Communicate Up

Selling your ideas to senior management.

  • MANY GREAT ACCOUNTING IDEAS have died in the executive suite because top managers never fully understood them. Thus, a key challenge for all in-house financial professionals is to master the art of upward communication.
  • INTERVIEWS WITH top-ranking finance managers identify the best communicators as those who know they are responsible for translating their ideas into terms that top managers will understand.
  • THE THREE STEPS TO TAKE before you present an idea in writing are learning the language of management; laying the groundwork through informal communication; and understanding key management issues.
  • PUT YOUR IDEA INTO A CATEGORY your reader cares aboutwhether its profitability or margins or revenues or growthand show how your plan will contribute.
  • SENIOR MANAGERS WANT the bottom line and its implications for the goals of the business as a whole. And they want that bottom line spelled out clearly in one or two pages. Dont snow your managers with jargon. Follow the adage: Keep it simple.
ELIZABETH DANZIGER is the president of WorkTalk, a West Los Angeles-based company that offers training and consulting services to financial professionals. She is the author of three books and numerous magazine articles.

Numbers speak to you. Your calculations tell you stories more elegantly, more efficiently and perhaps more accurately than words ever could. This ability to read and comprehend numbers as adeptly as some other people read text is part of what makes you valuable to your organization. However, being able to comprehend the numbers is only the first part in the process of producing measurable results. The next step is to tell the stories the numbers told youto tell them to the right people and to make sure that those people understand you well enough to act decisively based on your information. Nowhere is the necessity to communicate clearly more important than when you are writing to people at a senior level in your organization.

Know Your Value
The complexities of corporate life make your position central to the success of your company. As Tarik Hijazi, CPA, now a product line manager for Allied Signal, puts it, Huge corporations are so complicated that the finance person becomes really importantnot just for financial issues, but for strategic and customer-related issues as well. Executives count on finance staff to give them the information necessary to make effective decisions. As a corporate finance person, you are in a position to help the business manage its assets wisely, to run efficiently and to grow. However, you can exercise your potential influence only if you successfully communicate your ideas to people outside your specialty.

It is easier to get a managers attention if you frame your message in terms of its relevance to larger business issues. As Bill Rusnack, president of ARCO Products Co., puts it, The key is the analysis of the numbers, the way to make the numbers come and talk to you. What is the real meaning of the spreadsheet or array of information? CPAs need to clarify the data so that the executive does not have to pore over the whole spreadsheet to see whats going on. Thats why companies have financial peoplenot just to add and subtract but to analyze the trends and tell the story thats contained in those numbers.

As a CPA, how can you make sure that your good ideas will be heard? First, realize that when you address someone outside of the accounting profession, you could be translating from one type of business jargon into another. Second, keep your message brief. As Joe Yospe, CPA, an exporting reporting director at Lucent Technologies, says, We know that senior management is overwhelmed with paper products, so we have a very limited opportunity to get a point across. Ideally, we try to capture the essence of our views in less than two pages. If its not a major change, we try to get it in one page, because one page is more likely to be read.

Three Prerequisites
What you do before you write is as important as what you write. Here are three steps to take before you present your idea.

  1. Learn the language of management.

  2. Lay the groundwork through informal communication.

  3. Identify the key management issues and frame your idea in those terms.

Learning the language of management. Professor Janis Forman, director of management communication at the Anderson School at the University of California Los Angeles, puts it this way: Each discipline has its own lexicon. The difficulty for people who are experts in something like finance is that their very gift, which they hold dear, uses arcane language that is inaccessible to the lay manager. The finance person must be able to translate the technical jargon. When you communicate to upper management, remember that in many ways managers speak a different language than you do. Once you learn that language, you can translate your ideas to them meaningfully. How do you learn their language? In meetings or informal groups, listen carefully to the decision makers you want to influence. What are their burning issues and concerns? What are their current buzz words? What metaphors do they frequently use? Do they describe business in terms of sports, or combat, or construction? Soak up their language as though you were learning a second tongue.

Another good way to learn how to frame your ideas in terms that will be meaningful to managers is by getting some management education. That doesnt necessarily mean going back to school for an MBA, although that might be a good idea. Most major business schools offer executive education programs and seminars to serve a wide array of needs.

Lay the groundwork through informal communication. Before you put your idea on paper, take the time to develop support for the idea with a variety of people who might be affected by it. If your goal is to present the proposal to the chief executive officer, begin by chatting with key players a level or two below. As George Hepburn, CPA, vice-president of finance and development of Caremark International, a division of Med Partners, says, If you get peoples input before you circulate it, it generally goes over a lot better. Before I am ready to present a proposal, I meet with the heads of various functions and ask them, What do you think? What am I missing? That way I can go to the senior vice-president knowing three or four different vice-presidents are already buying into the idea. After the senior vice-president buys in, I can present it to the president and the senior management for approval.

