I am not here to tell you it’s time to rethink everything you know about working with executives because that’s not true. However, I do have a few tips for communications pros to work more effectively with senior leaders based on my experience as an executive coach.

The barriers you may be experiencing to strong, trusting relationships with your executive team are common across disciplines, but they can be particularly impactful for people responsible for internal and external communications. As communicators move from service providers to strategic advisors, these relationship and trust-building skills are essential.

Listening Is a Superpower

One common theme I see with leaders from a range of functional disciplines is talking too much. I get it! Your time with executives may be limited and you want to make the most of it. I often see professionals approach meetings with executives with a tight agenda that leads to a word-vomit style update of everything they want the executive to know. Your elevator pitch has been practiced and polished and this is your moment. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying you should go into meetings unprepared, but I am saying that you also need to leave space for input, reflection, and feedback. 

A skill that many of us can continue to build is active listening. One of the most common listening styles in organizational settings – particularly meetings – is “waiting to talk.” This type of engagement takes us away from what others are currently saying because we are focused on what we want to say next. Particularly in organizational cultures that prioritize speed, this type of non-listening listening can start to appear. When people interrupt frequently to share their ideas rather than to pause for clarification or talk over one another, it can feel creative and dynamic for a time, but there is rarely much deep or engaged listening happening in this environment. Over time, this can erode trust because the loudest voices in the room are the only ones that break through.

So how does this relate to your limited time with executives?

If you work in an organization where this conversation style is common, you may be tempted to interject or jump in with ideas or solutions rather than taking a moment to assess visual cues like body language which may give you additional information about what the executive is open to at that moment.

Is their body language open suggesting that they may be looking for additional information?

Have they leaned away which might mean they are taking a moment to absorb?

Did they start the meeting distracted and their attention seems to be focused on something other than your conversation?

If you have worked with this leader for a long time, you may be able to assess right away where their thinking is headed. Or, perhaps you don’t know this executive well enough to pick up on those subtle energetic cues. Either way, checking for these signals on how they are also listening can be helpful on what to do next in the conversation.

Learn to Ask Great Questions

Regardless of your history with the leader, asking questions and tapping into your own curiosity can be a helpful approach to building or strengthening relationships. Getting good at asking questions – and truly listening to the answers – is a powerful skill for communicators.

Those of you with journalist backgrounds already know the value of this skill set. However, the purpose of asking questions in conversations with leaders can be a little different than other types of questions for storytelling or even general information gathering.

The purpose of questions in conversations with executives is to find points of alignment, draw out new insights, and capture the executive’s voice and vision. If this is a new skill for you, try “how” questions: “How are you thinking about the new product launch?” “How have you approached changes like this in the past?” 

While you want to avoid leading questions to drive executives to the specific answer you want, you can also be strategic in asking questions to build their curiosity about your work and how it supports their goals. Here are a couple of questions to try: “How can the communications team help amplify your vision and voice?” “What are we doing well, and what could we change to provide an even stronger voice to your message?”

Listening is just one aspect for communicators to build trusting relationships with their executives. As an executive coach, I have often had leaders turn to me in sensitive moments – and sometimes but more rarely with just routine business updates – for support communicating with their teams or the broader organization. These are leaders at large organizations with sophisticated, busy communication teams.

So why are the leaders turning to an external resource like me in these moments?

There are likely many factors but a few that come to mind are my familiarity with their goals and values and regular ongoing conversations and check-ins. The goal of my work is to support leaders in reaching their potential, not to carve work away from dedicated communications professionals and teams. So how can you tap into or replicate the types of trusting relationships I can build with my coaching clients?

Building Trust

The leaders I work with know that we have a long-term relationship. There is space for vulnerability and accountability. But you don’t have to be an executive coach or even have tons of dedicated time with an executive one-on-one. In my coaching practice, I often refer leaders to this list of 13 Behaviors of High Trust. Here are a few that I think are particularly meaningful for the executive-communicator relationship: 

  • Clarify Expectations: Work with leadership to both understand what is expected within a given timeframe and the resources available to complete the work. Step into your advisory role and ask questions to draw out assumptions. Use these types of conversations to build executive confidence in your expertise.
  • Keep Commitments: Follow through is a cornerstone of trust. Do what you say you are going to do. Of course, this also requires saying no to some things so that you don’t overcommit. Your positive reputation within your organization is closely connected to how consistently and well you deliver on your commitments.
  • Confront Reality: As communicators, you have likely faced lots of tricky situations. Being able to raise concerns and identify risks whether to external reputation or employee engagement is an important part of building trust in executive relationships. Having these tough conversations, even if they don’t always go the way you want, builds trust because leaders know that you aren’t hiding the bad news or defaulting to ungrounded optimism.
  • Talk Straight + Create Transparency: The list separates these two behaviors but they are so closely linked that I think we should talk about them together. As a regular reader here, you already know that Spin Sucks. Be clear about your intent and goals in meetings while also assuming others are doing the same. Use data and other forms of evidence to back up your position. Stay curious and ask questions when others present different points of view so that the chance for transparency is equally available. 

A Success Story

I want to wrap up with an example of a coaching client so you can see the results of this investment in relationships and building trust with executives: I worked with a leader who had recently joined an organization and was reporting to the CEO. The CEO had an entrepreneurial mindset and was full of new ideas in every conversation that the leader had with him. It was hard to discern which ideas were ones for the leader and his team to take on and which were simply thoughts that didn’t need follow-up. Because this was a new relationship, the leader didn’t have a history of results or a deep understanding of what the CEO wanted. It got so stressful that the leader started losing sleep trying to do everything with a short-staffed team.

Communicators routinely face variations of this scenario. Whether it’s a colleague coming to you with a tactic in mind (“I need a weekly newsletter”) rather than sharing the challenge they are facing or the opportunity they see so that you can tap into your expertise to develop a tailored solution or a leadership team who doesn’t yet understand the value of your communications expertise, investing in the relationship can help shift the conversation.

For the leader I worked with, in addition to working on skills to manage his stress level and catch up on sleep, we also practiced asking clarifying questions when the CEO brought up new ideas and opportunities to set expectations and help the CEO see the tradeoffs of starting something new. Over time the leader built his self-confidence about his ability to perform well in his new role while managing his workload, and his team delivered results which also earned the confidence and trust of the CEO.

Jill Hauwiller

Leadership Refinery’s founder, Jill Hauwiller, is a sought-after speaker, facilitator and educator. Her experience coaching hundreds of professionals around the world allows her to bring together the themes of leadership effectiveness, emotional intelligence, psychological safety, leading through transition, building strong teams and work-life integration. In addition to consulting and presenting, Jill continues to teach and provide executive coaching in business schools for graduate students and executive education programs.

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