Learn to Talk to Senior Management

If you are bent on climbing the corporate ladder, then sooner or later you will need to meet with and present to senior management. Most of us aren’t trained for that!

My job called for infrequent meetings with officers, directors and vice-presidents. Once I even met with the company president. As a software development manager, my day was filled tactical planning and lots detail oriented analysis. My staff meetings, training sessions given and presentations were correspondingly tactical.

The difference between my approach and the officer/vice-president/president levels was the chasm between strategic and tactical. It was the difference between their bottom-line attitude and my how-can-I-get-this-done-without-enough-time-or-resources viewpoint. I had to change my perspective!

You are no doubt aware of the definition of strategic – a plan to achieve a goal; and of tactical – the maneuvers required to achieve the plan. Seeing the difference in action in a conversation between you and senior management can be enlightening and possibly frightening.

If you get a chance to present your mind boggling, company changing idea to senior management, you won’t want to blow it with the wrong focus. I once had the opportunity to present a series of cost saving projects to a group vice-president. I also had the opportunity to participate in a presentation to the company president. Luckily, I had the help of my officers to prepare for and present the ideas.

Here are some ideas, based on my own experience as well as a bit of research I have done since, on how to talk to senior level executives.

Begin with the end.

Speak to the interests of the position of the person with whom you are meeting. Present the expected results of your idea first, starting with the very most important ones.

If you need documents or presentations or videos or whatever, keep them very brief and extremely high level. If they are interesting, your executive will ask for more detail (be sure to have it ready).

For one of my senior management meetings, I was offering cost saving ideas for projects between two divisions of the company (one of which was a real cost drag on the bottom line). We led by showing the efficiencies that could be gained between the two divisions if we did joint projects – cost cuts to bottom line expenses.

Change your perspective.

Switch from bottom up to bottom-line.

Focus on how your expected results will enhance the bottom-line of the company by:

  • Improving customer satisfaction
  • ƒIncreasing market share
  • ƒCutting operating costs
  • Increasing revenue
  • ƒBecoming more competitive (or staying competitive)
  • ƒImproving performance or reducing turnover.

Show the senior manager how will your idea will solve problems for her division.

When I was involved in presenting to the company president, our team was promoting a project to re-engineer an old mainframe nightly cycle. Our main bottom-line perspective was being able to stay competitive. The old cycle was increasingly hard to maintain and keep within one night for processing (which was a very critical requirement). The company had just missed an opportunity due to the ponderous nature of the cycle, so there was current high level management interest in addressing that issue.

Don’t expect to control the conversation.

As Inc.com said

Executives are constantly trying to come to a decision about any interaction: “Do I delegate this, avoid this, deny this or run away from this?”

Senior managers didn’t get where they are on the corporate ladder by being quiet and meek. If they are interested in your idea, they will start drilling for the details they want. They may start issuing directives and assigning followup personnel.

When I presented ideas for cost-savings, the senior manager went through each project idea document rapidly, making decisions on each one at a lightening pace and requesting specific changes as he went.

Know your stuff.

Go into the conversation extremely well prepared. Have proof that your idea will benefit. Be able to tell how your results can be measured, know how long it will take to see them and how much it will cost to get there. Have an action plan and timeline laid out that you can pull out and show.

I once sat in on a meeting between 3 high level members of executive management. One of them had proposed and implemented multiple quality initiatives over several years, but in this meeting he was publicly chastised for not being able to provide measured proof that the initiatives actually had the promised result!

Be emotionally ready to modify your idea.

Be prepared for the executive to either pare down the scope of the project or blow it out or even take it to another part of the company. Also be prepared to be shut down.

Seeing across organizational boundaries and putting the pieces together is part of an executives day in day out job. They will see problems and opportunities that you don’t and may apply your idea to another part of the company! Alternatively, they may see merit in your idea, but may not be able to support the cost of the full scope at present and you may be asked to pare down the idea to bare bones and still get your expected result!!

You may get a round two.

If the senior manager liked your idea, thinks it will work but wants a slightly different twist to it, you may get a chance to go back to the drawing board, enlist additional support, get inter-departmental cooperation or revise your presentation for the next level up.

The meeting with the company president on the re-engineering project was a round three – after presenting to two lower management levels.

What suggestions do you have for meeting with and presenting to senior executive management?  


  • Training Partner: Learning “C-Speak” – The Language of Executives
  • Inc.com: Smart Talk for Fast Times: 5 Rules
  • Your Office Coach: How to Work with Executives
  • Inflexion Advisors: How to Talk to a CEO
  • Sales Marks: How to Talk to CEOs
  •  CBS News How to Sell to a C-Level Executive