It also is important to elicit comments on your proposal from a variety of management levels. Yospe of Lucent Technologies points out, Before we go to a formal communication, we make sure to get informal input, especially the negative, at the middle management levels. We find out what concerns people have and look for ways to accommodate all reasonable concerns so that we end up with a process or a project that everyone can live with. By eliciting concerns informally in advance, and addressing them, you can make sure that your idea will not be shot down the moment you present it.

Identify key management issues and frame your idea in those terms. People have a natural tendency to see the world in terms of whats in it for me. The key to persuasive communication is the ability to demonstrate to your readers whats in it for them. As Hepburn of Caremark points out, You have to ask, what is in it for all of these parties? What are their problems? What are their benefits? Hepburn sponsored an initiative to move his company over to an integrated billing system. When he initially proposed the idea as an improvement to finance operations, no one was interested. Ultimately, he says, It took me two years to do this: a year and a half to figure out the best way to sell it within the organization and six months to sell the program. In the end, rather than focusing on the benefits to his own department, Hepburn analyzed the potential savings and benefits to each of the major divisions of the company if they adopted the new system. He documented these benefits and spoke individually with the decision makers in each division, demonstrating the potential benefits and eliciting their concerns. The plan was adopted because its benefits became clear to all the key players involved.

According to Arcos Rusnack, Finance people tend to write from their own perspective rather than the perspective of the person to whom they are trying to sell their ideas. My advice to them would be to think about who you are selling to and what they are looking for and then try to speak to that. What motivates your reader? Cutting costs? Improving cash flow? Increasing return on income? Reducing accounts receivable? Analyze how your idea will have a positive impact on the areas that matter most to the decision maker and then link your proposal to those benefits.

Putting It On Paper
Once you have learned the language, created an informal network of support and determined how to frame your message in the right terms for the managers, you are ready to write. At this stage, remember three key points:

  1. Be brief.

  2. Put the bottom line at the top.

  3. Speak your readers language; dont expect them to speak yours.

Be Brief. Executives do not have time to read everything they receive. If it seems that your document can be read quickly and easily, its likely to make its way to the top of the pile. As ARCOs Rusnack says, The first thing I look at is the thickness or length of the document. The shorter it is, the more likely I am to read it. Keep your proposals between one and two pages long. Supporting documentation and implementation plans should be available on requestbut dont add to the executives paper load by turning them in. Mike Rawlings, division controller at Fairchild Fasteners, says, If somebody gives me a memo thats eight pages long and I cant read the first paragraph and understand it, Ill just ignore it. If they give me a two-page memo with a clear, concise opening, then Ill read the whole thing carefully. We are bombarded with e-mail and voice-mail and phone calls, so we just dont have the time to wade through somebodys epistle.

Put the bottom line at the top. An executive summary paragraph is a fundamental part of any business proposal. It should give the decision maker the core information he or she needs to make a decision, as well as an overview of the idea and a summary of the costs and benefits. As Michael Mendez, vice-president of labor relations at Edison International, points out, The proposals executive summary should be written as much as possible in nonfinancial terms. It should present a big-picture overview of what is being proposed, which puts the rest of the proposal in the proper context. Sometimes writers put their conclusions only at the end, because they want to have a chance to build their case before revealing their main point to the reader. However, your reader is likely to either turn immediately to the last paragraph to find out what the conclusion is, or, even worse, will see that the conclusion is not stated at the beginning and toss aside your whole document in disgust. The first paragraph may be all that your manager has time to readso make it one he or she remembers.

Dont use jargon. Caremarks Hepburn says, Too many people try to bring the audience down to their level: But readers do not know whats in the writers mind. They want it summarized; they want it analyzed. They want 3 reasons why they should do it, not 15. And youd better make sure that each of those 3 reasons is one of their hot buttons. Youre competing for capital dollars, resources and management time. Put your idea into a category that your reader cares aboutwhether its profitability or margins or revenues or growthand show how your plan will contribute.

In addition to stating the benefits in terms of areas of managerial interest, be sure to keep your language simple. You truly demonstrate mastery of your field by distilling complex concepts into simple, clear language. As Fairchild Fasteners Mike Rawlings says, When you get past the need to show you how much you know, you can really communicate. The best partners dont snow you with jargon. They get right down to whats real. Follow the adage: Keep it simple.

Getting Down To Business
In todays business climate, accounting and finance professionals who know how to identify and solve business problems have a clear advantage. As George Hepburn says, The really good chief financial officers must be good businesspeople as well as financially astute. In order to do that, they have to work with people in every area of the business and get to know their issues and concerns. Whether in operations, sales, management or marketing, they must learn to speak the others language and understand their priorities. Translate accounting issues into business terms and state them plainly: Your reward will be the trust and attention of senior management.


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