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The ‘Elevator Speech’: Facilitating Communication with Senior Management

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CHICAGO — OK, Mr. or Ms. Manager, you just stepped into an elevator, and you have until you reach the ground floor to explain your needs. Can you make the case?
It doesn’t matter if you’re attempting to save your operation or get top managers to understand and appreciate your concerns, the opportunity to gain respect for your opinion first requires someone to listen. It’s up to us to make the case, but remember that your management team must first realize what you’re saying. And you’d better hope the train hasn’t left the station, or in this case the elevator hasn’t gone up and down so many times that you’ve missed the opportunity to make your point.
The “elevator speech” concept is vital when communicating with senior management. If you have the opportunity (or better yet, take the opportunity) to approach senior executives in your organization, you must first be able to get to the basics, eliminating all technical terms. If you start the speech, finish it, but don’t be so narrow-minded that you forget the mission of your institution. You must use key buzzwords, and you must be able to put this brief communication opportunity into perspective. Talk about how the change will affect your work unit, not how it will affect you. Talk about impact on the total organization, not just personal impact. Use the key phrase “fiscal impact,” but be definitive, as the door is about to open.
Don’t be taken aback by the person to whom you’re talking, but always remember that senior executives have many priorities competing for attention. If you’re long-winded, you’ll lose your opportunity to communicate. If you’re really serious about communicating, you’ll narrow your approach.
I’ll always remember one high-level management official with whom I worked. He believed that any meeting that takes longer than 15 minutes usually moves so far out of context that most people lose their attention, and any time that a conference call lasts more than 10 minutes per topic, it just shows that “no one can understand the word ‘agenda.’”
One thing that surprises me, and it certainly surprised me when I was with the federal government, is that there are very few times when transition managers are put in place, although transition situations would certainly call for such expertise. Transition managers are usually independent thinkers who are given the authority to implement or drive the implementation of policy, and assist management in going through a process to avoid a blind approach to any major decision. Based on my experience, transition managers tend to slow the process down, ensuring that all bases are covered — no doubt saving dollars.
One detriment to the work environment that most people don’t want to talk about is the issue of professional jealousy. It thrives in every workplace and can certainly hamper one’s ability to get a point across, especially to a boss who has such deep insecurities that they dream about you. The source of the jealousy can be what you know, who you know, where you’ve been, how you dress, awards you’ve received, or even how well you play golf or any number of other job environment issues. In fact, no matter how good you’re at “elevator” presentations, if you work in such an environment, it’s best to simply find another place to work, unless you are able to talk your way out of the situation.
Naturally, if your boss is sensitive to these issues and realizes that surrounding him or herself with expertise and political prowess is the way to look good, then you’re safe. However, sooner or later, you’ll eventually run into that stone-wall personality. The best-case scenario is for you to recognize the situation and try to adapt, which means taking that elevator speech to new levels — possibly going horizontal rather than vertical.
 

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