.
“I don’t know, I suppose they find them helpful, no one ever gets back to me with questions.” I still was not sure what he was getting at.
Then he curtly said, “No, they find them infuriating. I find them infuriating.” He paused to let that statement settle in before saying, “No one replies because we are drowning in your emails.”
“Here is some advice. Ready? Just give us the facts. Nothing less, nothing more, and only what we need to take action on.” Then he left as I stood there completely traumatized.
I have learned over the years that less words have more impact than more words. I have come to value the art of editing and the beauty in brevity. I can still get wordy on occasion, but that early lesson is one that continues to guide me to this day.
It was not until I became a manager and later an executive that truly appreciated my manager’s words to me years before. The higher you ascend in an organization, the more your time and attention get pulled in multiple directions. You are constantly getting pulled into meetings, asked for input on projects, and putting out fires, including ones not of your team’s making.
Communications overload is a common challenge in large organizations. When I was at Oracle, I would routinely get added to superfluous email chains just because I was a director. My inbox was a constant disaster, so much so that I got into the practice of immediately deleting all emails that were not directly addressed to me.
Even with my hacks to control the email flood, the emails I did read could be just as tedious. I finally understood what was “infuriating” about long, wordy messages; it took too long to get to what mattered for me in order to take action on. With more messages and meeting requests coming, I did not have the luxury of time to thoroughly digest a multiple page email chock full of details and bullet points and paragraph blocks.
The best emails, meetings, and calls are ones in which clear and immediate actions can be taken. The reality is that most decisions do not require long deliberation or debate, they can be made quickly and rolled back without consequence if the wrong choice is made. Part of what makes for an effective manager is in the ability to process information and context in order to make those decisive decisions quickly when required.
A few weeks ago I read an interesting tweet on the subject of communicating to managers and leaders, otherwise known as ‘managing up”. The author stated that most people are terrible at managing up and in communicating the right type and amount of information. The most basic reason for this is often we do not consider the perspective of the person that is receiving the information we are sending. We are lacking situation empathy.
In the early part of my career as an individual contributor, I viewed managers as people that were simply in my way. I figured if I threw a bunch of stuff at them that looked like work, they would leave me alone. When I became a manager, I realized how ridiculous that was because I finally understood that the value of a good manager is to help teams to work more productively, remove roadblocks, be an internal champion, and foster cross-team collaboration.
Great managers are force multipliers for their teams. In order for managers to be helpful though, they need help from their employees to provide the right level of context and information. Here are four things I learned about effective communications that help your manager help you.
Set the appropriate context - We live in a distracted world where we are often doing multiple things in addition to reading a message. Most people that open up an email, memo, or report will often only skim the information initially. This might be ok if the recipient is a direct manager already aware of the subject matter. As you go to higher layers of management however, you cannot rely on that awareness. In these situations, have a sentence or two that sets the stage for what the person is reading and why.
Put important information upfront - There is a saying in journalism “burying the lede” that describes when a reporter obscures the main point of the story. If you are just providing a status, then there is little to hide as the communication is short. If there is a sizable update to share or a critical decision to make however, you want to summarize the key points upfront. If readers need to, they can go dive deeper into the details below.
Establish next actions - It always surprised me how often this critical element of a message is ignored. Never put a manager in the position of having to guess what action they need to take. Again context matters, so a mere status update or check-in probably does not require an action on part of the manager, then state that. If you do require input or involvement from a manager, make sure it is clear what action or decision needs to be taken and in what timeframe said action should occur.
Be concise - Much like the use of unnecessarily complicated words in our speaking, we often add extra verbiage to our writing to appear smarter or more serious. Trust me, no one is buying it. You are always better off using less words and less complicated words in order to convey your message. It is less taxing for readers, it removes ambiguity, and you appear more professional to others.
The last point is something I am still learning at AWS. As a writing centric culture, anything new such as a program or initiative starts life as a document. With all the writing that goes on and the reading that others have to do, we appreciate clarity and conciseness in writing. You learn at Amazon to be a vigorous and ruthless editor, removing all unnecessary words and phrases that are not adding meaningful value to a document. Becoming an excellent writer is as much about what you remove as it is about what you write.
Adopting that editing mindset to all our communications with management and leadership goes a long way in earning trust and delivering results. Removing the unneeded overhead of most communication gives managers back time that can be dedicated to improving and simplifying the work environment, creating a virtuous cycle of workplace satisfaction.
How would you describe your communication style? What are some ways your organization encourages effective communication and writing?
Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS
I have been taking some much deserved rest time from the road. Even though I skipped out on this year’s Bitcoin 2022 conference in Miami this week, I still got to see the wonderful cherry blossoms in Washington DC and the very futuristic and still underconstruction Computing and Data Science building at Boston University, my alma mater.
I do hit the road again though starting April 19th when I head out to San Francisco for the first US based AWS Summit. It is free to attend and we will also have some programming at the AWS SF Loft on Market Street where I will be giving a talk. Then I head over to Singapore the following week, then out to Berlin for another AWS Summit on May 11-12 where I will stay a few days to meet with startups. If you will be in any of these places, let’s definitely meet up!
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